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Drash on Parashat Acharei Mot II 2022

Drash on Parashat Acharei Mot II           

Rabbi Miriam Wajnberg
United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore

Acharei Mot can be one of the hardest and most painful parshiyot for Progressive Jews today. It is easy to dismiss this section of Leviticus as antiquated and irrelevant, and indeed, Leviticus 18 holds within it words that have been used by people of faith for centuries to exclude LGBTQ people from religious life and community and made them the targets of homophobia and abusive practices like conversion therapy. How do we find meaning and holiness in this section of Torah? Even as we strive to uproot the homophobia in our own communities, can we find meaning in the worldview of Leviticus 18? The chapter opens with these words:

“I Adonai am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws. I Adonai am your God.” (Leviticus 18:2-4)

Where most of the prior chapters of Leviticus have obsessively delineated between tamei and tahor, ritually impure and ritually pure, this chapter lifts up a different distinction - the distinction between us and them. As the Israelites prepare to enter the Land of Israel, leaving behind for good their life of slavery in Egypt, having a clear and defined sense of who is in and who is out is a crucial part of holding the community together. Maimonides explains that the Israelites should distance themselves from the practices of the surrounding people, by not “imitating the ways of the idolaters, their dress or hairstyle…this is a general rule not to copy their ways. The Jew should be different in dress and everything else.” Rashi gets more specific, saying that Jews are prohibited from attending theatres and arenas, entertainment venues seen as the domain of the idolaters. This distinction aligns with Amanda Montell’s analysis, in her 2021 book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, of how cults and “cultish” groups use language to delineate between insiders and outsiders. “The goal is to make your people feel like they have all the answers, while the rest of the world is not just foolish, but inferior. When you convince someone that they’re above everyone else, it helps you…distance them from outsiders…” While the word “cult” has many negative connotations in our parlance today, the need to create and protect a separate group, using ritual, language, and identity-building is ancient. 

In our integrated 21st century lives, how do we make sense of the exhortation to remain separate and different from our neighbours of other faiths? Do we still need a firm barrier between “us” and “them,” or might our community be held together by a porous membrane? We cherish our communal and personal relationships with people of other faiths. We work, study, shop, live, and yes, Rashi, even attend theatre, with people of all different backgrounds. However, we still cherish our particularity, the ways in which we come together at sacred times in sacred spaces. Montell’s study of the language of cults notes that an oppressive group, the types of groups that come to mind when we hear the word cult, “doesn’t let you leave ritual time. There is no separation, no going back to a reality where you have to get along with people who might not share your beliefs, where you understand that performing a mantra or citing the Ten Commandments in the middle of lunch would be a violation of the unspoken rules for how to be.” Judaism has always, from the levitical period until today, distinguished between ritual time and ordinary time - between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the not-yet-holy. We sanctify that very transition between these two domains with the ritual of havdalah each week. We cherish our ritual time: raucous youth song sessions, the odd rituals of the seder foods we tasted just a couple weeks ago, beating our chests on Yom Kippur, welcoming new lives into the world and into the Jewish community. Out of context, any of our particular Jewish rituals might seem weird or unusual, not only to outsiders! But engaging with these rituals, imbuing them with meaning, allows us to fulfill the intent of setting ourselves apart, while also integrating into the world around us. As Progressive Jews, we do both - proudly embrace what makes us uniquely Jewish, and know that we can live, not fearful of people of other faiths and backgrounds, but integrated into our communities, cities, and countries. 

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