Aharei Mot/Kedoshim 5778

Torah, sexuality and #MeToo
A D’var Toroh for Aharei Mot/Kedoshim
by Rabbi Irwin Huberman ’10

Within Judaism, there exists a debate regarding the reading of some explicit sexual material on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Orthodox Judaism encourages us to read from the Torah what are commonly referred to as the arayot – forbidden sexual relationships.

Conservative Judaism offers an alternative — suggesting a second reading dealing with interpersonal relationships, business practices, ritual behavior and criminal law.

Reform Judaism often bypasses sexuality, choosing Biblical texts that highlight reconciliation, ethical behavior and social justice.

Indeed, the discussion of forbidden sexual practices on the holy and reflective day of Yom Kippur is a challenging one.

Yet, is it possible that the same Torah reading, which so many rabbis and congregations have struggled with in recent years, demands a rereading in light of so many sexual abuses and allegations that have come to light this past year?

More specifically, is there a thematic connection between the sexual code that we read this week in Parashat Aharei-Mot/Kedoshim – and repeated on the afternoon of Yom Kippur — and the #MeToo movement?

I believe so.

Let us first journey back to a time thousands of years ago when the Israelites and their neighbors lived in a primarily agricultural society.  The head of the household was almost exclusively male.

Relationships – including marriage and the connection between master and slave – were often defined in terms of property and acquisition.

Is it any wonder that permitted and forbidden sexual relationships were included in the Torah within a section that focuses on holiness, Godly behavior and distinctiveness from other cultures?  The Torah appears intent on ensuring that one person never have ultimate ownership or control over another.

Within this week’s Torah portion, which primarily forbids males from engaging in a variety of incestuous and socially forbidden relationships, the term “uncover nakedness” is frequently used.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) in his Torah commentary, taught that to “uncover nakedness” implied engaging in “something indecent.”

The Torah, as it instructs us in sacred behavior, refers to marriage as — Kiddushin – sanctification or dedication. In so doing, it leads us to an understanding of sexuality as a sacred and shared act.

Indeed, as we look at the sexuality code contained within this week’s Torah portion, there is one theme that I believe remains dominant: A person in a position of power may not prey upon the vulnerability of another.

This includes, as we view it in its entirety,  using pressure or force upon another human being –whether male or female — for one’s own physical gratification – whether in the workplace or in the bedroom.

This week’s Torah portion rings especially true as we consider the connection between countless sexual harassment cases that have been “uncovered” this past year.

Within the largely male dominated areas of entertainment, journalism and business — after years if not centuries of silence — countless women and men are coming forward and telling their stories.

There is a commonality in their themes.

As Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah of the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue noted last December in an article published in the Jewish Chronicle:

“At a deeper level, “uncovering nakedness” refers not only to who is involved, but to what is involved. Even if the parties involved are equals, any sexual behavior which is imposed on another without their consent, or entails exposing and exploiting another person’s vulnerability, is “uncovering nakedness.”

It is perhaps no accident that later in this parashah we read what many consider the most important passage in the entire Torah.  “Love your fellow as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:7)

It reminds us that sexuality is not based upon an activity perpetrated by one person upon another, but rather a sacred act of love, equality and reciprocity between two human beings – regardless of gender or sexuality.

Let us therefore consider the increased relevance of this ancient ethical code which the Torah lays before us this week.

Let us also be reminded that hurt and damage between human beings does not always occur in public.  Indeed, there are so many secrets, and so much pain committed behind closed doors.

This week’s Torah portion inspires us to break free from the centuries- old silence of sexual harassment as it connects in relevance with the #MeToo discussion.

Let us, therefore, refrain from turning our heads. Rather, when it comes to these challenging issues, let us have the courage to look into the light.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR ’10) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.