Our Mahzor Lev Shalem offers two possible readings for the afternoon of Yom Kippur. The Traditional one from Leviticus, chapter 18, or an Alternate reading from Leviticus, chapter 19.
Leviticus 18 describes what are commonly referred to as the arayot – forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest. Also included are adultery and the now infamous Leviticus 18:22, which describes male homosexuality as an “abomination.“
Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code.” It opens with the instruction Kedoshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani adonai Eloheikhem – “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” It then lists a variety of commandments that constitute a guide to a life of holiness. The diverse subjects of these commandments include interpersonal relationships, business practices, ritual behavior, criminal law, and more.
Neither Leviticus 18 nor Leviticus 19 contain a single reference to Yom Kippur or any of its themes.
This morning, as luck would have it, we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. In years when these parashiyot are combined, it creates a juxtaposition of the 18th and 19th chapters of Leviticus, the Traditional and Alternate Torah readings that appear in our High Holiday Mahzor. In fact, parts of both chapters are even read in the same aliyah.
When they chose to add a second possible reading to Mahzor Lev Shalem, the Editors forced communities to ask themselves a question that they might otherwise never have considered: which portion should we read? This year, our congregation has been addressing this question.
As the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, I am the Mara D’Atra, Aramaic for “Master of the Place.” This means that I am entrusted with the responsibility for making halakhic decisions for the community.
As you may recall, I wrote an article about it in the January Voice. That month, there was an open meeting of the Ritual Committee to learn about the issues and hear from each other. Personally, I have spent countless hours researching and consulting with members, colleagues, and teachers.
I am enormously uncomfortable being the decider. When a decision is made to abandon or change a practice, there usually is no going back. As a Rabbi, I think about that a lot. Who am I to change thousands of years of tradition? Sometimes, of course, change is necessary. But when does the need for change outweigh the demands of history? I don’t take that dilemma lightly.
For some people, this is a serious, emotional issue. Whatever the outcome is, someone is going to be upset. I lose sleep knowing this. Please understand that I have attempted to reach a conclusion in good faith. I take the sacred role that you have entrusted with me seriously. I am strengthened by knowing that, whatever the outcome, you have my back.
Before I share my decision, let me clarify a few things. We read the entire Torah every year. We do not skip over any troubling passages because we do not like them. And there is plenty in the Torah that is troubling. This is not a question about eliminating a Torah reading. We will continue to chant Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
Let’s be honest about Minchah on Yom Kippur. When the service begins, around 5:00 in the afternoon, there are typically about 75 people in the room. At that point in the day, they are weak from the fast, and a bit spacey. Of those 75 people, how many of them are paying close attention to the Torah reading, and really pondering its message for their lives? Our sanctuary is not exactly filled with kavanah – religious intension. From that perspective, it does not matter which of the two readings we select.
I hope that by addressing this question, we can transform a relatively lazy part of Yom Kippur into a meaningful, kavannah-infused moment.
So why would a congregation choose to read the Traditional or the Alternate portions? Mahzor Lev Shalem includes meaningful commentaries and explanations for both readings. It does not, however, explain why the Alternate reading was included, nor does it suggest any reasons for why a community might choose to replace the Traditional reading.
I consulted with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Chair of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, which issues halakhic rulings for the Conservative Movement. He responded to my inquiry that the particular selection of readings for the holidays is custom rather than law. Rabbi Dorff explained that “the authors of Mahzor Lev Shalem were concerned with bringing up the prohibition of homosexual relations in Leviticus 18, given what we have done with that halakhically.” He was referring to the CJLS’s decision in 2006 to overturn Judaism’s traditional ban on homosexuality. He added that “Leviticus 19 is much more uplifting and much more connected to the theme of Yom Kippur than Leviticus 18 is.”
In other words, the Alternative reading was added because a lot of Conservative Jews are troubled by Leviticus 18:22, which states “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”
The question comes down to: do we change a long-established custom because we are offended by a particular verse?
Where did the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading come from? Even though it makes no mention of Yom Kippur and does not deal with any of the basic themes of the holiday, at some point, a person or community thought it would be a good idea to read about forbidden sexual relationships on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
The earliest mention of it occurs in the Talmud, in Tractate Megillah (30b-31a). A second century text from the land of Israel states “At minhah [on Yom Kippur] we read the section of forbidden sexual relationships (that is to say, Leviticus 18) and for haftarah the book of Jonah.”
The Talmud records numerous variant practices for which portions are read at the various holidays. There were significant discrepancies between Israel and Babylonia. But with regard to the Yom Kippur minchah reading, there are no differences. We can say with a high degree of certainty that Jews have been reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur afternoon since at least the second century, making it a 1,900 year old custom.
