Sunday, May 08, 2005

Parsha Backlog

I gave a d'var torah Friday night on parshat kedoshim, but I haven't had a chance to blog on the subject until now. The theme of the d'var torah was competing conceptions of holiness: the holiness of separation, which requires Israelites to separate themselves from other nations by observing commandments that impose divisions on the natural world, and the holiness of justice and compassion, which tends to minimize differences rather than accentuating them.

The idea "holiness through separation" is most clearly expressed in a passage toward the end of kedoshim (Leviticus 20:23-26):

You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you . . . I am Adonai your God, who has set you apart from other peoples. Therefore, you shall set apart the pure beast from the impure, and the impure bird from the pure, and you shall not make yourselves objectionable through the beasts, birds, and all that creeps upon the ground that I have set apart for you as impure. Thus shall you be holy to me, for I, Adonai, am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

A number of precepts in the parsha seem directed toward enforcing this type of holiness, e.g. the prohibitions against interbreeding animals and plants and against wearing clothing made from a mixture of materials (19:19); the injunction against sorcery and consultation of spirits, which threatens the divisions between life and death and between human and supernatural (19:31); and the sexual prohibitions (20:10-21), which enforce differentiation between male and female, human and animal, pure and impure, kinship and marriage.

In contrast to these are the precepts that minimize difference, e.g. the injunctions to leave portions of one's produce to the poor (19:9-10) and to treat employees fairly (19:13), thereby reducing disparities in wealth; the injunction against recognizing differences in class when issuing judgement (19:15); and the commandment to "love one's fellow as oneself" (19:18). Perhaps most exemplary of this second type of holiness is the prohibition against oppressing the stranger, which is based on an explicit injunction to identify with the Other (19:33-34):

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who resides with you shall be like a citizen among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Both types of holiness can be related to the principle of imitatio dei. The former demands that Israel behave as a unique people, separate from the world, just as God is unique and seperate from the world. The latter demands that human beings follow God's example in recognizing the godliness inherent in others:

As He clothes the naked, so must you clothe the naked. [As] the Holy One, Blessed be He, visited the sick, so must you visit the sick. [As] the Holy One, Blessed Be He, comforted mourners, so must you comfort mourners. [As] the Holy One, Blessed Be He, buried the dead, so must you bury the dead (Sotah 14a).

Is it possible to harmonize these two types of holiness, which so often seem to be in conflict with one another? The suggestion that I made Friday night was that our very struggle to balance these conceptions of holiness can itself be part of the pursuit of holiness. (A bit of a cop-out, but I think the idea has merit.) For this blog, I'm going to add another, somewhat more controversial suggestion, relating specifically to the sexual prohibitions.*

My suggestion is based on the historical observation that, while differentiation has always been a major aspect of Jewish practice, the specific divisions that we make have been fairly fluid. For example, the Torah prescribes an intricate system of differentiation between pure and impure, most aspects of which have fallen into disuse since the destruction of the second Temple. On the other hand, contemporary halakhah prescribes an intricate system for separating meat from dairy, a division that does not exist in the Torah per se. Similarly, while we uphold the Biblical prohibitions against adultery and incest, our framework for understanding them has changed. In the Bible, both the prohibition of adultury (as expressed in Lev. 20:10) and many of the incest prohibitions (as expressed in Lev. 18:7-16) are based on the idea that women "belong" to men, and that sex with another man's wife is akin to trespassing on his property. Today, we tend to view adultury as a violation of a mutual bond between two people, while incest is variously viewed as a violation of trust, an abuse of power, or an inappropriate "mixture" of two types of relationships. This shift, of course, is a result of our changed view of women, which can be regarded as a recognition of the godliness inherent in every human being, male or female.

To my mind (and I'm sure I'm not the first to have suggested this), changing our approach to homosexual relationships would simply be an extension of the shift in our approach to male-female relationships. The imperative of holiness through justice and compassion demands that we lessen our emphasis on the distinction between male and female and re-emphasize the boundaries created through mutual commitment.

