Developing our Own Holiness Code
When I discovered that this week’s parashah (Torah portion) would be Acharei Mot/K'doshim, which includes the Holiness Code, the irony was not lost on me. Here I was, the one openly gay male staff member at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), asked to give a d’var Torah on a parashah that includes one of the Biblical verses most often quoted by people who justify their homophobia with religion: Leviticus 18:22, “V’et zachar lo tishkav mishk’vey eeshah toeyvah hee," "do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman it is an abomination.”
Once I got past the irony of the situation, however, I realized how truly remarkable this situation is: On the same week that we read the Holiness Code and one of the most famous religious texts used to justify homophobia, an openly gay man gave a d’var Torah to open the RAC's Consultation of Conscience the day before conference participants attended a session on LGBT equality featuring the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. This moment was possible thanks to the choices Reform Judaism has made over the decades and the values that we cherish.
This parashah presents us with many choices, as we decide which of the many values and commandments to prioritize. Will we put to death a child who curses their parents, as Leviticus 20:9 commands us, or will we recognize that we are all meant to be holy, as we are commanded in Leviticus 19:2? Will we avoid wearing wool and linen as we are commanded in Leviticus 19:19, or will we purchase items with mixed fabrics when they are the only ethically produced option, as we are commanded in Leviticus 19:13 to deal fairly with laborers? Will we condemn gay and bisexual men because Leviticus 18:22 states that sex between two men is forbidden, or will we extend the basic rights to one another and learn to love our neighbors as ourselves as we are commanded in Leviticus 19:18?
We are here today because we have chosen to prioritize the Jewish ideals of equality, justice, and tikkun olam when interpreting our texts. We are here today thanks to the legacy of the resolutions passed before us that paved the way for the social justice work that the RAC, our rabbis, and our congregations do throughout the year. And we are here today to expand upon that legacy by discussing and voting on new resolutions in order to expand our social justice work to reflect the pressing social justice and political issues of our time.
We are here at a time of successes and setbacks. We have seen huge gains in the past year for some of our priority issues. This past November, Massachusetts voters passed paid sick days and voters in Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota voted to raise the minimum wage. Last month, the U.S. administration submitted its plan to the United Nations to cut U.S. carbon emissions by up to 28% by 2025. And on Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the freedom to marry, potentially paving the way for the justices to finally close the chapter in one of the fights for LGBT equality.
But as we see progress in some areas, we also see setbacks in others. Around the country, legislatures continue to restrict peoples’ ability to access safe, legal and affordable abortions. Hate crimes against minorities continue to persist, including recent anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses. And time after time, we hear about the killing of black Americans by law enforcement.
Two steps forward, one step back. Just as it seems like our country is heading in the right direction because of progress in some of our issue areas, we see setbacks in others. We know what overarching values guide our Movement. We know how to respond to these successes and setbacks. Yet oftentimes, it seems like our country is still grappling to define its values. And that is why now, more than ever, it is important for us to raise a moral voice on the pressing political issues of our time.
The reason the section of Leviticus that we read this week is called the Holiness Code is because of its repeated use of the word kadosh, holy. In this week’s parsha, God states that k’dushim t’hyu, you – in the plurality — shall be holy. But what would it mean not just for us as a community or a people to be holy but for our country to be holy?
Leviticus 19:14 commands us not to insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind, but what would it mean for our country to do this? Surely, it would not mean our current system of disability benefits, in which many people cannot obtain those benefits if they have more than $2,000 in assets. Surely, it would not mean our current reality in which disability benefit recipients are about to face a 20% cut in the benefits they rely on if Congress doesn’t act in the next year. A holy country, based on the ideals in Leviticus 19:14 would be a country where people with disabilities are empowered to live independently and be economically secure. It would be a country where people with disabilities aren’t othered but rather welcomed to participate fully in all facets of life.
In the Holiness code, we are also commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, yet we do not see these values reflected in our country. Instead, our current immigration system is one where families are torn apart and immigrants are vilified. Our current system is one of nondiscrimination protections - or lack thereof - where the majority of states lack explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. Our current criminal justice system is one that disproportionately incarcerates people of color. Imagine a country where all people are truly treated equally. Where we do not just have legal equality but lived equality. That is a holy country. That is the country we must work to create.
As we read and reflect on Acharei Mot/K'doshim, some of the values it expresses will ring true to us today, such as love thy neighbor as thyself. Others, such as the prohibition on gay sex, will appear outdated and contrary to our Jewish values. From the beginning of the Reform Jewish Movement, we have been interpreting the values set forth in this parshah and creating our own social justice code through our resolutions and work to repair the world. Through these resolutions and our social justice work, we have set forth our own interpretations of what it means today to be holy and to create a holy country. I look forward to joining this community in continuing to enhance our code in the coming days, as we seek to further strengthen our guidelines on how to create a more just and holy world.