Open or Closed

Parshat Tzav

Leviticus 6:1 -8:36

Religion is meant to be mysterious.  It talks about things you can’t see- like God.  Religion tries to in its best case scenario link people through emotional and communal bonds. Religion lifts up ideals of ethics and morality.  Religion tries to bind a group through ritual and to help us express our human frailties and joys and provide guidance to live our daily lives.  Religion in its best sense helps us express our hunger and desires for knowledge, discovery of and our quest for meaning.  For Jews we are part of an ongoing nation that stretches back millennia.  Our ancient journey from Abraham and Sarah to Egypt and the Exodus to the present day is a journey filled with learning and a yearning to understand what God wants of us. This coupled with the pursuit of justice helps the Jewish people continue to thrive even today.

In the ancient world the priests of ancient pagan religions practiced the rituals in secret.  Knowledge of the details of the religion was not transparent but the sacred and secret details were possessed by a small group-the priests.  When there was a largely illiterate population the lack of access to the ways of the religion increased. This allowed the ancient priests in a society to amass power because they had special knowledge of their gods and goddesses and only they could perform certain functions.  The common people simply worked for their gods and goddesses producing crops, livestock and goods that went to support the upper class of the priesthood.

In ancient Israelite religion described in the book of Leviticus and in particular in this week’s Torah portion Tzav we see the revolution of Moses! Unlike the Egyptian religions that were practiced behind closed temple doors, the rituals of the Israelites are written about and performed in public.  Yes there is a special class, the Cohanim and the Levities who become the Temple functionaries. But the rituals of sacrifice are described and available for everyone to know.  The book of Leviticus makes access to the details open knowledge. The mysterious is available to the whole people. Sacrifices are performed before the individual.  And the requirements for specific sacrifices cannot just be made up-but there is an open formula that is available to the whole people.

Parshat Tzav continues the explanation of the sacrifices from last week’s portion, Vayikra.   While today Judaism has evolved from the time of performing sacrifices the fact that Judaism is an open religion speaks volumes.  Yes we have Rabbis but we are not priests that possess some secret knowledge.  Judaism is to be studied openly by everyone.  Study is the equivalent of prayer in Judaism. I think this attests as to just how much we value access by everyone.  Rabbi means teacher.  We don’t have priests anymore who are the only ones to perform certain functions.  In fact in Judaism it doesn’t take a Rabbi to officiate at a Jewish wedding (from a Jewish halachik perspective, the state has other concerns).  Any Jew can be the mesader kiddushin, the officiant.  Unlike Catholicism where only priests can perform certain functions, Judaism is a more open and transparent tradition!

Although reading this week’s Torah portion Tzav and the details of the sacrifices seem irrelevant to our daily lives, we ought to relish the fact that even in Ancient Israelite religion we stood for openness and transparency in the practice of our most sacred moments and ideals.

Can You Hear the Call?

Parshat Vayikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

Vayikra means “God called out.” (Lev. 1:1).  With this new book of the Bible, Leviticus, God calls out to Moses.  Exodus ends with the building of the Tabernacle. It has exquisite detail of the design and the construction of the Tabernacle, God’s earthly home. Now God wants to draw even nearer to the Israelites  More than just taking up residence in the Tent of Meeting, the book of Leviticus, is a recipe for ways to draw closer to closer to God.

In this week’s portion the sacrificial system is introduced in detail.  Guilt offerings, sin offerings, well being offerings are just three of the sacrifices described in detail this week.  The instructions make for dry reading.  Couple that with our contemporary Jewish practice that no longer uses this system (and frankly the slaughter of animals as a way to rid ourselves of sin is truly revolting) makes it difficult to hear the call of this book of the Bible. Couple that with fundamental changes in the way we contemporary Jews see and understand the world and the book of Leviticus seems to push us away from the God idea rather than draw close which was the idea of the sacrifices in the first place!  The word for sacrifice in Hebrew, korban, is rooted in the idea of karov, or nearness. The Leviticus of death sentences, bloody sacrifices and misinterpreted verses that have caused the persecution and death of gay people throughout the centuries are just a few of the ways we can no longer hear the call of God and is explicit in the opening words of this week’s portion.

