04/18/2013 04:37 pm ET Updated 4 days ago

Contested Prohibitions: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." This quote from "A Tale of Two Cities" sums up my feelings about this double portion, and especially Kedoshim -- it's the best of parshiot (Torah portions), and in some ways the worst.

The best, because it encapsulates what it means to be a Jew: committed to a path of holiness involving an interwoven practice of ritual and ethical obligations. The best because it has at its heart two of the Torah's most powerful instructions: V'ahavta l'reyecha kamocha, "love your neighbor as yourself," and V'ahavta lo kamocha ki gerim hayitem b'eretz Mitzrayim, "You shall love [the stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:18, 34). The best because it contains key practices for living a just life -- including instructions for caring for the poor, dealing justly with workers, avoiding corruption, practicing right speech, and cultivating a compassionate heart.

Yet it is also the worst, because two verses found in these portions have caused so much heartache and pain in both the Jewish and Christian communities. In Leviticus chapter 18, we read, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence" (v. 23). Later, in chapter 20, we learn the punishment: "If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death -- their bloodguilt is upon them" (v. 13). Whatever these verses might have meant in their original context, to whatever extent we feel that they do or don't have commanding power in our own lives, it is impossible to deny the pain they have caused and the biblical legitimacy they've given to homophobia for the past few millennia.

How, then, to deal with the best and the worst of these Torah portions?

Kedoshim, the plural form of the word "holy," begins with God instructing Moses to tell the Israelites, "You shall be holy, for I am holy, Adonai your God" (19:2). The book of Leviticus makes the powerful claim that "holiness" is not some mysterious quality that just lives within us or around us, but comes about because of things we do or refrain from doing. Holiness -- a quality of Godliness -- is, in this understanding, a path and a discipline accessible to all human beings.

As modern readers of the Bible, however, the question arises: how do we to know whether a teaching or practice contributes to the path of holiness, or whether it no longer functions in that way -- whether it may, in fact, lead to the very opposite of holiness?

To help answer this question, I have found useful a rabbinic teaching, a midrash, that tries to explain how God's Presence could possibly be contained within the four walls of the ancient Temple:

When God said to Moses, "Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8), Moses said: "Who can make God a sanctuary, that God shall dwell in its midst? Behold, heaven and the heavens of heavens cannot contain You" (I Kings 8:27)?! Said God to Moses: "I do not demand of you a structure befitting my full power; I can only demand of you according to your own power... If I so desired, the whole world could not contain Me! All I ask of you is twenty boards in the south, and twenty boards in the north, and eight in the west." (Numbers Rabbah 12:3)

The midrash seems to be saying that we come into relationship with God through structures that we humans build. Compared to the vastness and complexity of the Source of Life, these humanly created structures will of necessity be limited, much too small and far too inadequate to manifest the fullness of Adonai. And as it is with our places of worship, so it is with the structures of our minds and hearts, our holy teachings. Our ancestors and we alike cannot fully perceive or express what God demands of us, but we still need to build structures that allow us to try. Like Moses in the midrash, we have to do the best that we can in the limited space we have, with the materials available to us.

Our ancestors were doing the best they could when they wrote the teachings that now comprise the book of Leviticus, a few millennia ago. Much of what they wrote is true and enduring, and some of what they wrote either no longer applies, or is simply wrong. Yet the question remains, how do we know the difference?

One answer lies within this Torah portion. There is a debate between two rabbis of the Talmud over what should be considered the fundamental principle of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva claimed that it was the most famous line in Kedoshim: "love your neighbor as yourself." Rabbi Ben Azzai, however, argued that we have to go back to the beginning of the Torah, to the notion that all human beings are the descendants of Adam, the first human, who was created in God's image.

Together, these two principles of Akiva and Ben Azzai give us a measuring stick for our own actions, and for evaluating Judaism's teachings. Of any practice or teaching, we can ask:

Does it lead to greater love of my "neighbor," my fellow human, or to the opposite?

Does it affirm that which is Godly in every human being, or deny it?

Our "structures" -- the content and shape of our communities, our teachings, and our ritual and ethical practices -- can develop and change, so long as they keep these two principles at their heart. While we cannot erase the problematic verses about homosexuality from the Torah, we can classify them as teachings that actively negate fundamental principles of Torah, and so are no longer to be accepted as "holy." They are artifacts of the human limitations of our ancestors' quest for holiness -- and a reminder to us to be humble as we strive to continue their work.

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