Of Sex, Leprosy of a House, and Humanism

(NOTE: The following was the script I prepared for delivery as a d’var Torah, aimed at folks who had never encountered Humanistic Judaism before, at a special Humanistic Jewish Shabbat service I led at Sixth & I Synagogue on April 27, 2018. As it happens, I forgot to print my talk, and delivered substantially the same talk – but not in these words. So, here’s the prepared speech that went…sort of…undelivered.)

If you follow the Torah reading cycle – and actually, even if you don’t, because it turns out calendars don’t ask for our opinions – this week is a double Torah portion: Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.

Achrei Mot and Kedoshim are usually pretty high up on the list of Torah portions that, if you’re having a bat or bar mitzvah, you really don’t want to get. They’re not quite as apparently boring as last week, when there are multiple chapters on what to do about leprosy. There’s even a process for what happens if your house gets leprosy!

Even if they’re not as weird as all that, this week’s Torah portions aren’t exactly the easiest topic-wise, because they touch on all manner of rather adult topics: other than setting up the process for Yom Kippur, these portions spend a lot of time talking about forbidden sexual relationships.

In fact, when you double-up Achrei Mot and Kedoshim, you double-up how much time you spend reading about forbidden sexual relationships. I mean, sure, there’s also a sort of affirming chunk in Leviticus 19 that seems to restate some of the really basic, “everyone agrees murder is bad” rules. Do we really need both Leviticus 18 and 20? Do we really need to read twice about the people you’re not permitted to have sex with?

But, I’m actually sort of excited to talk about this section of the Torah. As seemingly weird as some of these laws are, they’re actually really important – even if you don’t follow any of them.

What these laws do – what Achrei Mot and Kedoshim are really up to – is try to define who the Israelites are.

So, let’s ask the question: does the Torah forbid non-heterosexual sexual intercourse? Yes, at least for men. By the Middle Ages, by the way, Maimonides had decided that the Torah forbade same-sex or same-gender relationships between women, too. I don’t think there’s a real debate on what Leviticus says. Sometimes a thing just says what it means.

The question we need to ask is not, “what does it say,” but “what does it say about us”?

The Torah is pretty up-front about its reasons for these laws. Why shouldn’t the Israelites have same-sex relationships, or sexual relationships with certain family members, or during menstruation? The Torah gives two answers: first, because, in essence, “that’s not what we do” – the Canaanites or the Egyptians or whoever can do that stuff, but that’s not what we Israelites do. What’s good for Molech worshippers isn’t good for Israelites. Second, these are practices that prevent you from being holy, which means that you can’t fully participate in the thing that really makes the Israelites different – you can’t participate in the sacrificial worship of the God of Israel. In fact, Leviticus makes it pretty clear that it thinks that if you do some of these things, you should be killed.

In other words, Leviticus is saying, “That’s not what we do.”

“That’s not what we do” doesn’t just mean, “we don’t do those things.” There’s something happening in these laws that suggests something about who we are. The Torah says the Israelites shouldn’t do certain things because, at some level, these things don’t match up with who the Israelites are.

So…leprosy and not marrying certain family members and avoiding non-heterosexual intimate relationships are who we are, right? I mean, if we’re Jewish, and the Torah is our book, then clearly who we are is right in there. Right?

But I have a puzzle for you. Leviticus twice says, in essence, “no non-heterosexual sex.”

Yet Leviticus is just one book. Some of the same sexual rules that appear in Leviticus also appear in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But only Leviticus has the rules forbidding sexual relations between two men. They don’t appear in Exodus or Deuteronomy.

So what’s that about?

One of my teachers, from when I was a grad student…oh, about twenty years ago…is one of a number of Jewish scholars who have suggested that we’re making a mistake if we approach the Torah only as a set of sometimes-contradictory texts that someone has woven together to create a text that speaks with a single voice. I mean, I think we should be clear that that’s true – the texts were put together because reasons – but it’s also not the only way we should look at it.

Put in fancier words: the Torah, like almost all of Jewish life, is “polyphonic” (David Frankel, TheTorah.com, “Male Homosexual Intercourse is Prohibited – In One Part of the Torah”). These laws on who can have sex with whom illustrate the point: Deuteronomy makes no prohibition on same-sex intercourse – and it also says that it may be neither added to nor subtracted from. And yet, there’s Leviticus, hanging around with lots of extra Torah, adding to and subtracting from Deuteronomy.

See? It’s polyphonic: the Torah speaks with multiple voices, and those voices don’t always agree.

Jews are polyphonic, too. Two Jews, three opinions. Or, a Jew is on a deserted island for years, and when they find her, there are three synagogues: one she used to go to, one she goes to now, and one she’d never step foot in!

Think about American Jews’ stances on Israel: in a single synagogue on a given Shabbat, you’ll find people who belong to or identify with the Zionist Organization of America, AIPAC, J Street, IfNotNow, Americans for Peace Now, and Jewish Voice for Peace. You’ll find people who believe that there is a god who is active in the world and is personal, able to be addressed by prayer and capable of responding directly; you’ll find people who think that all of that is absurd; and you’ll find people who have more complicated religious stances. You’ll find people who are there because someone made them come or to support someone else, but who find no value at all in being at a synagogue – though they’re the first to line up for tickets to the Basya Schechter or Joey Weisenberg or David Broza concert, because they feel Jewish there.

So, where does this take us?

I could tell you that Humanistic Judaism is aimed at you if you’re an atheist or an agnostic – hey, you can be a Jew and a Humanist! – and I’m not wrong about that. (Or, if I am wrong, I don’t know why it’s on our convention signs!) But I think that’s only partially correct. Humanistic Judaism is also about supporting ways of being Jewish for people who want to own their Jewish identity, but who believe that Judaism gets a lot of really big things about our world wrong, and who want consistency between what they believe and what they say and do. It’s about grappling with the past and making conscious choices about what has meaning, and raising that up. It’s about having a voice in the polyphony of Judaism over its 3000 year lifetime, raising that voice, and celebrating Jewish life in a way that is consistent with a view of the world that we actively infuse with meaning – even if we don’t see that world infused with meaning from a heaven above.

It’s about raising up a voice that says, “I am a Jew, even if I don’t pray like my grandparents did. But here’s what I do.”

Jews don’t speak with one voice; Judaism doesn’t speak with one voice; even the Torah doesn’t speak with one voice. We can’t be sure about whether anyone is really right. For Humanistic Judaism, what counts is that we continue to wrestle with all the Jewish voices while we speak with our own.

And that’s true, I think, even if you believe that your house can get leprosy.