Achrei Mot-Kedoshim: On Bridging Divides

Each week we invite a different rabbi or Jewish thought leader to write a “Taste of Torah” on the weekly portion – always from a progressive, inclusive perspective. To receive LAASOK’s Taste of Torah by email each week, subscribe to our newsletter.

This week’s author is Rabbi Denise Handlarski.

Rabbi Denise is the creator and spiritual leader of the online community Secular Synagogue and the author of The A-Z of Intermarriage 

This double parashah week is particularly interesting because the two seem to be in conflict. Acharei Mot contains some of the most objectionable ideas we find in Torah, particularly a condemnation of homosexuality. In Kedoshim, conversely, the theme is brotherly love. This is the enigma and the beauty of Torah: sometimes beautiful wisdom comes alongside pieces that make us uncomfortable. The tension I love in studying Torah is that between tradition and change. In Leviticus 18.22 we have many prohibitions, including the very controversial ban on homosexual relations. This prohibition is repeated in parashat Kedoshim (20:13). The context for the prohibition suggests that it is less about sexuality and more about cultural identity. God tells the people that they must separate themselves from the practices of the Canaanites. In this context, it makes sense that the culture of the Canaanites be demeaned in the text. If homosexual relations were deemed germane to Canaanite culture, their prohibition may be more to do with establishing power over a united and distinct people than condemning the practice for something inherent to it.

Jews are a distinct people, however we are rarely fully united. We see the world so differently from one another. Leviticus 18 has turned a lot of Jews away from Judaism. As have other prohibitions, such as the ban on intermarriage. It is useful to consider that in this same parsahah, God considers the “ger” (stranger, someone among the people, later understood by rabbis as convert) to have the same rights and obligations as the Israelites. We are the people who believe, after all, that we must love our neighbour as we love ourselves. We find this wisdom in the parashah too.  A meaningful Jewish life is to find peace amidst the tensions of tradition and change, and to honour Jews as a distinct people while being good, kind and inclusive to all.

“A meaningful Jewish life is to find peace amidst the tensions of tradition and change, and to honour Jews as a distinct people while being good, kind and inclusive to all.”

– Rabbi Denise Handlarski

This is the wisdom that comes in Kedoshim, the second of the double parashah we read this Shabbat. Kedoshim is about moving from wrong to right – from abomination to holiness and righteousness. We have laws that are meant to enhance moral human behaviour, such as to leave part of what we reap from the field for the poor and the needy, to deal honestly with one another, to care for the weak and disabled, and, again, to love your fellow as yourself – which, as Rabbi Akiva said, is a “fundamental principle of the Torah.” Whether we are talking about loving our “kinsfolk” in terms of the Jewish community or our broader communities, when I look around, I think we could be doing a better job.

Towards the end of Kedoshim, God says (20.22 – 24): “You shall not follow the practices of the nations that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them. You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Eternal your God has set you apart from other peoples.”

And therein lies the contradiction: be a people set apart, but a people who love and care for others. The people of Israel (by that I mean both the country and all of us as Jews), are duty-bound to set a high moral standard. We must find the balance between pride and xenophobia, tradition and change. To me, there is no point in studying Torah, except to learn how to be a better Jew and a better human being. There are therefore sections that I find very difficult. But this challenge is part of what makes the study great. 

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