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Time for Teshuvah on Leviticus 18

Yom Kippur

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

This Shabbat is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The regular torah reading for this Shabbat corresponds to the portion that we read on Yom Kippur morning and the special portion we read on Yom Kippur afternoon.   In the morning we read from Parshat Nitzavim in Deuteronomy and in the afternoon we read from Leviticus, Parshat Kedoshim, Chapter 19.  These are not the traditional readings but are the Reform movement readings for this day.

The traditional readings for this day have to do with sacrifices made in ancient days on Yom Kippur and the list of sexual taboos which include from Leviticus the well known verse “A man should not lay with a man the lyings of a woman. It is a toevah.” (Lev. 18:22).

In traditional synagogues around the world on the holiest day of the year, hundreds of closeted and openly gay and lesbian people will hear these words of Torah.  And there will be some communities that continue to read this verse as a condemnation of homosexuality.  And the damage will continue to be done to so many who are hurting, so many traditional Jews afraid to be themselves, so many family and friends who know their family member is gay or lesbian and feel ashamed. It will continue to cast aside gay people with the misunderstanding, misreading, and homophobia of so many.  How horrible! On a day when we look to God for forgiveness and we look to heal relationships this Torah reading will bring pain and shame.

But at this season of repentance perhaps the time has come to face this verse head on in every Jewish community.  Teshuvah mean turning around as well as repentance and this verse needs turning around. The time has come to unpack what the Torah is trying to say, what the history of the Jewish people means and how we have learned more about God’s world and how God’s word is revealed to us.

First we begin with the assertion that God created all humanity in the divine image.  This also means God created gay and lesbian people just the way they are.  The Torah doesn’t speak about homosexuality.  That is a misreading of this verse.  It doesn’t talk about who gay people love or form families with.  It doesn’t talk about expression of love and affection.  This verse from the book of Leviticus makes assumptions.  The entire passage is directed to men and the relationships they form.  It assumes heterosexuality.

It states “a man shouldn’t lay with a man the lyings of a woman. It is a toevah.”  The word toevah is used to describe a blasphemy against God, a ritual or moral offense.  While most commentators agree this is a prohibition against anal sex, I believe we are not looking deeply enough at the verse.

The truth is that the Torah is teaching that certain sexual acts are wrong. In this case and in this verse a man must not engage in penetrative sexual intercourse with another man.  There are many ancient cultural reasons for this prohibition most had to do with seeing the so called passive sexual role as a weak role for a man.  Others see this as a prohibition against male rape which was often used in war as a way to humiliate the enemy soldiers. Other scholars teach us that this verse is telling us to avoid pagan sexual practices that were also idolatrous practices.  Since our priesthood was male and our God male, male receptive sex would contaminate the sacred expression of fertility.

What we have to assert in our day and time is that loving and consensual and mutual and ethical and safe sexual expression between adults has an important role to play in all of our lives.  The ancient categories of revulsion of sex with a menstruating woman because the ancients had a particular view of blood or the patriarchal attitude that somehow men are “weak” if they are in a more passive sexual role doesn’t comport at all with what we know of human beings or human sexuality in the 21st century regardless of whether the man is heterosexual or homosexual.
The time for teshuvah is now. We have to state that God continues to reveal and teach Torah to us. God gave humanity the capacity to learn and discover new ideas and to grow.  We have learned more about human sexuality and we have uncovered the myths and fears about homosexuality that clouded our understanding of the variety of the human expression and capacity for love.  This year is the time for congregations especially those who read these passages on Yom Kippur to repent and to acknowledge that gay and lesbian people are not outside the Jewish community tent.  It is time to acknowledge publically and finally that this passage has nothing to do with homosexuality.  It is time to publically challenge those who would continue to use this passage for hateful and hurtful ways as a justification for the oppression of gay and lesbian people.  It is time to once and for all state: We affirm that gay men and lesbians are not abominations but rather created in the Divine Image and that divine image calls upon us to express our love for our partners in a sacred manner.  That holy way includes same gender loving expressions of sexuality. And the Torah isn’t speaking about this at all.

Yes, it is the season of Teshuvah.