Archive for Acharei Mot

Acharei Mot: The Torah of Everyday Kindness

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot

And you shall not profane the Name of your God . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 18:21)

Good afternoon!

Glad to be back after a short absence.

Acharei Mot is a difficult portion, with many laws in tension with contemporary sensibilities (though contemporary sensibilities are not necessarily a benchmark of moral aspirations) and other laws which seem rather anachronistic. To wit, the first part of the verse above refers to consecrating or sacrificing children to an ancient pagan deity- hardly a common concern in Poughkeepsie, I hope. On the other hand, the second part of the verse, quoted above, refers to a much more general ethical concept, “desecrating [or: profaning] God’s name,” usually referred to by the Hebrew phrase chillul Hashem. Technically, this commandment- not to do anything which dishonors God, Torah or Israel – derives from a verse a bit later in the Torah (Leviticus 22:32)- but the basic idea appears in several places.

Without going into all the details, for today it’s enough to note that chillul Hashem– profaning God’s name- occurs when people do things which would cause others to question or denigrate the Torah or God of Israel. An example discussed in the Talmud is that of a great Torah scholar not paying the butcher on time. For an ordinary person, a late bill might harm our reputation but doesn’t cause disrepute for Judaism or the Jewish people, but a great Torah scholar, though, is judged on a higher level. How he (or she) pays the grocer is indeed a demonstration that Torah learning which is not transformative in kindness and integrity may cause others to think badly of Judaism itself.

What brings this to mind is the first yahrzeit of my mentor and friend R. Allan Schranz, who died a year ago this week, according to the Jewish calendar. Rabbi Schranz was a brilliant orator and wonderful teacher, who served very prominent pulpits in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but what l also remember about my visits with him were the bagel shop guys. Let me explain: before he got sick, I’d visit him several times a year at his synagogue in Midtown Manhattan, and he’d often take me to a bagel shop around the corner. Every time we went there, he was greeted warmly with “hi Rabbi,” from every person who worked there, who smiled when he entered and seemed happy to see him. It didn’t take many visits to figure out why: Rabbi Schranz took care to treat everybody he met with kindness, respect and dignity, from the bagel shop guys to the security guard at his synagogue to people he’d recognize on the street in his neighborhood.

Wearing his trademark fuzzy black velvet kippot – which he tried many times to convince me to adopt, never succeeding- it would have been a chillul Hashem if anybody perceived the local rabbi, paragon of religious Judaism, as disrespectful or arrogant. The opposite was true: he performed a kiddush Hashem, “making God’s name holy,” in his everyday interactions: people saw that a religious Jew was thoughtful, gracious and ennobling of others, which in turn demonstrates that a foundation of Torah is kavod habriyot, human dignity. To show that our everyday actions are suffused with the humane values of Judaism is a mitzvah not just for scholars, but for anyone who wants to make the world more holy, one kind interaction at a time.

Shabbat Shalom,

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Achrei Mot-Kedoshim: Authentic Atonement

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:6)

Good morning!

This week we have a double portion, the first of which is rules for Yom Kippur and then lots of laws of sexual conduct, and the second of which is beautiful ethical principles and then lots more laws of sexual conduct.

Going back to the beginning of the first portion, Achrei Mot, the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, is instructed to purify himself before doing the complex rituals of offering atonement sacrifices on behalf of the people. Not only that, but as in the verse above, before he can offer a sacrifice of atonement on behalf of the entire Israelite community, he has to do so for himself, and his household. Presumably, not only is the Kohen Gadol’s personal offering an example of repentance and humility for the rest of the Jewish people, but it’s also a matter of kavannah, or personal focus/ intention/ mindfulness. After all, how can he be completely spiritually present in offering atonement for the nation if he has not fully atoned for his personal mistakes and misdeeds?

The issue of leadership and collective atonement is actually in the news this week, so let’s look at current example. Perhaps just in time for Achrei Mot- Kedoshim, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, gave a speech to a joint session of Congress, in which he expressed a personal “deep repentance in my heart”along with prayer for the dead of WWII, followed by a collective regret:

on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II. (full text of speech here.)

Now, to be fair,  he did say later in the speech that his country’s actions “caused suffering” in Asia, and his people “felt remorse,” but still, one is struck by the lack of apology or explicit acknowledgement of Japan’s aggression and imperialism. His personal “deep repentance” is appropriate, but while a Prime Minister is not a priest, I and many other commentators (go forth and Google) felt that he missed an opportunity to be a true leader, to go against his parliamentary pressures and express a real apology on behalf of the nation he represents. That would have taken personal and political courage, but what else is leadership?

Yet debates about what a politician should or shouldn’t have said are endless, but ultimately the real question is: what about the example of the Kohen Gadol applies to us, who do not lead nations or occupy high office? First, let’s note the order in which the Torah presents the High Priest’s atonement offerings: first for himself, then for his family, then for his people. We cannot ask others to do what we are not willing to do- if the people’s job was to think hard and humble themselves on Yom Kippur, then the job of the Kohen Gadol was to go first, to show the way in taking his own moral inventory.

Besides the imperative to do our own work before rebuking others, let’s note that according to the commentators, the atonement of the High Priest also involved confession, which in Judaism is always a verbal enumeration of specific ways we fall short. Just as in our Yom Kippur liturgy, confession is explicit- we recite long lists in synagogue but it’s meant to be personal, something we apply to our own unique actions. This is where the contrast with Mr. Abe’s political speech (and so many other wishy-washy vague “apologies”) becomes apparent- there is little confession, little grappling with hard, specific truths, without which atonement and confession become a matter of “mistakes were made,” which leaves both parties incompletely reconciled.

The language of sin, atonement, and confession is difficult- it seems so archaic and “judgmental.” Yet here’s the beautiful thing: it’s not meant to weigh us down, but to unshackle burdens of guilt and fear, to leave us free, to effect reconciliation and promote a forgiving love. The only path forward to that forgiving love is speaking hard truths, but nothing could be more worth it.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim: What is Truly Ours

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim

We read a double Torah portion this week, Acharei-Mot/ Kedoshim, and there are
different haftarot assigned to the portions depending on whether you read them
together or separately. Not only that, but there are different traditions for
the haftarah in the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities; today we’re discussing
the reading from the book of Amos, from the Ashkenazi custom.

The prophet Amos is an early prophet, who spoke harsh words against both the
Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, condemning their religious and moral
sins while also proclaiming an eventual renewal of the united monarchy. That
time will be a time of great blessing; the prophet says that the land will be so
blessed that the “mountains shall drip wine:”

” When the plowman shall meet the reaper,
And the treader of grapes
Him who holds the [bag of] seed;
When the mountains shall drip wine
And all the hills shall wave [with grain].

I will restore My people Israel.
They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them;
They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine;
They shall till gardens and eat their fruits.” [Amos 9:13-14]

It’s a consoling image for a divided people, and yet the images of vineyards and
fields overflowing with their harvest brings to mind mitzvot, commandments, from
the Torah portion, regarding agricultural bounty:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the
edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick
your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave
them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.” [Vayikra/Leviticus

These mitzvot, of leaving the edges of the fields and the gleanings [these are
called peah, the corners, and leket, the gleanings], teach us a powerful
perspective: when we are blessed with enough, some of what we think is “ours” is
really only entrusted to our stewardship for sharing with others. In our
society, so many have so much, and yet the action of leaving for others teaches
us powerful lessons about spiritual fulfillment, which is not found in having
more than one needs but in acts of service to God through giving to others.

Getting back to our haftarah, I wonder if the images above of the hills waving
with grain and the mountains dripping with wine are meant to remind the people
that such blessings are not just for individuals, but opportunities to build
powerful communities of caring and inclusion. Along with the fields and
vineyards comes the mitzvah of peah and leket, leaving for the poor; in the
Biblical mind, you can’t have the blessing without the mitzvah to share it.

In our day, even in these hard times, the Biblical linking of blessing and
obligation is no less relevant, even if our bounty takes forms other than the
produce of the field. If we are blessed, we must give, because ultimately, what
is truly ours is not our property, but the goodness we have brought forth.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim: Love & Imagination

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

We’re reading the double portion Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim this week, which covers a lot
of textual territory: from the Yom Kippur offerings to banning
adultery, from the most universal ethical aspirations to the rejection
of paganism, from loving one’s neighbor to rules about haircuts and
beard trims. (No, really, and they’re important ones, too.)

Among the ethical commandments taught in Kedoshim is the principle of
loving the “stranger,” or non-Israelite, who lives among the Israelite

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among
you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the
land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” (Vayikra 19:34)

It’s a noble law, but I see two questions looming out there in our

1) How can we love the stranger as ourselves if the stranger- or
alien, or immigrant, or sojourner- is, by definition, different than
us, perhaps with different needs, perspectives, and values? What
somebody else might experience as love (a big slice of cheesecake
after a hard day, maybe) might be very different from what I would
appreciate (I hate cheesecake and would never think to offer it- it’s
a trivial example, but you get the point.)

To put it another way, “don’t do to others what is hateful to you” (as
Rabbi Hillel put it) actually requires thinking about not only what is
hateful or unpleasant for the do-er, but also about what is hateful or
unpleasant for the receiver- in other words, one needs not just
self-knowledge and generosity, but also empathy. Framed as a positive
principle, loving the stranger also requires thinking about who they
are and what they need, which may not be obvious if we only know our
own needs and preferences.

