I have never made a molten God, practiced divination, or let my cattle mate with a different species. (Full disclosure: I've never owned cattle.) At the same time, I'm sure I've put on clothes made from a mixture of two kinds of material, a fashion faux pas and a biblical transgression found in this week's Torah portion, K'doshim.
The parashah is a "greatest hits" of biblical prescriptions for human behavior - a roadmap to a moral and ethical life. It describes how to treat our employees: "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning." (Leviticus 19:13) How to treat people with disabilities in our community: "You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind." (19:14) And how to welcome and affirm new community members: "The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens." (19:34)
K'doshim has some of our tradition's greatest wisdom, most puzzling commandments, and untenable prohibitions.
The Talmud tells us that in the last century BCE, a person who was not Jewish asked the sage Shamai to explain all the Torah on one foot. Shamai had no patience for what he saw as a ridiculous question. But when the same challenge was posed to the learned Hillel, Hillel responded: "Do not do unto others what is hateful to you; that is the entire Torah. Go and learn it." (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a) What Hillel consolidates into fewer than 240 characters puts K'doshim into perspective, not only in relationship to itself and its commandments, but to the entire Torah and the values it upholds.
What K'doshim should not be, however, is a guide to policy makers responsible for the laws that impact people of all faiths and no faith. Unfortunately, such attempts happen all too frequently. Among the instructions found in K'doshim is one that we know today to be deeply harmful and hurtful: "If a man lies with a male as he does with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing." (20:13) Over the centuries, this line has inspired efforts to deny rights to, discriminate against, and even kill LGBTQ+ people. These hateful acts still occur today in the U.S., Canada, and in countries around the world.
Over the decades, similar efforts to enshrine biblical precepts in law have played out when it comes to abortion. At this moment, U.S. Supreme Court Justices are weighing their decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a Mississippi challenge to Roe v. Wade. The state has sought to ban abortion at 15 weeks, before fetal viability, which is the standard established in Roe. Yet as the Public Religion Research Institute has found, when it comes to abortion (and several other hot-button issues) there is a clear divide among Americans of varied faith traditions: "Among religious groups, opposition to the legality of abortion is largely confined to white evangelical Protestants and other smaller conservative Christian groups… Majorities of all non-Christian religious groups support legal abortion in most or all cases."
Those who seek to reflect biblical text in secular law ignore the millions of Americans who are neither Jewish nor Christian but hold deeply to other faith teachings - or none at all. These individuals are entitled to live under laws that do not functionally preference one faith tradition's teachings over their own beliefs. It's also worth noting that among biblical texts shared across faith traditions, interpretations differ: Jewish, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant traditions list the Ten Commandments differently. And even within faith traditions, there is great diversity in teaching and practice, as we know in our own Jewish experience.
What K'doshim and other biblical and holy texts across the faith spectrum do, at their best, is impart the wisdom to live with thought, care, and compassion for others. At the Religious Action Center, our advocacy work makes clear that we are inspired by our tradition's texts and teachings, but the work we do must be for the good of people of any, all, or no faith.
So, when you next sacrifice an offering of well-being to God, know that as relayed in K'doshim, it's best to eat it on the day of your sacrifice or the day after. But to those who would suggest that we all begin building our sacrificial altars, let's remember the responsibilities and privileges that come in a nation that has made religious liberty a beacon to the world.