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Love Thy Leviticus

04/28/2020 07:50:39 PM

Apr28

This week’s double-parshah, Acharey Mot-Kedoshim, can strike both love and loathing in the hearts of Torah students. Love, for the passage at the heart of Kedoshim: love your neighbour as yourself [Lev 19:18] along with many other uplifting verses. Loathing, for the oh so many strange, alien and even repellant passages, including the repeated injunctions to not lie with a male as one lies with a woman [Lev 18:22, 20:13].

The impulse to toggle between love and loathing exposes a weakness in the cherry-picking approach to Torah. While the five books of Moses are filled with loving sentiments that instill great values and inspire the pursuit of justice, we should still be wary of seeing Torah solely through such a method. The passages that repel bring much learning, even if they appear, on the surface, unwanted.

I came to embrace the book of Leviticus – all of it - early in my rabbinical school years. I had successfully applied for an internship leading a Feminist Parshat Hashavuah (portion of the week) study group at the local office of the American Jewish Congress. My semester of teaching aligned with the entire book of Vayikra and then into Bemidbar (Numbers). It was a challenge that forced me to delve into the text fully and deeply, and as I studied and absorbed the peshat – the literal or surface meaning of the chapters and verses - I learned a myriad of ways to read, engage in, and learn from and yes, even love what I had previously loathed.

These days, the concept of holiness crashes into our lived reality, with its own double-sided meaning. Kedushah, that primary value concept for the priests, calls up the necessary factor of separation. The holy, to remain unsullied, must remain distinct and protected from the not-holy, and significant passages in Leviticus are devoted to ensuring, or repairing breaches of, that separation.

We are living into a second month of profound attention to the necessary separations wrought by social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, and the curtailing of most public interactions. In their studies and reflections on Torah that fill volumes of Talmud and Midrash, the rabbis would often be “reminded of” or drawn to other verses. What comes to my mind is a phrase in Exodus 19:6, as the moment of Revelation, of covenanting at Sinai, approaches. God declares to Moshe, “… though all the earth is mine, you shall be to me mamlekeht kohanim vegoy kadosh”- a realm of priests and a holy people.

It’s clear to me, and to many other commentators, that the syntax and context heighten the connection between separation and holiness. As we are approaching, through this season of counting the omer, the days and weeks between Passover and Shavuot, the holidays marking the giving of Torah, it’s so clear to me that the value concept of holiness, rather than that of chosenness, is what marks our people, what we hold up as a paradigmatic moment on our mythic, spiritual and civilizational journey.

To hold up, to be aware of, to take responsibility for separateness is truly a holy endeavour. By keeping apart, we keep each other safe. It’s terribly hard, certainly unbidden, and deeply unsettling. Yet in the midst of losses and hardships, there is also hope and caring. Let’s allow the love to pervade, and the truths of our experiences to come through the turmoil and the distances. Keep safe, beloved holy ones.

Wed, August 5 2020 15 Av 5780