Achrei Mot: Intimacy and Dignity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achrei Mot and Shabbat Hagadol

It’s springtime, and so Pesach cleaning is fast upon us. . . but
we have one more regular Torah portion to read before the
special readings for Passover.

The Shabbat right before Pesach/ Passover, coming up this
week, is called “Shabbat Hagadol,” or “The Great Shabbat,” and
it is generally accepted that this day gets its name from the
special haftarah [prophetic reading], which ends with a prophecy
of the “great and mighty Day of the Lord.” The haftarah on
Shabbat Hagadol is part of the general message of redemption
and hope which is central to the Pesach holiday- more about that
in a separate email.

The Torah portion for Shabbat Hagadol can vary with the
calendar; this year, it is connected to Achrei Mot, which is a
difficult parsha, usually read with the next one, Kedoshim. Achrei
Mot first describes the priestly ritual for Yom Kippur, commands
the Israelites to make sacrificial offerings in only one place, then
prohibits eating anything with blood in it, and ends with a long
list of forbidden sexual relationships. This list of sexual
prohibitions begins and ends with a warning not to copy the
practices of other nations. Most of the specific prohibitions begin
with a warning (presumably, to men), “do not uncover the
nakedness of. . . ” and then names a specific relationship.

Because of the unusual wording in this section of the Torah, the
general idea of forbidden sexual relationships has taken on the
name “arayot,” from the word for “naked.” As Conservative Jews,
we may have variety of historical and moral interpretations of
certain specifics in this chapter, most notably the blanket
condemnation of homosexual acts, but on a much more general
level, I think it’s worth thinking about the wording the Torah uses
to describe what it doesn’t like. “Uncovering the nakedness” is
obviously a euphemism for a sexual act, but it also conveys a
more general ethical sensibility of modesty and privacy,
especially in the most intimate areas of our lives.

Anybody who glances at the magazine covers in drugstores or
supermarkets knows that modesty and privacy aren’t the guiding
values of contemporary North American society- with two clicks
of a mouse I can see or read about the most private details of
other people’s lives, and not just celebrities. Think back just a
few weeks, for example, to the raging controversy over Terry
Schiavo, and how the newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts
carried graphic images of Terry half-covered in her hospital
gown, or with her feeding tube exposed.

I find it fascinating that those people within our society most
loudly interested in “Biblical values” had no apparent problem
with Terry Schiavo’s medical procedures being part of the public
record for (quite literally) all to see. Now, an obvious rejoinder is
that medical procedures- or divorce proceedings, or financial
records- are nothing shameful, and that people who take their
lives into the public sphere can’t reveal only the parts they
choose. I suppose that’s technically correct, but I also wonder if
the Bible doesn’t call us to a sense of modesty which is not only
about sex, but also about dignity, the dignity of choosing to keep
some things within our most trusted relationships.

To put it another way, only an ethic of modesty- in a general
sense- creates the possibility of intimacy, which has to be freely
chosen if it is to be authentic. To “uncover the nakedness,” to
use the direct-object language of Achrei Mot, is to remove volition
from intimacy, and thus render it an ethical abomination. Carried
into our sphere of public discourse, I wonder if we who take the
Bible’s ethics seriously might not argue that not everything which
can be revealed should be revealed, and that a media culture
which leaves nothing to privacy undermines the very possibility of
choosing to uncover oneself within the safe boundaries of family
and intimate friendship. That seems to be the model the Torah
advocates, and which still to this day stands in tension with the
society which surrounds us.

You can find the text of this week’s Torah reading and haftarah

PS- My recent thinking about the relationship between privacy
and dignity was initiated by a recent article in The New Republic,
“On the Shamelessness of Our Public Sphere,” by Rochelle
Gurstein. It’s a good read.

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