Archive for April, 2000

Acharei Mot 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

In the beginning of this portion, the Torah notes that the following laws were given “after the death of Aharon’s two sons.” Then the Yom Kippur service is described, including ritual purifications and the sending of the “scapegoat” into the wilderness. Rules are given for separating meat from its blood, and other dietary laws. Finally, there is a list of forbidden sexual relationships, given in the context of a general prohibition against following the practices of other nations.

IN FOCUS

“You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is abhorrent.” (Leviticus 18:22)

PSHAT

This whole section of the Torah is called the arayot, literally the “nakednesses” (if that’s a word.) It is a list of sexual relationships forbidden to Israelite men, including various forms of incest, bestiality, and, apparently, homosexual relationships.

DRASH

This verse is one of the most problematic in the entire Torah; its meaning seems to be quite obvious, and yet it is extremely difficult for many Jews to take at face value. Could the Torah- which has at its core the message that Israel must not despise or abuse the weak, helpless, or outnumbered in its midst- really be declaring that loving relationships between two consenting adults is abhorrent, even worthy of the death penalty? (Cf. Leviticus 20:13, a repetition and strengthening of this prohibition.) It makes no sense from an ethical perspective: a central purpose of ethics is to regulate and make fair differentials in power and privilege. To put it another way, ethics is about keeping everybody from taking advantage of each other. Thus, mutually consenting relationships between equals would seem to present no ethical problem.

Many people of a traditional religious perspective see these verses as establishing the primacy of heterosexual relationships- for them, the ethical message is one of preserving “traditional” – i.e., heterosexual – families. The claim is often made that validating gay or lesbian relationships would undermine such families and give people the “option” of choosing nontraditional lives. Yet the children of gay and lesbian families turn out to be gay at roughly the same rate as everybody else- so this theory would seem to have little credence. It seems, rather, that some people are naturally attracted to same-gender relationships, and find in them all the emotional and personal fulfillment that any heterosexual couple might hope for.

Let’s assume further that a good and loving God would not create certain people to face the awful choice between permanent loneliness and loyalty to Torah- I cannot accept that the God of Israel’s Redemption would not love all those who are created in God’s Image. So how then do we interpret, or re-interpret, these verses, which apparently deny gay and lesbian Jews even the possibility of affirmation? Dr. Avi Rose, a psychologist and Jewish educator (and sometimes Kolel faculty), reviews current thinking about the historical context of this verse in a lovely and moving essay in the anthology ReCREATIONS.

Dr. Rose notes, for example, that the prohibitions on homosexuality occur in the context of rules forbidding Israelites from copying the religious practices of other nations. Furthermore, he quotes scholars who show that other ancient nations did, in fact, engage in rituals with temple prostitutes “of both genders.” The word for “abhorrent act,” to’evah, may be specifically related to non-Israelite religious practice. Another possibility is that the Torah is specifically forbidding relationships between grown men and boys. This would make more sense as an ethical rule, given that children can never be considered truly consenting in sexual relationships.

What seems clear to me is that this text in Leviticus could not have been prohibiting long-term, loving, open, committed relationships between people of the same genders- because such relationships were probably inconceivable to the Torah’s human editors. Instead, the Torah seems to be talking about sex in the context of non-Israelite religious practices, or abusive uses of power, or some kind of sexual contact outside established, consensual relationships.

In other words, the Torah is probably prohibiting the kind of sexual behaviors a contemporary Jewish ethic might posit as problematic for any religious and ethically sensitive Jew, gay or straight. By looking at both historical context and making plain our theological assumptions, one may thus find the seeds of ethical guidance and holiness of deed in even the most difficult and controversial passage.

ReCREATIONS: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Queer People, Catherine Lake, editor. (Queer Press, Toronto, 1999)

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Metzora 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzora

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

Metzora continues the laws of skin blemishes begun in the last parasha, Tazria (see this link for some thoughts on how we can understand this seemingly arcane part of the Torah.) This week we learn about the ritual purification of someone afflicted with a skin outbreak; how to deal with scaly outbreaks on houses; and the laws of ritual purification after a bodily discharge.

IN FOCUS

“Behold- I send to you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of God.” (Malachi 3:23, from the Shabbat HaGadol Haftarah)

PSHAT

This week is also called Shabbat HaGadol, the last regular Shabbat before Pesach, on which we read a special Haftarah, from the book of Malachi. This Haftarah describes God’s challenge to the people: if they will be faithful to God, and follow the both the ritual and ethical commandments, then God will be faithful to the people, and send a day of awesome judgment on sinners and evildoers. This future “day of the Lord” is meant to evoke the past “day of the Lord,” in which God sent plagues upon the Egyptians in order to secure the freedom of the Israelites.

DRASH

Shabbat HaGadol- the “Great Sabbath”- may get its name from the verse quoted above, in which God promises to send Elijah the prophet before the “great and awesome day of God.” Another theory is that the “Great Sabbath” is so called because on that day the local rabbi would give a long discourse on the laws and customs of Pesach, so that the people would be properly prepared in the following week.

There is also a midrashic connection, one that follows the chronology of the Exodus story. Before the final plague upon the Egyptians, God commands Moshe to tell the people to take a lamb on the tenth day of the month, four days before the night of redemption from slavery. (See Exodus 12) On the fourteenth day, the Israelites were to slaughter this lamb- the Pesach sacrifice- and put some of the blood on their doorposts, as a marker so that their houses would be “passed over” by the plague of the death of the firstborn. According to this midrash, in the year of the Exodus, the tenth of the month of Nissan was Shabbat; hence, every Shabbat before Pesach, we recall the “great and awesome” deliverance on the anniversary of our people’s preparation for it.