But why this reading? The Talmud offers no answers. In his commentary, Adin Steinsaltz writes: “Given the solemnity and holiness of the day, this choice of Torah portion is quite surprising. Various suggestions for the choice have been offered…”
One possible reason is suggested a Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit that describes a custom that took place during Second Temple times.
There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such… The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family…’
With all of this matchmaking taking place on Yom Kippur afternoon, it would have been especially important to remind all of the single people who is and is not eligible to them. This might explain why Leviticus 18 was chosen. It should be noted, however, that the Talmud itself does not make this connection.
Rashi, in the eleventh century, points out that sins having to do with sexual relationships are ever-present, and a person’s desires and inclinations can be overwhelming. They also tend to be secret. And so, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, reading about prohibited sexual relationships is meant to awaken a person to teshuvah about something which is so difficult to resist.
Tosafot, in Rashi’s grandchildren’s generation, adds that women are often dressed up fancy on Yom Kippur. The Torah reading, therefore, serves as a reminder to worshippers not to stumble.
Turei Zahav, a seventeenth century commentator on the Shulchan Arukh by Rabbi David ha-Levy Segal captures it succinctly:
In my opinion, since a person’s soul thirsts for forbidden sexual relationships more than all [other] sins, we are warned about it on Yom Kippur, which is an awe-some day that is inscribed upon the human heart more than all the other days of the year.
Human nature has not changed much over the centuries in that regard. Would anyone suggest that we, in our “enlightened” twenty first century, do a better job of controlling our sexual urges than in previous generations?
I think not.
Leviticus 18 certainly has something to tell us today. It might not be quite as uplifting as Leviticus 19’s “You shall be holy…,” but it is a message we need to hear.
Judith Plaskow wrote an influential article in 1997 called “Sexuality and Teshuvah: Leviticus 18.” In it, she writes:
As someone who has long been disturbed by the content of Leviticus 18, I had always applauded the substitution of an alternative Torah reading—until a particular incident made me reconsider the link between sex and Yom Kippur. After a lecture I delivered in the spring of 1995 on rethinking Jewish attitudes toward sexuality, a woman approached me very distressed. She belonged to a Conservative synagogue that had abandoned the practice of reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur, and as a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather, she felt betrayed by that decision. While she was not necessarily committed to the understanding of sexual holiness contained in Leviticus, she felt that in quietly changing the reading without communal discussion, her congregation had avoided issues of sexual responsibility altogether.
Our failure in the past has not been that we have continued to read a passage that is offensive to gay men. Our failure has been that we have not openly addressed issues of sexual abuse and impropriety. To cease reading the traditional Torah portion would be just as problematic as if we kept on reading the words while ignoring their meaning.
We cannot expand understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of GLBTQ individuals if we refuse to acknowledge that there is an issue.
If, instead, we maintain the traditional reading and address the issues that it raises, our kavanah will improve.
This is why I have decided, as Sinai’s Rabbi, that we will continue the traditional practice of reading Leviticus 18 during the afternoon of Yom Kippur – with an addition. There will be a D’var Torah delivered by a Sinai member to introduce the Torah reading. The purpose will be to reflect on themes raised by the portion so as to draw us into the reading, and provoke us to respond to it in some way. Torah is not supposed to make us feel good. It is supposed to challenge us. If Torah makes us feel good, it is not doing its job.
Reading and speaking about Leviticus 18, on the holiest day of the year, will give us an opportunity to reflect on the most intimate aspects of our lives, rather than pretend they do not exist. It will also allow us to recognize the pain and exclusion that our GLBTQ friends and relatives have faced over the millennia because of Judaism’s, and society’s, past intolerance.
In this ruling for our community, both aspects are equally important. Our members will be called upon to consider how Leviticus 18 speaks to us today. I hope you will consider giving a D’var Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon. Of course, I am here to help.
It is important to recognize that this approach – dealing with a difficult text by speaking about it – has been embraced by numerous communities in every denomination: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox. This solution puts Sinai in good company.
One of the sidebar commentaries in our Mahzor is by Judith Plaskow. She writes: “Leviticus 18 seeks to implement [its] ideas in its own time and place. But we need to find ways to express those insights in the context of an ethic of sexual holiness appropriate for the 21st century.”
May Torah inspire us to holiness in all aspects of our lives.
Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, “Preaching Against the Text: An Argument in Favor of restoring Leviticus 18 to Yom Kippur Afternoon” – This is an important article by a Reform rabbi that argues why it is important for communities to continue reading Leviticus 18.
Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life. Its website contains a wealth of information, including numerous sermons and kavanot on Levitucs 18.