PARASHAT AHAREY MOT-KEDOSHIM - ANNIVERSARY WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING
May 6, 2006 - 8 Iyar 5766
Annual: Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480)
Triennial: Leviticus 17:8 - 19:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 687; Hertz p. 486)
Haftarah: Amos 9:7 - 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 706; Hertz p. 509)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This double portion begins with a presentation of the laws for observing Yom Kippur in the days when worship was done through sacrifice. After hearing again of the deaths of Aaron's two sons, which we read about two weeks ago, we go through the details of the Day of Atonement. The High Priest carries out a series of rituals that includes three confessions, one for him and his family, one for all the priests, and one for the entire people Israel. The goat carries the sin of the people into the wilderness, literally to Azazel. This portion also gives the requirement to afflict our souls on Yom Kippur, which the rabbis interpret as fasting and other restrictions.
The remainder of the portion Aharei Mot discusses a variety of laws, most of them involving forbidden sexual relations. Incest, bestiality, male homosexuality, and sex during a woman's menstrual period are all forbidden. Some of these laws, particularly the prohibition of homosexuality, have created a good deal of controversy in the Jewish community today.
Parshat Kedoshim begins with many ethical laws and is perhaps one of the most beautiful sections of the Torah. The Israelites are to be holy, for the Lord God is holy. This is followed by laws about helping the poor, not stealing or acting falsely, avoiding gossip, not cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind, being fair in judgment, not taking vengeance, respecting elders, and having honest business practices. At the heart of this section is the Golden Rule, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
The portion continues with the prohibition against sacrificing one's children to Molech, an ancient pagan practice. The portion then repeats many of the same laws about forbidden sexual relations, including the prohibition of incest and male homosexuality. The people Israel are to separate themselves from the pagan practices of the people of the land as they learn to separate the pure from the impure.
Issue #1 - The Golden Rule
"You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:18)
- At the center of all the great religions of the world is the Golden Rule, "Do onto others as you would have them do onto you." In this portion it is formulated in the positive - "Love your neighbor as yourself." According to Rashi, Rabbi Akiba said that this is a great principle of the Torah. Can we be commanded to love someone?
- The Talmud, on the other hand, contains a negative formulation of the Golden Rule. A non-Jew came to the great sage Hillel and wanted him to explain all of Judaism as he stood on one foot. The answer: "What is hateful to you do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Go and learn" (Shabbat 31a), Hippocrates worded it differently "First, do no harm." Which formulation of the Golden Rule is superior? Which formulation are people more likely to be able to do?
- Some thoughts: Perhaps the Golden Rule begins with the negative, avoiding any action that could harm another. This obviously includes physical harm, such as injuring another or creating a hazardous situation. Besides the physical, in what other ways can we harm another person? Perhaps some of the worst harm is done with words. What does the Bible mean when it says, "death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21)?
- More thoughts: Perhaps love is not about feelings but actions. The Torah cannot command feelings; but the Torah can command actions. Is it hypocritical to act in a loving way, even if you do not feel that way? Can actions lead to feelings? Abraham Joshua Heschel said that Judaism begins with a "leap of action." What does this mean in terms of our relationship with our neighbor?
Issue #2 - Homosexuality
"Do not lie with a male as you lie with a woman" (Leviticus 18:22)
- No issue is more controversial within the Conservative movement today than homosexuality. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the question, "What precisely is forbidden by the Torah?" Some people claim that the Bible forbids people to be gay. That is false. The Bible never forbids people from being anything. Instead, it obligates particular actions and forbids particular actions. What is the particular act that the Torah explicitly forbids? The particular act that the Torah forbids is what the rabbis call mishkav zachar, a man having a sexual encounter with another man. Rashi says "Lying like a female. Like a makeup brush into a holder." What does he mean by this? (Nothing is mentioned about lesbianism, although one later rabbinic source forbids it as a type of promiscuity.)
- What is important is that one particular sexual act may be forbidden, but particular desires or a particular orientation is not forbidden. The Torah is concerned with the act, not the person.
- Some would say that if the Torah forbids an act, then it is forbidden and there is no room for compromise. To quote the Talmud, "Let the law pierce the mountain" (Sanhedrin 6b). We must abide by the law, even if it is painful or difficult. It is God's word. This is the view of most traditionalists on this issue. In what ways does this point of view make sense?
- Some would say that even if the Torah forbids an act, there is room to be more flexible on a case-by-case basis. After all, the Torah in this week's portion also obligates us to fast on Yom Kippur. Nonetheless, someone who feels that he or she cannot fast for medical reasons can opt out. After all, "the heart knows its own bitterness" (Proverbs 14:10). In what ways does this point of view make sense?
- Some would say that when the Torah forbids homosexual acts, it did not have the scientific knowledge we have today. They claim that there are constitutional gays who, by their very nature, are unable to pursue a heterosexual relationship. The law in the Torah could not possibly apply to such people. This might leave room to sanctify gay relationships. Which of these three opinions is most compelling?