2) It’s easy to connect the need for empathy with the reminder that
the Israelites were once strangers in the land of Egypt; as we were
once without social status, support, or sufficient sustenance, we of
all people should act out of a deep understanding of what that feels
like. However, as in the first question, how can later generations of
Israelites, who never knew the experience of bondage in Egypt, have
the same empathy as those who did?

To me, the answer to both questions is the same: knowledge and
imagination. It takes knowledge- perhaps investigation is a better
word- to clarify how to help another person. When I was training as a
hospital chaplain, we heard fascinating lectures from teachers of
Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and various streams of
Christianity on the topic of offering spiritual care to hospital
patients from the various religious traditions. Something as simple
and seemingly universal a prayer for healing could be deeply
comforting- or deeply offensive- to different people, each with
different perspectives and customs.

Thus, part of learning to “love the stranger”- that is, caring for
those who are most in need- means learning would actually be good and
loving to the person or community receiving the care. It takes
humility to realize that we may not know how to love others
intuitively! Yet “loving the stranger as yourself” also means
activating our imaginations. I have never been a slave in Egypt, but
the Passover seder asks me to put myself in that position, through an
act of imagination, in order to fully appreciate the miracle of
liberation and freedom.

Similarly, I may not have suffered the precise problem that somebody
else has, but I can try to imagine what the other person is going
through, and act accordingly to relieve suffering, indignities, or
privation. Of course, “loving the stranger”- or anybody else- is not
only a matter of helping them or caring for them when there is a
problem. I only focus here on that base-line level of caring because
to me, that’s what the verse suggests in context.

One negative stereotype of religion is that it’s all about following
rules, as if piety were somehow a matter of programming behavioral
algorithms. In our verse, the Torah requires us to act out of empathy
for those who are not like us, which in turn requires imagination,
humility, and curiosity- three qualities which defy all notions of
simple rule-following. On the contrary, one can’t “love the stranger
as yourself” without creativity and openness to the unexpected. To
love the stranger means expanding the vision of our hearts, and in
doing so, finding our truest humanity.

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Kedoshim: Community and Humanity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achre Mot/Kedoshim

It’s a beautiful and sunny Friday morning, so perhaps it’s appropriate
to look at a law pertaining to green and growing things in this week’s
Torah portion. We’re in a double parsha, Achre Mot-Kedoshim, both of
which have lots of different laws (some of which are beautiful, and
some of which require some interpretive struggle) pertaining to family
life, agriculture, sexuality, ethics, and ritual. One of my favorite
mitzvot- also mentioned in next week’s Torah portion is the mitzvah
called “peah,” or “corners,” meaning the commandment to leave a corner
of one’s fields unharvested so the poor can come and collect a bit of

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the
way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your
harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen
fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the
stranger: I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:9-10)

There is so much ethical teaching in these few verses; I’ve written
about Peah before, and there are many wonderful commentaries about the
different aspects of the mitzvah. This week, I just want to point out
two words, in verse 9: “the poor and the stranger.” In Hebrew, the
word used for the poor person is “oni,” which you may remember from
Pesach a few weeks ago: matzah is called “lechem oni,” or “bread of
poverty, poor person’s bread.” The word for “stranger” is “ger,” which
in modern usage means a convert to Judaism, but in Biblical Hebrew
means somebody who lives among you but is not of your tribe- perhaps
compared today to the “alien” or non-citizen who is a resident, but
doesn’t have full rights of citizenship.

The mitzvah is to leave the corners of our fields- that is, share our
material and other resources- with both the “ger” and the “oni,” which
Rabbi Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1100’s), along with other commentaries, clearly
spells out as the “poor person” who is of the tribe of Israel, AND the
“ger” or non-Israelite who lived in Israelite areas. In other words,
our moral concern is both for members of the “family” of the people
Israel and for those who are not of our people. We are both a people,
with special concern for the poor, sick, and dispossessed of our
community, and we are human beings, sharing a common destiny with
every soul created in the Divine Image.

Perhaps it’s a paradox to say that our moral concerns must be both
particular and universal, but to me, what this and other verses point
to is the simple fact that no community can take care of the whole
world, just as no human being can take care of everybody else’s
family. We have ties with some people that are thicker than others,
and if every community organized itself such that their own poor and
needy were taken care of, there would be far fewer people who felt
helpless and alienated from sources of material and spiritual support.
As one of my teachers put it: “find your corner of the world, and make
it holy.”

On the other hand- there are always people who fall through the
cracks, and if we restricted our moral concern to those who are part
of our own community, we would lose the opportunity to recognize that
all people are made in the Divine Image, and thus compassion extended
universally is also a chance to find God in places where we might not
otherwise be. The Torah tells us to take care of the poor of our
people, but also tells us to take care of the stranger, because we
were strangers in Egypt, and we of all peoples know the experience of
needing compassion from those who are not exactly like us.