 And yet in the book of Leviticus and this week’s portion the call of God is still present if we open our ears and our hearts.  This week’s portion reminds us that if we harm another person we must make restitution and add a fifth.  Elsewhere in Leviticus we can hear God calling out to us through the ethical ideals that teach us how to treat one another, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is found in Leviticus as is “You be holy because I am holy”.  

 Our challenge this week and every week is to try and hear the call of God. Just as God called out to Moses this week with the word, “Vayikra”, can you hear God calling you to draw nearer?



Spiritual Purity and Holiness

Parshat Emor

Leviticus 21:1-24:23

The Torah portion for the week is Emor. This Torah portion continues instruction to the priesthood that is the theme of most of Leviticus. The priesthood is holy to God. In fact, Aaron wears a crown with those very words engraved upon them. The priesthood had special obligations to maintain their spiritual purity. Holiness and spiritual purity belonged to the Divine realm and therefore they could not carry out their duties in a state of spiritual impurity. The relationship of the Israelite nation and God depended on the Kohen’s ritual status because the offerings would not be acceptable if they were made by the Kohen in a status of impurity.  The offering would be seen as improper.  And we saw what happened to Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu when they brought an improper offering on the altar.  They died.

This state of purity was achieved by immersion in the mikvah, the ritual bath. The priesthood had to be scrupulous in maintaining its spiritual purity. The things that contaminated or defiled this spiritual status included coming into contact with a dead body, bodily emissions like semen and blood including menstruating women.

Our portion, Emor begins with specific instructions for priests concerning a death in their family.  Coming in contact with death always brought spiritual impurity.  And so the portion outlines for the priest whom they may set aside their holy priestly duties and become spiritually impure for.  A priest may contaminate his special state of purity for his immediate family: mother, father, son daughter brother, unmarried sister. But not his in laws or sister that married and is now a part of another household.  This might seem unkind and even cruel.  The priest could not defile his special ritual status except for these intimate family members. A Kohen could not even go to bury a friend because being in a cemetery brings ritual impurity. Any contact or near contact with death does so.

The Torah could have forbidden priests any contact with the dead. But it recognizes that Kohanim are human beings and the intimate family relationships require a duty to honor the dead within that family circle.  The rabbis included the priest’s wife in this circle. But beyond those blood relationships a priest had a higher duty to maintain his spiritual cleanliness. He had to keep his soul open to the holy and the divine.

The special and unique obligations of the priesthood were with them all the time and helped to make the priest a bridge between the divine realm and the human, earthly realm.  Today we have no priests but the call to holiness is real.  How can we bring the holy into our lives? How can we bring spiritual purity into everyday living?  This is not an easy task.  Especially when we are surrounded by the tawdry and crass realities of 21st century life? Beverly Hills Housewives might be a hit on TV but it hardly elevates the soul.

Our souls need to be uplifted and cleansed from the battering of contemporary life.  Prayer and meditation help to ease our spirits. This is a way we purify ourselves to face the cacophony of modernity. So say a prayer. Meditate for a moment. Recite the Shema. Sing a Jewish song. And uplift and cleanse your spirit and bring the heavenly realm down to earth for just a while.

