Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat-Acharei Mot 5763
Immoral Relativisms?

Much intercourse (and I guess the pun is intended) has occurred of late in discussing the commandments regarding prohibited sexual relations that appear in this parasha. Leviticus 18:22, the prohibition against "lying with a male like lying with a woman," receives more than its fair share of consideration in this regard. It is an especially troubling commandment. This is equally true for liberal and traditional Jews as gay members of each community have "come out of the closet" to challenge this commandment.

For liberal Jews, challenging this commandment is simplified by the reality that the liberal Jewish traditions allow, even require, one to examine the text of the Torah in the light of modern knowledge and understanding. Knowing what we know about homosexuality, it's difficult for many to think of it as an "abomination" although, no doubt, there are many in this world who still hold to that view (and, sadly, many who express it quite vehemently and violently.)

One modern commentator, Richard Elliot Freedman, suggests an extension of this understanding by pointing to the word "to-ei-vah," the Hebrew that is rendered as "abomination" (or in his translation, an "offensive thing.") He contends that the word "toeivah" elsewhere in the Torah (notably Gen 46:34, when Joseph describes to his brothers that a "shepherd is toeivah--an offensive thing--to Egypt") is clearly a "relative term, which varies according to human perceptions." (Commentary on the Torah, p.377, note to 18:22.)

I'd like to posit a different take on things. And I apply this viewpoint not just to 18:22, but perhaps to others of the laws of prohibited sexual relations. (There is good reason why many of these prohibited sexual relations are not only Jewish but civil law, and I'm not advocating for their abandonment in all cases.) What I am advocating for is the essence of Yom Kippur, of atonement.

[As a sidebar, atonement is a word that exists only in the English language. It has no exact equivalent in any other language. It represent "at-one-ment" with Gd.]

My understanding involves context. Scholars of the Torah are always urging us to "look at the surrounding text" and to never take one word of the Torah in isolation from others. Therefore, in reviewing the parasha, I must ask myself why the laws regarding prohibited sexual relations occur in such close proximity to, and in the same parasha as, the declaration of Yom Kippur (Lev 16:29ff.)

As abhorrent as some of the prohibited practices are, and as strong as the warnings against them (and the enumerated consequences) are, it would seem that Yom Kippur provides a means to have the impurity of these acts removed.

There are many things that Gd asks us to do (or not do) that both we and Gd know are difficult for us. Yet, in wisdom, Gd has provided us with the means to atone, to become once again "at one" with Gd, even when we have failed to observe mitzvot.

Does this mean that male homosexuality (but apparently not female homosexuality) remain abominations to Gd, something to be atoned for? Even to those who vehemently denounce homosexuality, if they claim to be adherents of a faith that reveres the text of the Torah, then even they must admit that Yom Kippur allows for atonement on the part of those "transgressors."

But let us be quick to remember-these are not Gd's laws for Gd. These are Gd's laws for human beings, given at a particular time and a particular place and a particular context. The text about Yom Kippur states that is shall be a law for all time (Lev. 16:29.) But it does not make this claim for the sexually prohibited relationships. It does say that those who commit these offenses shall be cut off from the people (Lev 18: 29).

It does NOT say that those who commit these offenses will cut off for all time.

The Torah itself reminds us that the Torah is not in heaven. It is in our hands to interpret, to understand, to follow its ways in ways that are meaningful for us a human beings in our own times (with due respect for the traditions of those who came before us.)

I can't speak for Gd. None of us can. So I can't say for certain whether or not Gd considers all the offenses described in this parasha to still be offensive. I would like to believe that Gd does not want us to consider our gay brothers and sisters to be abominators, to be cut off from the community. Yet, even if my belief is in error, I do know that Gd does not intend those who violate these ordinances to not be forgiven and to be without the opportunity for atonement, any more than Gd intends that for any of us. We all have equal opportunity to have our impurities removed. And there are none among us without such impurities, as the Yom Kippur liturgy is sure to make evident to each of us as we recite it.

Yet it is important for us to look at the laws of prohibited sexual relations, indeed all the positive and negative commandments in the Torah in light of the great gift of Yom Kippur that Gd has bestowed upon us.

Our Christian brothers and sisters have forgiveness for their transgressions through the death of their Gd made incarnate. We have ours through the yearly ritual of Yom Kippur. This annual review of our behavior give us impetus to improve, to try and do better.

As much as we may wish it so, there is no agreement among all the peoples of the world that all the prohibited sexual relationships should indeed be prohibited. In our community, the Jewish community, there is, perhaps, consensus regarding most, but not all, of the prohibited relationships. Thus we must be careful how we judge, and remember that all in the community can atone, become once again "at one" with the One. This understanding is the price of having a sacred text in which we cannot view any one word isolated from all the others. This understanding is the price of having a sacred text that is subject to interpretation by the process of levels of understanding like PARDES-p'shat, remez, d'rush, sod--plain meaning, deeper meaning, inferred meaning, and hidden meaning--admittedly superficial explanations of a much more intricate understanding.)

Can a man lie with another man as with a woman? Yes. Should he? That's not for me to judge. But I revel in the confusion of uncertainty. I once wrote that I was turning to Judaism because I feared moral relativism. Now I understand that it need not be feared-it is merely a challenge to be met.

I am indebted to a good friend for pointing out to me that the idea that issues of homosexuality are questions of morality is, in and of itself, a worldview. Perhaps that is where we err, by viewing it as a moral question, and invoking forms of moral relativism as justification. Some biblical scholars argue that the prohibition against male homosexuality should be viewed strictly in the light of diminishing the command to be fruitful and multiply. And the idea of "wasting seed" is referred to several times in the parasha, giving credence to this viewpoint. Yet, are we to apply the same standard to incestuous relationships, or other types of biblically prohibited sexual relationships?

Even separating out the question of homosexuality from the other "moral" issues the Torah asks us to consider in parashat Acharei Mot, there are still many challenges to be met.

Enjoy your challenges as I enjoy mine.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2003 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some previous Musings on this parasha:

Acharei Mot 5760-The Ways of Egypt & Canaan

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