*This is partly an attempt to compensate for missing parshat acharei mot, which also catalogues the sexual prohibitions (Lev. 18:6-23).


mmbbhk said...

I wouldn't say that the laws of impurity have fallen into disuse. Most of them were only ever relevant to people who had direct contact with the Temple and the various offerings and tithes. For the random Jew in the countryside, tumah wasn't much of an issue, except for nida and netilat yadaim, both of which we still observe (the former much more stringently than was done then). Furthermore, everyone agrees that once the Temple is reestablished, all the other laws of tumah will again become relevant; they have not been abandoned nor reinterpreted.
It's true of course that the ways in which we differentiate ourselves change from generation to generation -- but within limits. We don't go head-on against laws written in black and white in the Torah. Nowadays we view a relationship between a married man and an unmarried woman as being morally just as bad as one between a married woman and an unmarried man, and the plain meaning of the Torah presumably doesn't -- but socially requiring men to avoid such relationships doesn't violate any of the Torah's laws. On the other hand, you have a very explicit prohibition of homosexual acts that can't just be uprooted.

Also, the notion that we Jews as a group are required to pursue justice and be compassionate to all while not expecting others to reciprocate presumes a great separation between us and these others. This form of noblesse oblige is no less elitist than the less liberal attitudes that some Jews have towards non-Jews.

Rachel said...

I especially like your point that both of these types of holiness can be related to imitatio dei, and that perhaps the real point of them is (or the real merit can be found in) the tension between them, e.g. trying to do both at once.

Also, and unsurprisingly, I like your point about changing our approach to homosexual relationships. I read Leviticus 18:22 as a reference to a specific Canaanite temple prostitution practice, not as a reference to what we know today as gayness, and I'd really love to see more of mainstream Judaism find a way to agree with me. *g*

elf said...

Hey, "mmbbhk." (Interesting pseudonym.) I appreciate your comment. This is an issue that I would have raised in my post if I weren't concerned about how long it was getting.

From a strictly legal perspective, you are correct: the laws that I've mentioned have all remained intact. Technically, a man cheating on his wife has not transgressed to the same extent as a woman cheating on her husband (and that can have practical ramifications in rare instances). Technically, the purity laws are still applicable; it's just that we don't have a Temple right now to apply them to. Etc.

From a sociological/hisorical perspective, however, our understanding marriage (at least) is quite different from that of the ancients, and current Jewish practices reflect that change, to a certain extent. My argument here is ideological: If our understanding of marriage and gender can change, so can our understanding of homosexuality, and it is reasonable for our practices to reflect our current attitudes.

As a Conservative-ish Jew, I'd prefer that this new approach be incorporated into an existing halakhic framework. That's why I'm drawn toward R. Simcha Roth's teshuvah, which engages the rabbinic texts and circumscribes the biblical prohibition without eliminating it. However, I can see why many people would probably find that teshuvah deeply unsatisfying. One alternative approach is that mentioned by Rachel. I find it problematic for academic as well as halakhic reasons, but it seems to appeal to many others. Ultimately, I think there's a moral imperative to make room for homosexual relationships in Judaism, and I'm willing to compromise on the means to that end.

Regarding your second point: You're assuming that the imerative to be compassionate toward others applies to Jews alone. Again, from a legal (and literary) perspective, any precepts derived from the kedoshim ti'hiyu imperative apply only to Israel. But this is our Torah, after all; the question of moral obligations incumbant on other peoples is necessarily part of a separate philosophical discussion. On a more practical level, one would hope that excercising compassion beyond our own insular communities might encourage others to do the same.

A final point: I should probably have noted that I don't think the original meaning of the biblical texts includes the concept of imitatio dei as we understand it. The meaning of the words "you shall be holy, for I am holy" is probably that we should separate ourselves from profane things and actions, just as God remains separate from the profane sphere. I brought up the later idea of emulating God through acts of compassion because I think it's a natural extension of one of the major messages in the parshah, and because there is (of course) more to the Torah than its "original" meaning.

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