Parashat Acharei Mot 5784

2 May 2024 – 24 Nisan 5784

Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild


The sudden immolation inside the sanctuary of two newly-ordained priests has been rather a shock to the system – ”early burn-out’ is not a new phenomenon. Now the relationships between Moses and Aharon, between Aharon and his surviving sons (what do they feel about their new status now?) and between the People and God and many other relationships need to be re-established, clarified and defined. In the next Sidra ‘Kedoshim’ God will tell the people to behave in a manner which makes them special and ‘holy’; At the end of this Sidra God lists and prohibits many practices which would make us ‘UNholy’. Leviticus Chapter 18 begins with : ”Don’t behave the way the Egyptians did and don’t behave in the way the Canaanites do.” The Egyptians are behind them, the Canaanites ahead of them, each has customs which God – and hence Judaism – will prohibit. Verse 4 emphasises ”You must walk in the ways that I direct, and if you do so, you shall live by these laws.” (Later the Rabbis will seize this phrase to decide that the laws are there to live by, not to die by…)

There follows a lengthy list of ”Ervats” – ‘’Do not uncover the nakedness!‘’. This is not the sort of passage one traditionally encourages a Bar-Mitzvah boy to read, nor a Bat-Mitzvah, but actually it is of crucial importance. Sexual morality and sexual hygiene are the basis of most societies: Whom may you marry, with whom is sex allowed, with whom is it forbidden and why? How does Trust work within families, especially extended ones, even patchwork ones, within relationships? Incest and Adultery and Abuse are matters that affect more than just those physically involved. Some relationships are ‘asymmetrical‘, which means that one partner has a higher social standing or a more powerful physique than the other; Others may be apparently consensual but will nevertheless prove dangerous to the stability of the community. Just because you CAN have sex with someone or something does not mean that you Should. Parents, Siblings, In-Laws, Step-Parents, Minors, one’s own Children, one’s own Grandchildren, Aunts and Uncles (by blood or marriage) – the list is lengthy and one can read it for oneself, but the key issue is that it would appear that some of these practices, at least, were not forbidden to other peoples. We know of Brother-Sister marriages in the Egyptian royal family, for instance. How would a Son relate to a Father whom he suspected of an affair with his own Wife? How would a Wife relate to a Husband she knows has been abusing the Children? The daily newspapers are still filled with such stories and the often violent or traumatic consequences that follow. Polygamy simply meant the number of possible relatives increased exponentially.

Judaism is not against Sex – quite the contrary – but it seeks to define boundaries for it. Where are the boundaries and who should set them? In the Torah the answers are pretty clear and it is God who says that ‘’I and I alone shall set them’’. There are issues of Menstruation and ‘Uncleanness‘ when carnal relations even between marital partners are prohibited; There are issues of Bestiality which can be performed by either men or women. And – there is the issue of Gender and a prohibition on same-gender sexual relations. This is described (in terms of a male with a male) as a ‘To‘evah’ and it is hard to find a stronger word of condemnation. Interestingly the option of female-with-female intercourse is not specifically mentioned (which may explain why there is a persistent myth that Queen Victoria in 1885 simply refused to believe it could be possible and struck it from the draft Criminal Law Amendment Act of that year.) Verse 27 makes it clear that God expelled the previous inhabitants of the land of Canaan precisely because they performed ‘all these abominations’ and that God is prepared to repeat the process of expulsion if the Israelites indulge in the selfsame practices.

Well, times change and in some respects there has been pressure to liberalise our views and to decriminalise and to remove all sense of guilt and shame in this area; Sexuality is considered to be solely the domain of the Individual and not of the Commune. There is also now pressure to encourage people even to self-define their gender or to behave in a ‘gender-fluid way‘. As non-fundamentalists we may well feel entitled to move away from a harsh interpretation of some of these verses and propose a milder and more open interpretation instead, also allowing divorce or removing the shame from unmarried mothers who bear illegitimate children. But the old conundrum is always raised: Where to draw the line? To allow one thing, does that mean to allow others too? Is it a matter of ”seed”, semen being improperly spilled or improperly planted?

Leviticus Chapter 19 includes the ‘Golden Rule‘ that is so often cited with approval, but we get a bit embarrassed at Chapter 18. It is a challenge both for fundamentalists – who have to ask themselves, ‘’Why did God make people capable of doing these things?‘’ – and for non-fundamentalists, who have to ask themselves ‘’Would God say the same now?‘’and ”Where is the boundary between Want and May, between my comfort zone and my duties as a self-disciplined Jew?”

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