Torah from Around the World #270

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In this week’s double Torah portion,

Acharey Mot-K’doshim

, which spans Leviticus chapter 16 through 20, we find an intriguing ‘sandwich’ of teachings. While Leviticus chapters 18 and 20 focus on a litany of sexual prohibitions, Leviticus 19, the chapter in between, outlines social justice legislation. What is even more intriguing about this juxtaposition is the way in which it highlights a major difference between the approaches of Orthodox and Progressive Judaism that is particularly evident on the most sacred day of the Jewish year:

Yom Kippur

. On

Yom Kippur

, while Orthodox Jews remind themselves of the sexual prohibitions, and read Leviticus 18 in the afternoon Torah service, Progressive Jews focus on the ‘Holiness Code’ set out in Leviticus 19.

We might conclude from this that while Orthodox Jews are preoccupied with sex, Progressive Jews are preoccupied with justice. Of course, it is impossible to generalise in this way! However, one thing is clear: by failing to pay attention to the rules about sex in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20, Progressive Jews have in the past, left the interpretation of these rules – not least the infamous prohibition against sex between men (Leviticus 18:22;20:13) – to traditional commentators.

As Progressive Jews, we need to include sex in our arena of ethical concern in order to ensure that LGBT individuals and couples are not ostracised and excluded. But not only for this reason: We need to extend our concern with ethical behaviour to include sex because, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, we should all be subject to the same rules of sexual conduct.

As is apparent from the preamble to the sexual prohibitions at the beginning of Leviticus chapter 18, the prohibited sex acts have nothing to do with ethics, and everything to do with setting apart the people Israel from all other peoples. We read (18:3-4):

‘You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you… / You shall keep my laws and my statutes… I am the Eternal.’

‘You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you… / You shall keep my laws and my statutes… I am the Eternal.’

In view of the absence of ethical consideration in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20, we are bound to turn to Leviticus 19 for guidance. Here we find the verse, which according to Rabbi Akiva, a leading second-century sage, was ‘the great principle of the


’ (


89b): Leviticus 19:18:

V’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha; Ani Adonai

V’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha; Ani Adonai

You shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Eternal

You shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Eternal

The ‘great principle’ of the Torah, proclaiming the primacy of love, mutuality and reciprocity, provides the ethical framework for a code of sexual behaviour. So what happens when we apply the criteria of love, mutuality and reciprocity to the sexual prohibitions? In the context of these criteria, the expression

gillui ervah

, ‘uncovering nakedness’, which is used in Leviticus 18 and 20 in connection with incest and in reference to sex with a menstruating woman, suggests not only sexual intimacy, but vulnerability and danger. Within the world-view of Torah, blood is a powerful substance, and contact with it is taboo. From the vantage point of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, the danger associated with ‘uncovering nakedness’ has more to do with the potential for exploitation involved in ‘uncovering’ a person’s ‘nakedness’. In the words of a contemporary rabbi quoted anonymously:  ‘Very simply, it means making a person completely vulnerable and then not taking care of them in their nakedness.’

Interestingly, the expression ‘uncovering nakedness’ is not used in the Torah in connection with other categories of prohibited sexual behaviour outlined in Leviticus 18 and 20: adultery, sex between men, and bestiality. In these examples, the more neutral term ‘lying down’ is employed.  Clearly, none of these cases entails the danger of blood contact or a built-in asymmetrical power dynamic. Indeed, in the case of two men lying down together, perhaps there may be an implicit assumption that the independent male subject is not in a position to exploit his equal – another male. But, at a deeper level, ‘uncovering nakedness’ refers not only to who is involved, but to what is involved. Even if the parties concerned are equals, any sexual encounter which entails exposing and exploiting another person’s vulnerability is ‘uncovering nakedness’. Such an inclusive, egalitarian approach makes it possible to apply the same ethical criteria to the broad spectrum of sexual acts.

The juxtaposition of Leviticus chapters 18, 19 and 20 is not accidental. Rather, it suggests that the sex rules should be understood in the context of the ethical regulation of relationships. And yet, to this day, halakhah, Jewish law has failed to consider the implications of this juxtaposition for sexual ethics. By paying attention to the Leviticus sandwich, Progressive Judaism has the opportunity to develop a framework for an inclusive, egalitarian approach to sexual behaviour.

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