Achrei Mot Kedoshim
Taboo or NOT taboo
Last week’s Torah episode beckoned us to probe the darker side of life, where illness and loneliness demand of us humans to overcome fear and embrace the divine image inside all. This week – this challenging journey continues, as Leviticus continues to outline a collage of laws, including the do’s and don’ts of sexual conduct. Achrei Mot-Kedoshim is another double portion, cramming in not only the list of taboos, but also the rituals of the Day of Atonement, the way to treat a senior citizen, and other useful rules for kosher civic behavior. We were tempted to discuss bestiality, but thanks to Governor Spitzer, who this past week announced his intention to seriously pursue the legalization of Gay Marriage in the State of New York, we’re going with the next best thing – the taboo oddly known as Sodomy.
OK, NEVERMIND how Sodomy came to describe homosexual relations – this is a curious enough fact that we reserve for another time. What interests us is the key word that is used to describe the problem that the Biblical authors had with these type of relations – a word that got tossed around a lot in the past years and months – especially in Conservative Jewish circles. The word is TOEVA, often translated as ‘abomination’, and though it appears throughout the Bible in multiple contexts, it is this week’s mention that usually draws the biggest crowds:
‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’
Most translators use ‘abomination’, while some use ‘abhorrence’, ‘an abhorrent thing’, ‘disgusting’, or ‘un-natural’. The Fox translation adds an exclamation mark – ‘abomination!’ (He does that with all sexual offenses, maybe it heightens the drama.)
Richard Friedman chooses to translate Toeva as ‘an offensive thing’, and in his translators notes adds: “in the present state of knowledge concerning homosexuality, it is difficult to justify its prohibition in the Torah…In my own view… it is not an ‘offensive thing’. “
Friedman is, thankfully, not alone in voicing this opinion, and very recently the Conservative Movement boldly chose to embrace this view as well, allowing the ordination of LGBT rabbis. But anyone reading carefully reading the lengthy legalistic that led to this historical decision cannot avoid the complex tightrope that the rabbis are walking while trying to juggle the ancient concept of ‘Toeva’ with the contemporary sensibility to human dignity. Amazingly, it really comes down to that one word and how it can be translated and understood in modern times.
Elsewhere in the Torah, Toeva appears in the context of behavior that is foreign and therefore suspicious to local customs and tastes. Earlier in Genesis, for instance, Joseph explains to his brothers how their way of making a living as Shepards is an Egyptian social taboo. It is a TOEVA, he says to them – a loathsome, or disgusting, or abominable local custom.
Toeva is clearly a relative term, varying according to human perceptions. Challenging though this is to a literal reading of Torah as perennial truth, it is a compelling invitation for us to not only translate, but also to dig deeper in our quest for justice and new meaning. Rabbi Elliot Dorf, one of the active voices behind the Conservative movement’s decision was quoted as saying: ‘We have to interpret God’s will in our time.’
Will Spitzer pass the vote? Perhaps not just yet, but at least for many more around the world and at least in New York state, what was once an abomination is realized more as simply another way of life.