Friday, May 5, 2017

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: A VERY Scary Three-Letter Word!

Let's have an uncomfortable conversation. You ready? Take a moment, brace yourself, and let's begin. This week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, offers a lengthy list of the people in your life -
family members, distant relatives, friends, even animals - who's nakedness you should not "uncover." Yup, here it comes; let's talk about sex. (I warned you...). So, the discomfort itself is pretty interesting, don't you think? Why is sex, something so ubiquitous, intrinsic to life itself, and quite frankly enjoyable, SO difficult to discuss?!? And then you add religion into the mix, and now it's even MORE awkward!! Perhaps it's because sex is also closely linked to shame; and we mainly have religion to thank for that... But does the shame and judgment actually come from the Torah? Let's take a look.

The Torah does indeed focus a lot on sex. Even the very first commandment in the Book of Genesis is "Be fruitful and multiply" (1:28). A subtle euphemism, but I think we all know what God means... And as the Torah goes along, we don't just
read about marriage and reproduction, but also infatuation, seduction, adultery, and casual sex. I am a religious professional; I am not striving to add sex therapist or relationship expert to my resume, I assure you. But it saddens me when people assume that AS a rabbi, I must be the keeper of puritanical, prudish morals. That's not what I see in the Torah, and definitely NOT how I want religion or Judaism to be perceived. It is true that our parashah offers an exhaustive list of nakednesses that should remain covered. But the Torah was dealing with a reality that condoned incest, bestiality, and idolatrous practices involving cult prostitution. So yeah, they needed to be firm and unequivocal about CERTAIN things. But does that mean the Torah was being sex-negative in general? I really don't think so.

Our Torah reading also includes the very famous verse, known as the Golden Rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). And it's referred to as the Golden Rule because it is meant to guide ALL our interactions with other people. Another variation on this same idea is "Do no harm."
This, I believe, is also meant to guide our sexual interactions with others; urging us to exhibit kindness, consideration, openness, and the removal of judgment and shame. You'll notice I didn't mention monogamy, marriage, or procreation. It's not that I'm against any of those things; I support all three! But I don't think the only acceptable relationship - or the only purpose for sex - is marriage and/or having babies. Maybe you don't hear that all the time from rabbis, but that's kind of my whole point. By being silent on difficult subjects like these, we (meaning clergy) inadvertently allow stereotypes to linger and fester. People think religious professionals are against casual dating, sex before marriage, and also assume we oppose LGBTQ rights. And the law against homosexuality, which is in our Torah portion too, isn't helping!

But I am NOT opposed to these things. I do not judge other people's relationships or sexual orientations. I want to especially make it clear that I disagree with that
infamous verse about homosexuals, Lev. 18:22. As with stoning people to death, owning slaves, the subservience of women, and various other laws in the Torah, some things are outdated and do not reflect our values today. The discomfort of this subject leads many religious professionals to just stay silent on the subject, but I think it does us harm. Organized religions appear shaming and judgmental, and congregants feel they can't bring their lives, their relationships, or their issues to the office of their rabbi/priest/imam. So let's acknowledge that it IS an uncomfortable subject... at least at first. But then let's talk, and maybe work through the awkwardness. Because sex and relationships are topics that permeate our lives, and shouldn't be filled with judgment and shame. Especially not from our rabbis. But how are we going to arrive at that realization if we don't start by talking? I'm ready when you are...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of MatthiasKabel on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Horace Vernet's "Juda et Thamar" (Judah and Tamar, based on Genesis, 38:15-18) courtesy of Rsberzerker on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Bachrach44 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Jack Celeste on Wikimedia Commons

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