Various explanations have been proposed in the commentaries as to why the Israelites needed to slaughter a lamb and mark their doorposts- after all, if God knew who the firstborn were, then certainly God knew which houses belonged to the Israelites! One opinion, shared by several commentators including Ramban, is that the lamb was chosen because the Egyptians had gods who took the form of animals, including a sheep. Thus, when the Israelites tied up a lamb to slaughter, it was a form of spiritual resistance, a demonstration that while the Egyptians may have enslaved their bodies, the Israelites were still loyal to the God of their fathers and mothers, the God Who is One.

To me, this is a wonderful midrash because it suggests that the Israelites took an active role in their own liberation- or, to put it another way, the Exodus from Egypt began in the hearts and minds of the oppressed people. As many people who have been “liberated”- from addictions, from fear, from an abusive relationship or situation, from various forms of oppression- can tell you, they too had to take an active role in the blossoming of their own freedom. The old cliché applies: “God helps those who help themselves.” I understand this to mean that moral of the Passover story is that people should not wait passively for miraculous interventions; rather, we must search within ourselves for courage and strength, with which we can achieve miraculous results.

This interpretation doesn’t write God out of the narrative. Rather, it allows us to refocus on one of the “hidden” miracles of the story, the courage with which our ancestors declared their spiritual independence from an oppressive and evil regime. As the Haftarah on Shabbat HaGadol reminds us, the redemption from Egypt is but a prologue to the greater redemption yet to come- which will also require spiritual clarity and moral fearlessness.

The prophet Malachi describes an “awe of God,” and contrasts it with the “practitioners of idolatrous magic, the adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who withhold the wages of laborers, widows, and orphans, those who oppress the stranger.” To possess the “awe of God” is to resist and abhor unethical behaviors; the day that all ill-treatment of living beings is left behind will be the “great and awesome day of God” for which we yearn and struggle. If telling the Exodus story gives us hope for the future, based on our remembrance of God’s Presence in our sacred history, then Shabbat HaGadol reminds us that it’s not all up to God alone, that we too need to play a part in the great things yet to come. The Redemption begins in our hearts, when we make committments to holiness, just as it did for our ancestors, when they cast aside their fears and chose to reject the unholy values of their captors.

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Tazria 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

The next two parshiyot deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity, starting with ritual impurity after childbirth. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with being “unclean” physically, but was a spiritual state which prevented one from entering into holy areas. Similarly, the skin affliction which is discussed at length is not the biological disease leprosy but what the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem. This condition is called tzara’at; a person with it is called a metzora. A nega is a more general word meaning some kind of outbreak on one’s body or clothing.

It’s important to remember that all these rules, which seem so arcane and barbaric to us, were part of our ancestor’s religious system. They were not merely the medical knowledge of the day. The Torah seems very concerned about bringing people back into the camp who would otherwise be ostracized or expelled.

IN FOCUS

“The person who has tzara’at, who has an impure affliction, shall tear his clothes, and shave his head, and he shall cloak himself up to his lips, and he shall cry ‘Impure! Impure!’ ” (Leviticus 13:45)

PSHAT

The metzora, as explained above, was understood to convey ritual impurity; the Torah seems to be teaching here that such a person must dress and behave in such a way that the ritual impurity would not be conveyed to others.

DRASH

The post-Biblical rabbis understood tzara’at to be Divine punishment for sin, specifically the sin of slander. My sense is that they, too, found the rules of purity and impurity obscure, and probably even asked themselves: if tzara’at were not a result of sin, of what use would all those pages of regulation be to us today, when we have no priesthood to solve the problems of ritual impurity and affliction?

Even without making the big midrashic leap from skin disease to slander, we still find in the traditional commentaries a desire to see in the law of skin afflictions a deep compassion that they believed was central to the Torah’s values. Our verse above, at first glance, seems cruel and shaming to the unfortunate metzora; it’s bad enough that he has a skin affliction, but the Torah makes him go through the camp with torn clothes proclaiming his problem to everybody?

Thus the Talmud interprets this verse as teaching that the afflicted person’s publicizing of his plight was not to bring him shame, but to bring him the prayers and compassion of the community. (Moed Katan 5a; Sotah 32b; quoted in a collection of commentaries called Love Your Neighbor, by Zelig Pliskin) The hope was that the people who heard of the metzora’s problem would pray for him, and perhaps thus speed his recovery. In one of the two places in the Talmud where this interpretation occurs, it even goes so far as to generalize that anybody who is suffering should make their suffering known, so that the community may come to pray for them. (Sotah 32b)

Perhaps we can understand this teaching more broadly. Almost everybody has a problem they don’t want anybody else to know about, and I’d be willing to bet that in most such cases, the problem is more common than the sufferer thinks. A classic example is addictive behaviors, perhaps food or sex or alcohol abuse. The addict often thinks that nobody else has this problem and nobody else can understand; thus they feel ever more shamed and secretive about the state they’re in. The first step in recovery is to admit honestly what the problem is; the truth must be brought out into the light before changes are likely to happen.

The metzora crying out “Impure! Impure!” throughout the camp is a great metaphor for the person who can admit without shame that they have a problem. Once they can say, in public, in front of their friends and family, what their problem is, then they can seek help with the support of their community, and hopefully grow from the experience. Such a problem doesn’t have to be as dramatic or life-threatening as alcoholism or drug abuse; we simply have to be willing to name the truth about ourselves. The other side of the equation is that we need to react with prayer and compassion to anyone making such an admission. Radical honesty is a key to spiritual growth, and with a little help from our friends and from the Healing One, even the worst “affliction” may be made pure and whole again.

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