Perhaps more than any portion of the Bible, this week's Torah reading has caused, in my view, more hurt to humanity than all others combined.
It enters, and even intrudes, into the most intimate and private activity that we as human beings engage in: the way that we love.
In particular, one line that is contained in this week's Torah portion, in my view, has been unduly highlighted to cause untold pain, isolation and condemnation.
Each year, as we read this sentence, I ask myself, “Is the way this verse is often taught, the way that God really intended it? “
And as some of our current religious and political leaders too often descend into rhetorics of self–righteousness, I frequently ask myself, “What gives any other person the right to judge how we love? “
In Leviticus 18:22, which we read this week, the Torah commands, “Do not lie with a man the way that a man lies with a woman.”
And from there the judgement begins.
Yet, I often wonder, are we reading that right? How is it possible that a loving God could cut such a large swath of humanity from the majority?
Chapter 18 of Leviticus lays out a detailed code – eighteen verses –of human sexuality. Most of it relates to family.
So first, let us ask, “Why did the Torah have to go there? “ In my view, the answer is that society more than three thousand years ago had to establish boundaries and prohibitions regarding how those in positions of power – employers, public officials and heads of households – should comport themselves in matters of sexuality.
In many ways, this week's Torah reading serves as the forerunner of the #MeToo movement, long before those of courage – women and men– raised their voices.
What does verse 18:22 actually mean when read within the context of all other prohibitions? I believe it tells us that a person in power may not coerce another human being – female or male – into engaging in unwelcome sexual activity.
Out of context, Leviticus 18:22 is a condemnation of homosexuality. But place it within the context of the additional seventeen verses, and I believe it sends a powerful and timeless message regarding sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct.
And that is all.
The Torah refers to this inter–gender interaction as a toevah. The word appears one hundred and three times in the Bible, each a different context from the next.
It has been translated as unacceptable, abhorrent, taboo, abominable. Very often it refers to the
cultic practices of other nations. But are any of us so wise and godly to assume with full authority that – within so many interpretations – we know exactly what the Torah had in mind?
In 1967, when Canada decriminalized a series of sex acts, then–Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau stated that “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.“
It is the same for religion.
In 2019, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg declared, “If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator.“
In a world which is so bereft of unconditional love, in a world where so many use sex as a commodity – isn't love – all sincere human connection – something we should pursue and cherish?
And for those who point to the Bible, and deploy its individual verses to judge others, perhaps it would be wise to turn some of that judgement inward.
In my view, this Biblical verse, so often referred to this week, must be read in context.
I feel uneasy that I even have to write this piece. Yet, there are so many verses in the Torah espousing care, compassion, and kindness, and still this verse remains one of the most quoted.
We should never use the Bible as a tool to hurt, ostracize or isolate. For if we do, as current trends among the millennial generation indicate, organized religion will simply become irrelevant.
Let us always, as our tradition demands, look at Torah verses within context, and think hard before we use our own biases to interpret them.
Rather, let our actions be steeped in kindness, care and compassion. Indeed, this world needs less judgement and more love.
Let us therefore be less concerned about technicalities. Let us rather incline ourselves to the essence of love itself.
Because, as our Sages taught thousands of years ago, “all the rest is commentary“
Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman