A Line in the Sand: Parsha Acharei Mot

This week’s Torah portion includes a line that has possibly caused more pain and harm than just about any other verse in the Torah: “V’et-zakar lo-tishkav mishkevey ishshah; toevah hi.” The most familiar translation of this line is “You shall not lie with a man as you lie with a woman, it is toevah.” Toevah is often translated as “forbidden.” It’s a boundary that cannot be crossed.

Leviticus 18:22 has been used – and is still used – to justify cruelty toward LGBTQ individuals. Just last month, Yeshivat Chovovei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical program, decided not to ordain one of their rabbinical students because he is gay. When he came out three and a half years ago, he asked YCT if they would still ordain him. They said that they would, and then last month, they changed their minds, choosing this boundary, Leviticus 18:22, over a student who dedicated years of study toward becoming a rabbi at their institution. They saw the place where halacha (Jewish law) and human life collide, and they drew a line in the sand between the two. What happens when someone reaches across that line and holds out a hand? What happens when boundaries are broken?

Each of the seven weeks between Passover and Shauvot are known as the Omer, and each week is associated with an aspect of God’s soul – and our souls: Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (boundaries), Tiferet (harmony), Hod (splendor), Netzach (endurance), Yesod (foundation) and Malchut (sovereignty). Each day within each week is associated with one of these seven aspects as well. This Shabbat is the 14th day of the Omer, and we spent this week in the world of Gevurah, of boundaries.

We all know boundaries are important. We set boundaries on our time. We set boundaries between personal and professional. In the caring professions, we strive for emotional boundaries, so we don’t lose ourselves in other people’s stories. Boundaries tell children that they can trust the adults in their lives. Boundaries keep people safe – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

So how do we respond to a boundary like Leviticus 18:22? In my 10 years as a Jewish communal professional, I’ve seen it all. Some abandon religion forever, saying “If that’s one line your holy book, I don’t want the rest of its pages.” Some find a different way to interpret the words, struggling to make the ancient law fit our contemporary sensibilities. Others decide to take the parts of Judaism they like, and discard the rest. They may call themselves “cultural Jews” or “Jew-ish,” as if to specify that they’re not like “those other Jews” who are “more traditional” or “more religious.” As an aside, while I support people in defining their Judaism however they’d like, I don’t think any person making informed, Jewish decisions about their boundaries is any “less religious,” but that’s a topic for another day.

I recently read responses from multiple Jewish movements to see how they addressed the boundary set by Leviticus 18:22. In North America, Reform Rabbis have officiated same-sex marriages since 2000. The Conservative movement followed suit in 2012, reversing a 2006 decision that Conservative rabbis could not officiate same-sex marriages. The most interesting response to me was a dissenting opinion from three Conservative rabbis in 2006. Rabbis Geller, Fine, and Fine detailed examples of other moments when rabbis agreed on a change in halachic interpretation: “Just as the ancient Israelites could not envision a world without slavery,” they said, “so could they not imagine a society where two men or two women could live together in a recognizable consecrated relationship and raise children. Just as the Rabbis understood that monetary interest could no longer be considered usury in a currency-based economy, so do we understand that same-sex relationships can no longer be considered toevah.” For these three rabbis, it was time to break the boundary, even though the rest of their leadership chose to uphold it.

I am heartened by the efforts of organizations like JQY and Eshel, which support Orthodox LGBTQ Jews. JQY raised enough money for the former YCT rabbinical student to pursue independent ordination in Israel. I’m also heartened by the promises of Rabbis Avram Mlotek and Daniel Silverstein, Orthodox alumni of YCT, who just became the first Orthodox rabbis to announce that they will now officiate Orthodox same-sex marriages. This was their response to the boundary set by YCT after they refused to ordain the student. It’s a step in the right direction, though they didn’t quite break the boundary. Both rabbis specified that the weddings would not be kiddushin, so they will not be seen as Jewishly legal.

How do we decide when a boundary should be broken in our own lives, like the Reform rabbis did in 2000? How do we decide when a boundary should be compromised instead, like Rabbi Mlotek and Rabbi Silverstein, deciding to officiate same-sex weddings for Jews, while refusing to call them halachic Jewish marriages?

Whatever decision you reach, one thing is certain: Boundaries are opportunities to ask ourselves really important questions. When halacha and human life collide, and someone draws a line in the sand, it’s important to remember that sand can blow away. Even massive boulders erode over time. A boundary means that two ideas are close enough to press up against each other, jostling for space in a crowded world. It’s on us to decide when and how to change our boundaries, even the ones that make us feel safe. All boundaries help us decide what really matters, and allow us to see where our edges can soften.

I’ll conclude with a poem that I wrote in honor of this week’s omer theme, and perhaps this coming week, you can consider where your own boundaries and soft edges live, and think about when it’s time to move that line in the sand.

The One Who Separates
day from night
sea from sky
and sky from the branches
who reach for her

also created horizons,
roots, wings,
and twilight

teaching us,
when our hands touch,
that the precipice
between one and another
is also a window

every boundary an opportunity
to connect with something sacred

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