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Sunday, May 20, 2012

My D'var

The final activity in the adult b'nai mitzvah class was an assignment to write a d'var, which is an interpretive commentary on (usually) the weekly Torah reading.  We were allowed to pick any passage we wanted, so of course I went directly to Leviticus, my favorite book of the bible.  Although most of the students did not take the opportunity to read their dvar aloud in class, I did, and surprised myself by getting a bit choked up in the middle.

Parsha: Acharei Mot ("after death," referring to the death of Aaron's two sons)
Leviticus 16:1 to 18:30
The Torah is full of instructions. Some of these are relatively easy to understand and interpret: thou shalt not kill, keep the Sabbath, protect widows and orphans.  Others are harder to understand and harder to interpret. Nothing in the Torah has been more challenging to me than Leviticus Chapter 18. Most people know this chapter because it includes the admonition “do not lie with a man as with a woman,” but that’s at the end of the chapter, verse 22.  The first 21 verses represent a fairly detailed list of other sexual restrictions, including relations with “your” daughter-in-law, “your” aunt, and “your” step-daughter.  However, the list does not include “your” daughter.  Nowhere in this section of Leviticus, or in Chapter 20, which also lists several forbidden sexual relationships (as well as their appropriate punishments), is sex with your daughter specifically mentioned, let alone specifically prohibited. The Talmud suggests that the prohibition against father-daughter incest is already understood to be forbidden, so there was no reason to include it.  Some commentators have even suggested that “daughter” was left off the list accidentally, and represents basically a printer’s error that was then carried forward until the present time.  Of course, it’s impossible to know if this omission is a mistake or deliberate. Either way, it causes me, causes all of us, to ponder the meaning of this passage.  And to ponder the value of instructions in the Torah.  Do they apply to us today?  Can we find ways to apply them, to find meaning in them, even if they offend our modern day sensibilities?  Can we simply overlook the passages that cause us concern, that make us upset or angry or shocked or afraid?  It’s troubling, and it’s confusing.  Of course, many passages of the Torah are vague, and have required extensive examination and contemplation.   But I would argue that this odd omission requires more reflection than rules about what we eat or what we wear.  What do we take from this? How do we come to terms with this, and find meaning in it?  How do we protect our daughters, and ourselves, when our book of rules overlooks such a fundamental danger?  It requires a level of engagement that may be intimidating or even uncomfortable.  But this is the privilege of Judaism, and the burden of it – to continue to wrestle with the meaning of our heritage.

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