Reform Judaism won’t back down

Parshat Kedoshim

Leviticus 19:1 -20:27

This week’s Torah portion Kedoshim contains the second explicit verse that is often pointed out condemns gay male sex. Leviticus 20:13 prescribes the death penalty. Of course this entire section of Leviticus has a whole series of punishments for sexual transgressions and idolatry all of which are punishable by death in the Bible. Including verse 9 of chapter 20, “Anyone who insults his father or his mother, shall be put to death”. And any man who has sexual intercourse with a woman while she is menstruating is excommunicated from the people. In ancient times excommunication was certain death because it put you outside the camp and tribe and you no longer had the group’s protection. You were subject to brigands and the whims of warring tribes. When radical religious fundamentalists of any stripe use the Levitical verses to condemn homosexuality they often conveniently forget to read the rest of the nearby verses. Why aren’t they making an issue of those who insult their parents? Why aren’t they discriminating against those who commit elder abuse? In American society it is often these same Christian Fundamentalists who want to defund Planned Parenthood but they never harangue anyone about sex during menstruation. In fact I have never seen them try to take the civil rights of those who do so. They only wrongly focus on gay people. The Bible also says not to eat seafood but I haven’t seen Christian Fundamentalist preachers give up their Lobster Bisque. The ancient mindset did not understand the notion of sexual orientation. Gay sexuality was not the issue in Leviticus. Idolatry and rape were the issues. Leviticus isn’t commenting about same-gender loving relationships. It is only seeing a man who lays the laying of a woman as a male in a submissive position and something that the pagans engage in the worship of their gods. This isn’t what homosexuality is about-not today. The Reform Movement of Judaism has been clear in its resolution process of support for the civil rights of gay men and lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. Since the 1960’s Reform Judaism has been an advocate for equality. First the Women of Reform Judaism (Then Sisterhood) in the 1960’s called for the decriminalization of consensual adult relations. Later the Union for Reform Judaism (then the UAHC) called for full federal recognition of gay and lesbians relationships in the 1980’s. And in 1996 the Central Conference of American Rabbis called for marriage equality and in 2000 by a resounding resolution vote the Reform Rabbinate supported religious marriage equality as well! Reform Judaism is undergoing a significant leadership change in the next year. There will be a new head of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. But there will be no change in the historic supportive position of Reform Judaism for full civil equality including marriage equality for gay men, lesbians, and bisexual and transgender people. In fact the youth movement leaders of Reform Judaism and our Jewish educators have been doing extraordinary work to educate young people on the dangers of bullying and on learning to accept and welcome and make our camps and youth groups into safe places for gay youth. Our young people are increasingly involved in Gay –Straight Alliances at their schools and engage in advocacy on behalf of full civil equality for the GLBT community. So even as we read this week’s Torah portion, let us call out this verse in Leviticus and name it, confront it and answer those who mis-use the Bible for their own political gain. Perhaps they ought to read what comes before these verses as well in this Torah portion and which gives this portion its name, Be Holy for I am holy. Perhaps they would do better if they engaged in holy work rather than holy war. Our world would be a far better place.

Leviticus doesn’t talk about gay people

Parshat Achrei Mot

Leviticus 16:1-18:30

Each year when we come to this week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot I think about the violence that has been done to gay people reading from Chapter 18, verse 22.  “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a toevah.” This verse has been used as the justification to do great violence especially to gay men throughout history.  And this verse continues to be used by so-called Biblical literalists to justify discrimination and hatred of gay people everywhere.  So often the word toevah is translated as abomination. Thisof course conjures up terrible and frightful and menacing images as in the Abominable Snowman.  Or Boogeyman.  All these images of terror: of the lurking monster in the shadows have been applied at different times to gay men. The horrible lies and myths that somehow gay men lurk and prowl and prey on innocent straight people was further reinforced by the mis-translation of the word toevah.

The word toevah does not mean abomination.  But this is how it has all too often been translated.  The word Toevah is a kind of blasphemy; a transgression of some sort of the worship of YHVH.  It is often associated with avodah zarah, or idolatry.  The word toevah appears 103 times in our Bible. And the word toevah is applied very often with the practices of other nations.  Something becomes toevah when it is a behavior that the other nations engage in.

This is interesting because in Leviticus 18:3 this idea is made explicit.  “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” So something becomes toevah when it imitates the ways of the other nations and is associated with the worship practices of their gods and goddesses.

So let’s be clear. The torah is not condemning gay people in this verse.  It is taking aim idolatry that might creep into ancient Israelite religion.  That is the major concern of the Biblical world view.  And in the ancient world certain sexual behaviors were used to worship ancient foreign gods. The worship of YHVH as the one God is the main idea of the Torah. And anything that smacks of idol worship or pagan religion is an anathema.

