On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Acharei Mot: Understanding Human Connection

This week's ParashahAcharei Mot, contains a verse prohibiting homosexual acts. How does the Reform movement understand this verse? Rabbi Rick Jacobs reminds us that taking any Biblical verse too literally robs us of our diversity and strength, and causes immense pain to those excluded and forced to live in the margins. Reform Judaism, like society at large, has evolved on this and other issues and become far more inclusive over time, making us all stronger.

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less.

This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Acharei Mot. And he talks about a frequently discussed verse, Leviticus, chapter 18, verse 22, and how the Reform movement understands human connection.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Acharei Mot from the book of Leviticus. And like all the parshiyot, there are all kinds of things that one could dwell on. But I really only have one verse for us this week. It comes from the 18th chapter of the book of Leviticus, verse 22.

It is the subject of endless, endless interpretation and debate. It says, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman. It is an abhorrence." Now many people would point to that verse and say, here is the biblical teaching on homosexuality, on his prohibition.

And yet, when one looks more deeply at not only chapter 18 of Leviticus but at the wider ancient Near East, it's pretty clear that Canaanites, who again, inhabited much of the land and whose religiosity was quite different from the ancient Israelites, used homosexual acts as part of their rituals.

So, it seems clear to anyone who studies not simply the biblical text but its context would say that part of what the Bible and the Torah is doing is differentiating itself from the surrounding culture, which was problematic in so many different core areas. And it's not to say that there isn't a long history of religious community focusing on this as a prohibition of homosexuality.

But I'm proud to say that as a Reform rabbi, and as a proud leader of the Reform movement, that we have been able to not simply understand the more accurate context of this verse but the larger shift and change in how we understand human community. And in thinking about all the places that the word to'evah, the word for abhorrence or abomination, that's the last word of that verse, verse 22, we see that in few other settings.

Where, for example, when Joseph is thinking about having a meal with his brothers and the Egyptians, that's a to'evah. That's an abomination, to eat with people outside the Egyptian people. So, the biblical word is not actually synonymous with sexual immorality, or even things that are so egregious.

And I want to just, if I could, focus in a little bit on the evolution within our Reform Jewish community, in particular. I'm very proud that on June 9, 1974, the UAHC, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which was the forerunner of the current URJ, the Union for Reform Judaism, welcomed into our union the first openly LGBTQ congregation in Los Angeles, Beth Chaim Chadashim.

And that was 1974. That was pretty much ahead of the curve of our evolving religious community. And that was just a couple of years after the first woman was ordained by the Reform movement. So, it's a time of real change and shifting. But also point out that, in 1974, the American Psychiatric Association deleted the term homosexuality from the official list of "mental illnesses."

So, during the '70s, there are already some very big shifts and changes that were going on. But it wasn't the case that even our Reform movement had opened all of its doors. In the early '80s, if you were an out of the closet rabbinic student, you were not going to finish rabbinical school.

And you probably were not going to be admitted. So even the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in terms of fully admitting gay and lesbian rabbis into our ranks, that comes later. And I just think it's important for us to know that this is the evolution of one of the really big changes in terms of understanding the place of Bible and sacred texts and the place of evolution.

We understand certain realities. For example, the illness of leprosy. Well, the Bible had all of its rituals of diagnosis and of isolation. But again, it probably did not have anything close to the benefit we have in terms of scientific understanding. And what we know is that, in current language of sexuality, for some reason, God created all of us unique and special. And some of us, God created gay and lesbian. God also created many of us on the gender spectrum. And that's part of the miracle of creation. And yet, we know that today, we still have a few more hurdles to get over.

I'm so proud that in 2015, I was there when Rabbi Denise Eger became the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I remember the debate about whether the Reform movement would endorse rabbis and cantors officiating at same-sex wedding ceremonies. I can remember my first same-sex wedding that I officiated at.

And I still have one of the most painful memories in my entire rabbinate. It was in the 1980s. I was a rabbi in Brooklyn Heights, New York. And the AIDS epidemic was ravaging our world and our community.

I remember so many of the families that turned to me were not families who were members of my congregation but asked, can you help us? We had a death, an AIDS death. And I remember one funeral in particular.

I had met with the family, but the mother of the deceased hadn't made it into town. And we sat just before the ceremony, and she said, “Rabbi, would you not make any mention that my son was gay? None of my friends-- and they'll be here today-- none of my friends have any idea.”

And I just looked at this woman, whose pain was so enormous to begin with, and then there was the pain that was compounded by the isolation, and in her mind, the discomfort, the never having made peace with her son's sexuality. So, I think of all the things that, frankly, are still very challenging, and I can't help but notice the news story from just a couple of weeks ago.

That one of the very progressive Modern Orthodox seminaries, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which has been such a model of advancing traditional Judaism, had this story of a student who was in one of his last years and who was led to believe that he would be ordained, even though he is an out-of-the-closet gay man, and was told that he would not be ordained.

We could focus attention there. But I'd rather focus it on the places-- we have so many places where we are not where we need to be. I'm proud that our Reform movement doesn't only have a number of congregations that have particular outreach to the LGBT community. But more and more, our mainstream congregations are so advanced in terms of welcoming LGBTQ individuals and couples and families into our midst.

And celebrating milestones. Two fathers up on the bema, two mothers. All the ways that we see and know the LGBT community, because it's us. And we are strengthened by their wisdom and their contributions to the well-being of not only our Jewish community but the wider world around us.

So, the evolution of Judaism, that's what we got. That's why we're still vibrant, is because we have not been frozen in earlier iterations. And the prejudices and mindsets of yesterday are not the ones that define us today.

So, let's celebrate how dramatic the changes have been from this verse in Leviticus. And again, whenever I've had to debate with sometimes fundamentalists from other faith communities who say, but what about Leviticus 18: 22? And I say, excuse me. It's a capital crime to curse your parent in the Bible. Shaving is forbidden.

There's so many things that people let go of, the literal meaning of the Bible. But on a couple of these key things, they want to hold on to the literal meaning. I believe, along with biblical scholars of today, that the literal meaning of Leviticus 18: 22 is not the actual meaning. It wasn't the meaning then. And it is not the meaning now.

And our biblical texts sometimes remind us how far we've come. Sometimes they challenge us to go the rest of the distance in making our community more inclusive and more reflective of our core values, that everyone is created in the image of God, no exceptions. But we've got further to go. And looking forward to that journey.

I'm proud of my predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who just knew it was the right thing to open our movement to be more inclusive to the LGBT community. I'm proud of my colleague, Rabbi Denise Eger.

I'm proud of all those who've now taken leadership in moving us to the Jewish community that we were meant to become. So, as we read Parashat Acharei Mot, lots of things to notice. Lots of things to be inspired by.

A few things that we choke on, but let's take back the biblical texts. Let's take back its interpretation, its ancient Near Eastern context. And through the lens of this enlightened, ever-evolving, progressive Reform community, let's see our community.

Let's see our strength. Let's see our wisdom. Let's see our courage. And the story told about that mother, may such stories never be told again with the pain that they entail. Let's shape the Jewish community as we could be, as we already are becoming. And I look forward to that day speedily and soon.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l’hitraot!