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Friday, April 23, 2010

Commentary on Parshat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

This week we read the double portion/parashah of Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-20). These two portions contain numerous mitzvot/commandments, some of which make sense to us today, some which don't, and some which are totally antithetical to what we view as righteousness and justice. This includes the "holiness code" in chapter 19 which includes the commandment "you shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy" as well as "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself."  This section is viewed by our tradition as the center of the Torah.  Indeed, it is actually located almost at the center of the scroll itself.  And yet, much of what is found in this parashah is still perplexing to me.  Some of it is abhorrent.

I was thinking about this when I read R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev's 19th century commentary on a verse from the parashah: "You shall observe My statutes and My laws which, if a person do them, that person shall live by them; I am the Eternal" (Leviticus 18:5). In the rabbinic tradition, the hukkim (statutes) are viewed as commandments that have no apparent rational reason, while the
mishpatim (laws) are those that have an apparent rational reason. The prohibition against murder is one of the mishpatim. The prohibition against mixing linen and wool in garments or eating meat and milk together are among the hukkim.

In his interpretation, Levi Yitzhak states that the observance of the "irrational" hukkim "purifies" a person's mind so that s/he can then truly understand the meaning of the mishpatim, or "rational" commandments. By looking at the commandments this way, Levi Yitzhak says that a person then come to "live by them," meaning that s/he will "come to understand that they are the source of
his/her vitality."

In his analysis of this text, R. David Blumenthal discusses how the essence of this teaching is that all of the mitzvot/commandments are part of God's plan and God's will. It doesn't matter whether or not they have an apparent reason.  Furthermore, it is being subservient to God's will that is at the core of
observance and this too must guide us through the path of mitzvot.

Looking at all of these comments together it would seem that Levi Yitzhak is trying to tell us that the observance of the 'irrational' mitzvot somehow purifies or clears out our minds so that we can then view the 'rational' mitzvot in a new light. This new light allows us to realize that the "rationality" of
these mitzvot is inconsequential. What is consequential is that the mitzvot are the tools by which we create holy lives for ourselves and through which we connect ourselves to God. All the mitzvot are as one and their purpose is one - connection with the Divine and the Divine will.

Divine will is something with which many of us - myself included - struggle. I admit that I try to do God's will in my life, even though I am uncertain what that means. In the broadest sense, it means to do those things that make the world a better place. God's will also means doing those things that make us feel connected to God and, beyond that, help us to realize that we are all a part of God and God is a part of us.

We don't need to analyze or try discover the hidden meaing behind the mitzvah "do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind" (also found in this parashah).  It is quite obvious why this is holy behavior.   But Levi Yitzhak instead focuses how performing the irrational mitzvot can add to our understanding of the rational ones and heighten our sense of holiness.

Following his logic, then the irrational can become rational in our minds.  We may argue about the reasons behind the laws of keeping kosher.  There are many theories about the rationale behind them.  And yet in the end, from the Torah's point of view, what matters is that they are about maintaining holiness when eating.  If one accepts and abosorbs that point of view then the irrational act of separating dishes becomes the rational act of extending that idea of holy eating to every aspect of the meal, even down to the silverware we use.

However, there are some mitzvot that are neither rational nor irrational, even though the rabbis of old may have classified them as such.  These mitzvot are not only anachronistic, as are so many mitzvot, but they are, as I wrote above, abhorrent.  Perhaps they were not abhorrent in their original context, but they are today.

The most obvious is the prohibition of male homosexuality.  "Do not lie with a man as with a woman" may have made sense in the context of the times and in terms of the other commandments that surround it in the Torah.  But I do not want to engage in that analysis right now.  There are enough who have done that before me.  But what makes this text abhorrent to me is how it has been used  throughout the centuries to persecute, ostracize and kill gay men and lesbians, as well as bisexual and transgender folk, in the name of God.  When it comes down to the tachlis,  practical application, of this verse I ultimately don't care about the original context or intention.  What I care about is how it has been used and what it has come to mean to so many. 

I realize that there are orthodox gay men who still abide by this verse in terms of limiting the types of sexual activity in which they will engage.  And I am in no way chastizing them or their choices.  They are making a mindful choice to live a life based on the mitzvot that they believe come directly from God, even when they are difficult and painful ones.  This is one of those mitzvot.

However,  I am chastizing those who have mindlessly used this verse, and others, to sanction hatred and bigotry in our world.  Just as Biblical verses were used to condone the enslavement of Africans in the United States,  this verse has been used for its own kind of enslavement and abuse of human beings.  That is why I may read it in synagogue, for it is part of the Torah, but, I read it with the understanding that it may be part of the traditions, but it is no longer for me.

What does any of this have to do with mindfulness?  Perhaps nothing.  Or perhaps, what I am ultimately saying is that looking at this text, and others, with equanimity may enable me to let go of the disdain and anger that I feel when I read it now, even though I will still reject it. 

In addition, I believe that it is the inability to look at the text this way, and the insertion of ego and judgmental thinking into the reading of the text, that has caused people to use it to legitimize hateful and ultimately unholy behavior.  This use of the text is antithetical to the mindful principals of non-judgmental awareness, equanimity and compassion.

In closing, I must admit that this is a very personal issue for me, and so perhaps I have not been as non-judgmental or approached it with as much equanimity as I should have been.  But that is my truth in this moment.  However, in the end, I feel that, just as the practice of "irrational" mitzvot can enhance the rational ones, so too can the rejection of those which I - and others - can no longer accept as a mitzvah at all that also frees us to practice the others with a great sense of meaning and as a way to help us become more aware of the Divine within us and which connects us to each other and the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

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