Acharei Mot – Hypocrisy and Reading Torah

About a decade ago, just after conducting a wedding, one of the guests sidled up to me and asked ‘Do you believe in gay rabbis?’. I couldn’t tell if he was joking at first, but he didn’t seem to be, so I assured him I absolutely did believe in them and they weren’t, in fact, imaginary, like the fairies. But what about Leviticus? He continued. At which point I decided to ask some questions myself.

‘Are you married?’ I asked him. Divorced, he replied. ‘When you were married, did you ever find yourself sharing a bed and, indeed, were you intimate with your wife at her time of the month? He looked rather blankly at me.

You see, the Torah in our portion this week does say (18:22) ‘Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence’. But only 3 verses earlier, (18:19) the Torah uses the same language to forbid relations with a woman who is menstruating. I don’t hear a lot of campaigns encouraging us to teach this law and ensure our children don’t fall foul of it. But for hundreds of years, this other verse has been the source of laws, persecutions, executions.

A decade earlier than this conversation which I suspect the chap in question really wished he hadn’t started, I was at an event in Stockholm, Sweden, where the film ‘Trembling Before God’ was being shown. It was a documentary exploring the lives of people who wanted to live within the halakhic systems of Orthodoxy, and who were gay. The pain in the film is palpable. During a Q and A after the film, the Orthodox rabbi of the Stockholm community was asked if he would give an Aliyah in his community to a gay man. His answer fascinated me ‘I don’t ask men about their married lives before giving them an Aliyah, so yes’. In other words, if a man commits a carnal sin, a. I don’t want to know about it and b. why should that prevent him from performing a mitzvah. Now I fundamentally disagreed with him on his definition of sin, and would never consider homosexuality sinful, but I was fascinated by his attempt to be inclusive.

One of the stories featured in the ‘Trembling before God’ documentary was that of Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay orthodox Rabbi to try and stay within orthodoxy. In his book ‘Wrestling with God and Men’ he of course takes time to unpack these Levitical verses. He unpacks the language of the verse and uses age old Jewish hermeneutics to wrestle with a verse that has caused him such pain and struggle.

As Reform Jews we could say things are much simpler. We place the verse into its historical context and understand it to be a product of a time where homophobia and patriarchal dominance were the norm. Times have changed, and we understand the world differently now. But for Jews who, like Rabbi Stephen Greenberg understand the Torah as true for all time. He suggests that perhaps it isn’t same sex relationships that are problematic, but it is forbidding a particular power dynamic that might be reflected in the language of what it meant to be with a woman.

But however we interpret these verses, I find myself endlessly fascinated with our obsession with just one tiny verse in our portion, and our ability to gloss over so much else. The guest at the wedding who was so bemused by our acceptance of gay rabbis, sat down after our conversation and enjoyed a wedding lunch in a pub, where he enjoyed the steak. It was not a kosher pub. I have no problem with his choice of lunch, but it highlights the hypocrisy of twisting oneself in knots over one law in Torah, while disregarding reams of others. Jews have never lived by complete obeisance to the word of Torah. Every verse, chapter and even letter has been endlessly turned and interpreted. Yet for some reason, Leviticus 18:22 must be read as absolute truth, with no room for interpretation.

Rabbi Greenberg describes the experience of being called to read this passage on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. He approached the scroll full of nerves and terror, and then:

“To my surprise, when it is read, I no longer feel pain or threat or even accusation. I feel strangely empowered. In exposing myself To this verse, it has become exposed to me. At that moment I grasped that this verse had, in a sense, never been understood until those whose bodies and souls have been tormented by it, who have suffered for years under its weight, are among its legitimate interpreters, how could it possibly give over its full meaning?”[1]


For me this is part of the key of moving forward. How can a text be fully understood if it is not interpreted by those most impacted by it. A few years ago a yeshiva was established that calls itself ‘Svara’. Svara is an LGBT yeshiva. They point out that if you were reading the Torah as a donkey, you would notice all the times that donkeys are mentioned, and spend your time understanding how donkeys were treated, engaged with, thought of. Similarly we all read ourselves into our texts, and read our lives into our Judaism. So when the LGBT community reads these texts, a fresh way of approaching that which has been the root of so much oppression can open up. Our Torah becomes wider, and more beautiful, the more different people’s lives are read from within it.

This morning we have the pleasure of celebrating a forthcoming wedding. In 2022, it is one of the greatest joys to know we can help celebrate lifecycle events for couples who don’t always fit the same card board cut out, and who want to be a part of creating a positive future for Judaism and for the world. Reform Judaism was a part of campaigning for equal marriage laws, and we did so based on Jewish values and ideals, not just in spite of them.

The world is an ever changing and growing place. Sometimes Torah is a challenge to the values we embody today, and sometimes we haven’t been reading the Torah with enough different commentaries or lenses. But however we read, may we find nourishment and meaning in the lives we lead, and the communities we build around ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Wrestling With God and Men p.75