...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Be Holy, as I your God am Holy

Yesterday I went to the Shabbos service at P'nai Or, as usual. This time, I decided to stay for the Torah study afterwards, which I've never done before. Just a small group of us, maybe ten or twelve people, stayed; the rabbi passed around the Chumashim (texts) and studied the weekly portion in more detail. The portion for the past week was "Kedoshim," the so-called Holiness Code from Leviticus ("kedosh" means "holy" in Hebrew). This portion, as well as Acharei Mot, which we read a couple weeks ago, contains the infamous "a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman" verses; P'nai Or's Torah study mostly consisted of unpacking these verses from a progressive Jewish perspective and locating them within their Sitz im Leben, while still working within a respectful-of-Halachka framework.

For me, this was a timely discussion, since the night before, Eric and Amy and I had talked about those verses as they relate to homophobia within religious discourse and tradition. As I said on Friday, I often find the way that liberal Christians (not Eric and Amy, but speaking generally of theologically liberal traditions, like the UCC) dismiss those verses to be problematic, supercessionist (although I didn't use that word on Friday) and vaguely anti-Semitic. Often I find liberal Christians, in rejecting Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, tend to say, "You can't take the anti-homosexuality verses any more seriously than you take the verses against not mixing different kinds of fabric or touching pig skins." I think there are two distinct positions operating within that sentiment. First, making that point underscores the hypocricy of contemporary fundamentalists/conservative Christians who cherrypick verses from Leviticus to support their homophobia, while ignoring other parts of the Holiness Code. I think this is an absolutely valid and necessary criticism of such Christians.

However, I think there's another tendency among liberal Christians who point out the lesser-known verses of the Holiness Code, and that's to make a mockery of the religious practice of the early Jews and dismiss nearly all of Leviticus out of hand, as though the New Testament renders it unnecessary and unimportant. This position says, albeit in a more subtle way, "Those Jews believed all sorts of crazy legalistic crap about not mixing fabrics and not touching the dead; we Christians are under the New Covenant and don't need those old codes of conduct." It's this attitude--and I think it's widespread, although not well-interrogated or acknowledged, among liberal Christians when they discuss uncomfortable texts like Acharei Mot and Kedoshim--to which I object, and which I find to be rooted in all sorts of anti-Semitic language about legalism and Pharasaical religion. (Let me be clear that I'm not grouping Eric and Amy with those Christians.)

One of the things I've most appreciated about where my spiritual journey has taken me is that, as a Christian, I always had a tendency to dismiss the "Old" Testament, or understand it solely as a historical document; it was interesting from an academic perspective but I didn't find much religious inspiration in it. Living Jewishly has encouraged and required me to take the Torah more seriously, without falling back on the typical Christian impulse to supercessionism. It's been a good change.

Side note: Kedoshim also includes the prohibition against garments made with both wool and linen; this prohibition is known as Shatnez. It's a pretty big deal and is taken seriously within frum (observant) communities. But Reb Aryeh noted that in the days of the Temple, the High Priest wore garments of mixed fabrics. I was shocked to learn that, and in fact there was an audible gasp throughout the congregation. The High Priest also kindled fire within the Temple on the Sabbath, which outside of the Temple was forbidden. Very, very interesting.