(Comments from 2018, slightly edited. I found Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ comments, quoted at the end, particularly insightful.)
This week: Sex and holiness.
Acharei Mot (Lev. 16:1-18:30) is the first part of this double portion and means “after the death of,” referring to Aaron’s two oldest sons who after “they drew too close to the presence of the Lord” (16:1).” Consequently, this section describes how the High Priest can enter and leave the Holy of Holies safely on Yom Kippur. It also deals with that day’s ritual purification, sacrifices, sprinkling of blood, and driving a scapegoat into the wilderness to effect atonement for the whole people. It also lists forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest. Most of Acharei Mot is read at morning and afternoon services on Yom Kippur.
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim contains the first part of what is known as the “Holiness Code,” Leviticus Chapters 17–26, Chapter 19 being its core. Kedoshim means “holy.” Where Acharei Mot describes atonement for past misdeeds, Kedoshim (Lev. 19:1-20:27) prescribes how to behave from now on and why (19:1): “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” There follow many pages of prescriptions and proscriptions, some expected, like, take care of the needy, use honest weights and measures in business, pay your workers promptly, don’t gossip, don’t lie, don’t take advantage of people, love the stranger, love your neighbor, etc. – basically, be kind and fair. Then there are others that seem like tribal customs with no or unclear reason, like not cross breeding, not rounding the corners of one’s beard, and not eating a tree’s fruit for its first three years.
What is meant here by “holiness” and why is it so linked to sexual relationships? Rituals clearly make us distinct, but why so much emphasis on sexual restraint? Is it because it is particularly difficult to adhere to?
“Holiness” implies distinctness and boundaries. Judaism is rife with such delineations, e.g., between order and chaos, light and darkness, sacred and every day, life and death, Jewish and not. Holiness “involves correct definition, discrimination and order. Under this head all the rules of sexual morality exemplify the holy… rectitude and straight-dealing (are) holy, and contradiction and double-dealing as against holiness“ ( Purity and Danger by Mary T. Douglas, pp. 54-55).
Concerning the necessity for rules of sexual morality, Maimonides, in the first section of Seder Kedoshim in Mishneh Torah cites 37 laws on forbidden sexual relationships and goes into minute detail: specific practices and anatomical descriptions, situations, voluntary versus involuntary actions, what punishments follow what practices – all in a dry, very clinical manner. What about emotion? Trust? Love?
Among Biblical scholars, I am told (thanks, Stanley), that love is an action, not an emotion, encompassing fidelity and faithful obedience. For Maimonides, according to Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Devarim, pp. 66-67), such love comes from intellectual conviction, but the soul is “ever enraptured by it.”
But, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, love is not enough. Remember all those laws in Chapter 19? Seemingly disparate, they have in common that they
“are all about order, limits, and boundaries. They are telling us that reality has a certain underlying structure whose integrity must be honoured…
When that order is violated, eventually there is chaos. When that order is observed and preserved, we become co-creators of the sacred harmony and integrated diversity that the Torah calls ‘holy.’ Why then is it specifically in this chapter that the two great commands – love of the neighbour and the stranger – appear? The answer is profound and very far from obvious. Because this is where love belongs – in an ordered universe…(Chapter 19’s) combination of moral, political, economic and environmental laws is a supreme statement of a universe of (Divinely created) order of which we are the custodians. But the chapter is not just about order. It is about humanising that order through love – the love of neighbour and stranger.”
What we increasingly have today, in my view, is too much separation into emotionally charged camps. That is a dangerous sort of order. We need a whole lot more of humanizing of that order through love.
Quotes about Boundaries
Boundaries are to protect life, not to limit pleasures. Edwin Louis Cole
Guilt can prevent us from setting the boundaries that would be in our best interests, and in other people’s best interests. Melody Beattie
Love crosses all boundaries. Khalid
Pleasure without God, without the sacred boundaries, will actually leave you emptier than before. And this is biblical truth, this is experiential truth. The loneliest people in the world are amongst the wealthiest and most famous who found no boundaries within which to live. That is a fact I’ve seen again and again. Ravi Zacharias
Every human being must have boundaries in order to have successful relationships or a successful performance in life. Henry Cloud
It’s Yom Kippur, and this goat wants your sins (abridged, sent out in 2016)
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN (2013)
(CNN) – Calling all Jews! Your confessional clock is ticking.
It’s time to fess up.
Blending ancient tradition with modern innovation, there’s a newish Jewish Web app to help you lighten the load of guilt and spill your bad deeds. It’s called eScapegoat, and the whimsical tool lets you type your confessions in a Twitter-friendly format and see others’ also.
Best of all, you can remain utterly anonymous.
“I claimed the soup was vegan. It wasn’t,” wrote one sinner.
“I yell at people from my car, even if they aren’t driving poorly,” shared another.
“I am hot with shame that my son only has a brown belt in his Kung Fu training,” said a third.
The force behind this endeavor is G-dcast, a San Francisco nonprofit committed to making Jewish learning fun through animated videos, apps and more.
You, dear friends, can’t rely on some wandering, set-up-to-die goat to do your bidding – which is why you are commanded to make public confessions in synagogue during Yom Kippur.
But that doesn’t mean burdens can’t be laid on a virtual goat, too. Right?
The Web app was launched on August 9 during the first week of Elul, when Jews traditionally self-reflect, look back on their year, take stock of how they behaved and think about what they can do better. By Thursday night, [August 15] nearly 5,000 confessions had been “laid on the goat,” Sarah Lefton, G-dcast’s executive director and producer reported. And nearly 21,000 “goaters,” or Web app visitors, had stopped by.
Lefton doesn’t want anyone thinking eScapegoat is a substitute for the real deal. “This Web app is in no way trying to replace public confession,” she said. “We designed it as a lighthearted warm-up for the Day of Atonement. But if people are getting something more profound out of it, that’s great.”
*I picked up a hitchhiker last night. He seemed surprised that I’d pick up a stranger. He asked, “Thanks but why would you pick me up? How would you know I’m not a serial killer?”.
I told him the chances of two serial killers in a car would be astronomical.
*Boy aged 4: Dad, I’ve decided to get married.
Dad: Wonderful; do you have a girl in mind?!
Boy: Yes… grandma! She said she loves me, I love her, too….and she’s the best cook & story teller in the whole world!
Dad: That’s nice, but we have a small problem there!
Boy: What problem?!
Dad: She happens to be my mother. How can you marry my mother!
Boy: Why not?! You married mine!
*The other day I asked my younger cousin if he’d rather get $1 for complimenting a stranger or $10 for insulting a stranger.
In that instant he looked me in the eye and called me a “Freak of nature”. I quickly reminded him that I’m not a stranger because we know each other. To which he replies, “There’s nobody stranger than you.”