So what’s the answer? How do we focus our giving and social action?

You already know the answer, which is that there is no simple answer.
There are always needs than easily available resources; we must simply
give more, give wisely, and never lose sight of our ties of peoplehood
nor our shared humanity. We are linked to our people in history,
destiny, memory, spirituality, and communal interdepency, and this
makes our lives infinitely richer than they would be as solitary
individuals, cut off from our roots and our branches. Yet God is in
all souls, so Judaism directs our compassion and justice to all
people. We are part of a people, and we are part of humankind; both
are true, and both truths inform a Jewish moral vision.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- Before we get to our usual parsha related links, here’s a link to
a good story on CBS news about the new Chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school and graduate
school in New York. The article describes not only the new Chancellor
but also some of the history and challenges of the Conservative

Also, we haven’t looked at Ibn Ezra’s commentary much- here’s a biography:
Finally, as usual, you can find the text of the parsha here:

and summaries and further commentary on the parshiot (double parsha) here:

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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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Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Aharei-Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)


We have a double parsha this week. Acharei Mot means “after the death;” the Torah notes that these laws were given “after the death of Aharon’s two sons.” Then the Yom Kippur service is described, including ritual purification’s 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.

Kedoshim literally means “holy things,” and this parsha is a list of behaviors that are either holy or not holy. These laws are both ethical and religious, and sometimes both, as in the prohibitions against certain kinds of incest. Other famous laws in this section include the prohibition against putting a “stumbling block” before the blind, and the commandment to “love your fellow human as yourself.” Israel is commanded to be holy just as Israel’s God is Holy.


“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not completely reap the corners of the field, and do not gather the gleanings of the harvest. Do not completely glean your vineyard, nor gather all the fallen grapes, but leave them behind for the poor and the stranger- I am Adonai your God. ” (Leviticus 19:9-10)


This beautiful commandment is called peah, which means “corner.” One who is gathering their harvest leaves a portion for the poor to gather. There are two parts to this mitzvah: one is leaving some of the grain or produce just as it is for the poor to gather, and the next part is leaving some on the ground, after it is fallen, and not picking up every last bit.


If we took these verses absolutely literally, we would learn a powerful moral teaching about setting aside some of our resources to help those in need. However, we can also infer that the creation of a caring, interdependent community is a greater priority than strict property rights- for ultimately, the land belongs to God, not its human steward. We see a similar idea in the laws of the Shmitta [Sabbatical] and Yovel [Jubilee] years, described in Leviticus 25.

The 16th century Sefardic commentator Moshe Alshich notes that ascribing ownership of the land to God reduces the tensions caused by social inequality between rich and poor:

    Both farmer, stranger, and the poor are really equal before God. Just as the rich person employs laborers to cut his grain, stack his wheat, and so on, so we are all God’s laborers. [I.e., God “employs” the better-off in the job of providing for the poor.] But when performing this commandment, God describes the land as if it were “yours. . . ”

    The Torah could have continued by saying: “it shall be for the poor and the stranger.” By using the phrase “leave them behind,” the Torah emphasizes the stranger and poor person’s prior claim to these gleanings and leavings. God wants the farmer to treat the poor respectfully, not to rob them of dignity. Therefore, “leave them behind”- you are not giving a handout, but you will simply leave it, they will help themselves. “Don’t completely glean” is the fact that you do not complete the harvest, which is the signal to the poor person that he is taking what he is entitled to, not what the farmer decides to give him.

    The anonymity of the recipient- since the farmer does not know who picks his field- is what preserves the poor person’s dignity. (Adapted from R. Moshe Alshich on the Torah, translated by E. Munk.)

While I cannot claim to have policy expertise in the realm of social welfare, I think that the dignity of the poor is something rarely considered in many current assistance programs. Food is not a privilege to be handed out according to the mood of the wealthy, but a right, regardless of social standing or status. The needy have a “prior claim” to a certain level of sustenance- if the better off don’t provide the “corners of their fields,” they themselves would be guilty of taking something that is not theirs by right.

This is a whole different way of looking at philanthropy- a person may indeed be generous, but up to a certain point, material things don’t really belong to us in the first place. Rather, a Jewish perspective on material goods sees such resources as being loaned to us for the privilege of bringing about good things. (Maybe that’s why they’re called “goods!”) We are all stewards on God’s land, as it were. This is not to impugn anybody’s generosity, not at all. The commandment of peah challenges us to think about the distinction between generosity- which might mean “going above and beyond”- and basic obligations, which are incumbent upon all who can meet them.

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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.


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.


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


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.


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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