As gay Jewish author Jay Michaelson writes, “Progressive religionists must stop using the word “abomination” to refer to toevah. The word plays into the hands of fundamentalists on the one hand, and anti-religious zealots on the other, both of whom want to depict the Bible as virulently and centrally concerned with the “unnatural” acts of gays and lesbians. In fact, toevah is mostly about idolatry, and male homosexual behavior is only as abominable as remarriage or not keeping kosher. Whenever we use the word “abomination” we are perpetuating the misunderstanding of biblical text and the religious persecution of LGBT people.” (Religion Dispatches).

I think Michaelson hits the nail on the head.  This verse isn’t talking about loving same gender relationships that we know and talk about today. This verse isn’t talking about those who identify their sexual and affectional natures as gay or lesbian.  It is talking about idol worship.
And as a Jew, Gay or straight or transgendered we should keep far from idol worship.

A New Book of the Bible

Parshat Vayikra

Leviticus 1:1-6:5

The third book of the Bible begins this week just as we begin the new month of Adar Bet. Leviticus is also known as Torat Cohanim- the Torah of the Priests or the Instructions for the Priests.  Throughout this book of the Bible the details of priestly holy work are described.  The sacrifices that the children of Israel are to bring to the sanctuary are enumerated.  The priesthood is a special caste.  Cohanim are descendants of Aaron. And they have special duties to ensure that God and the people are in sync.

In this week’s portion we get the overview of the basic sacrifices that help to keep the relationship between the individual Israelite and God open.  Now that the Tent of Meeting is furnished set-up and dedicated and God’s glorious cloud has descended from on High taking up residence among the people, the regular daily worship and thanksgiving to God can commence.

That ancient worship consisted of bringing different kinds of sacrifices to the altar of God.  Delivered to the priests, the Israelite brought a set amount to expiate sin, remove guilt, offer thanksgiving or ask for abundance.  The sacrifice was a prescribed amount.  There was a formula to follow. This week’s portion describes the various formulas for these offerings.

Today we don’t bring things to sacrifice to God on an altar. No pigeons or handfuls of grain.  No wine libations poured on the altar or young lambs or bulls.   The ancients felt that God preferred the sweet smell of roasted meat or incense on the altar and that would stir the Deity to action: forgiving sin or perhaps granting favor. The Torah even tells us that sweet smell (reyach nichoach) helps to calm God’s anger.  Moses and Aaron offered sacrifices to God after the incident of the Golden Calf and after the breaking of the tablets.  I like a Barbeque as much as the next person but it seems to me that it is better suited to a summer afternoon than trying to atone for a sin.

So how do we interpret Leviticus today and these different kinds of prescribed offerings that marked the ancient forerunner of Judaism?  As I hope you know when the Temple was destroyed finally in the year 70 by the Romans this is when Judaism really came into being.  This was when our ancestors fully replaced and retooled the ancient Israelite religion from a sacrificial cult into something we recognize today-a system of prayer and action to elevate the soul and the mind and to transform the individual and society for the better.

We human beings still have the need to be forgiven from our errors and failings. We still need to acknowledge and give thanks for special times and moments in our lives.  These concepts and points help us manage our emotions and our psyches and ourselves. In this regard the brilliance of the ancient system still shines.  But how we seek forgiveness or offer thanksgiving is what has changed.  With an ancient formula it might have actually been easier.  You know exactly what to do. But in our day and time what do you do?

How do you seek atonement?  How do you offer thanksgiving?  How do you seek out and build a relationship with the Divine?  It takes effort.  It doesn’t just happen.  Today we use prayer and tzedakah and teshuvah as the components of our atonement and our thanksgiving.  We sponsor an oneg to celebrate a birthday.  We pray to God for forgiveness and also seek it from those we harmed.

But we also work hard at changing our actions and changing the very nature of our personhood.  And this is the most difficult part of the process. Real change takes times. And so patience must be part of your quotient as you journey in this relationship with the Holy One of Blessing: patience for yourself and for others as they do their best to transform and heal.