(Modified from my d’var Torah for Yom Kippur, Mincha service. )
Chapter 18 of Vayikra is notoriously hard to talk about. Maybe it’s just notorious. In very brief summary, these are the laws about permitted and prohibited sexual relations.
WHY? ON YOM KIPPUR???
You and I aren’t the first to ask. Rabbis and scholars have explained this incongruous reading a number of ways.
First. It is the continuation of this morning’s reading.
Second. These laws are about maintaining holiness, and therefore perfectly in tune with the message of holiness of Yom Kippur.
Third. In ancient times, there was a custom that the afternoon of Yom Kippur was a good time to go looking for a spouse, so a friendly reminder would not be out of place.
So much for the why. But, we are left with what to make of it.
The easiest (and in my opinion, worst) interpretation is strict construction. Understanding the words literally. Personally, I don’t learn a whole lot from that, and it is frightening to think that blind obedience is called for. If you doubt that, just think of the phrase, “I was just following orders.”
A more palatable way to look at it is through the lens of historical and cultural context. The Torah was written at a time when family structures were not what they are today. Families made up of grandparents, multiple wives, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws and all in close proximity, so they probably needed reminding of certain things that we don’t need.
And apparently, neighboring peoples engaged in these practices. We know that creating a separation between the Jews and the idolators is woven into the fabric of the Torah.
As for the laws that don’t apply directly to family relationships, we can avoid the issue on the principle of human dignity. What we know now about human psychology and physiology and human nature requires, actually mandates, a different approach. Love and respect for one another is paramount. Love and respect for one another is a baseline, not a goal.
So there you have it, explained and rationalized, all wrapped up and tied neatly with a bow.
Except, today I don’t want it to be that easy. Nothing is easy today. I’ve denied myself physical luxuries, and now I’m denying myself the luxury of a relatively easy explanation.
These passages, and many others in the Torah are troubling. We read of slavery, of being commanded to acts of war and violence, of misogyny and of intolerance. We can always explain and rationalize these things. But, today, I want to be bothered.
I want to be uncomfortable with my Torah. I do believe that it is a sacred and holy book. I also believe it is problematic.
Does seeing at the Torah as unassailable benefit us, or harm us? Does questioning some of what we read make us less faithful?
I don’t think so. For me, I believe that I am obligated to read the Torah and be bothered by it.
This uneasiness. This disgust. This is a part of who we are and we can’t ignore it and we can’t gloss over it. It does not diminish the awesome power of the Torah to view it through a critical lens. It is precisely our ability to do so that allows for an evolution of a religion, that creates the staying power and the foundation of our culture.
Just as we can look at other institutions and ideas in this world that are good and deserving of respect, and still see that they have flaws, so too can we learn from a Torah that doesn’t represent our sense of morals and ethics perfectly.
It is in that zone of discomfort that we chose our path. It is in that zone of uneasiness that we make our decisions -- the ones that guide our path.
Today is a day for introspection. I will listen to and read this Torah portion, and I will be bothered by it. I will contemplate what that means for me personally, how will I reconcile being a good and moral person with a Torah that sometimes is appalling? I can think of no better way to spend Yom Kippur than affirming both my joy and love of being Jewish, with the difficult knowledge that my Torah presents me with troubling issues.
G’mar Hatima Tova.