Seeing the Other in Ourselves: Cultivating Empathy Beyond Difference

Acharei Mot II, Leviticus 18:1–30

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Emily Langowitz

At some point in its history, the Reform Movement made the ideological choice to change the Torah reading for the afternoon service on Yom Kippur. Jewish tradition assigned the 18th chapter of Leviticus, which details laws around sexual prohibition, among other ways that the Israelites should distinguish themselves from surrounding cultures. This chapter contains a verse that has been claimed, in some religious contexts, as a weapon of hate. "You shall not lie with a man as you lie with a woman; it is an abomination." (Lev. 18:23) Our movement maintains that a Torah reading which contains such a verse should not be read aloud to the community on the most sacred day of the year.

The irony is that another principle of our movement reintroduces this chapter, on its own, into our regular Torah reading cycle. Because the Reform Movement holds that festival holidays should be celebrated, as in Israel, for only one day, we alter our calendar so as to not move too far out of sync with the reading cycles of other North American communities. Every three years or so, then, we need to make space for an extra week of Torah reading. Acharei Mot gets split from one week into two, and the second week, this week, is the very portion we do not read on Yom Kippur: Leviticus, Chapter 18. Perhaps by encountering this piece of Torah during the weekly cycle, we have more of a chance to read it with a critical eye.

I am a rabbi. And I am queer. And I thank God every day that our movement stands by its principles: not only to remove harmful text from sacred days, but to strive to break down the barriers for full participation by LGBTQ+ folks in its communities. It's because of such principles that I never questioned whether my spiritual standing could be harmed in the pursuit of love and self-discovery. But I'm also proud to be a part of this movement because of the tools it has given me to encounter text on my own terms too, as one of my teachers often said, "wrestle it for a blessing." I can be grateful not to have to hear this portion read aloud in community on Yom Kippur, and I can also be ready for it, every few years, when it arrives in our weekly Torah cycle.

To wrestle this text for a blessing means, to me, to seek out something within it that might redeem its broken edges; to seek nuance; to bring my own humanity and the humanity of others to my interpretation. And in that seeking, I find a counter-narrative, calling to be held.

The prohibition on two men engaging in a sexual relationship comes within the broader context of the chapter, a chapter which begins: "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." The chapter is less about rules of morality, perhaps, than it is about rules of distinction. "Don't do this," God is saying, "because it's what others do. I'm trying to make you your own people, a people in relationship with Me, and to do that, we need boundaries, and we need distinction." Yet in a chapter so obsessed with creating cultural difference between the Israelites and those around them, the text itself seems unable to adhere to such boundedness. This chapter devotes over a dozen verses to describing various ways men should not expose the women in their lives: do not uncover the nakedness of your mother, your father's wife, your aunt, your sister - the list goes on. The text only calls these women by their titles about half the time: aunt, mother, daughter. The rest of the verses list them as part of the other people in the man's life. "Do not uncover the nakedness of your mother's sister; for she is your mother's flesh." (Lev. 18:13) "Do not uncover their nakedness; for their nakedness is yours." (Lev. 18: 10)

Why would a chapter obsessed with boundary-setting suddenly blur distinctions so drastically that people are no longer separate people but a part of the ones you love, or a part of you? We might read it as yet another sign of its times - Israelite society was built on a gender binary and, within it, women were considered to be the property of the men around them. But I choose to read it differently. I choose to see it as the text attempting to subvert itself from within. You think you can make yourselves different from the people around you? You think you can draw such firm lines that it will somehow keep you separate, and therefore safe? No - other human beings are not Other to you; they are you. Therein, perhaps, lies the potential blessing of this portion: when we feel ourselves called to create boundaries, to mark ourselves as separate from others, we might instead be called to the radical empathy of seeing each human being as a part of us.

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