In times of chaotic, unbridled change, religion simultaneously – and paradoxically - plays the dual roles of initiator and bulwark. It promotes transformation when our values demand it but doesn’t enact change without considerable deliberation. It sparks the combustion than gums up the works. This is especially true of the Conservative movement, which is by its very definition believes that tradition should never abandoned without good reason. For us, the wheels of transformation spin slowly. But change happens, and a big one will take place during our High Holidays services that very few of you will notice, because it will occur at a time in the service when relatively few are at services – at the beginning of Mincha on Yom Kippur. Yet the change is significant.
Our Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon will now be the “alternate” reading, from Leviticus 19:1—18, rather than the traditional reading from the prior chapter, Leviticus 18. Both readings are found in our Lev Shalem Machzor and the alternate has been designated as a legitimate option for years, so the switch is hardly radical. In fact, given the stark differences between the old one and the new, one might justifiably ask why we took so long.
Although the two passages are found in consecutive chapters, their messages couldn’t be more contrasting. The alternate reading contains some of the most central ethical teachings of Judaism, including “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Meanwhile, the traditional reading focuses on forbidden sexual relationships. In ancient times, young Jews would meet-up following the temple ritual. So, a reminder of the dating “dos and don’ts” would have made sense in that setting.
But not in ours. While the alternate passage is all about love and acceptance, the traditional one emphasizes distinctions and boundaries. That traditional passage also contains some of the most problematic verses in the entire Torah, including the one ostensibly banning homosexuality. Sexual ethics have evolved considerably since biblical times, especially in regard to our understanding of the nature of LGBTQ relationships. Conservative Judaism has long since validated that shift, while at the same time affirming our need to continue to grapple with, rather than tossing aside, difficult traditional texts. But just because we never toss the Torah aside, that doesn’t mean we need to feature some its most problematic passages in the passage selected for our holiest day.
Like the alternate reading, Yom Kippur is all about love and forgiveness, not exclusion and harshness. The whole focus of the liturgy is to call upon divine qualities of mercy, rather than harsh justice. If anything, justice is Rosh Hashanah’s bailiwick, not Yom Kippur’s.
I’m brought back to an early episode of “The West Wing,” where a talk show host defends calling homosexuality an "abomination" by saying that that is what the Bible says in Leviticus 18:22. This annoys President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, who proceeds to ask a few pointed questions about just what one should accept from the Bible.
"I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleaned the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?"
"My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?"
"Here's one that's really important cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7 If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football (back when they had that name!)? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?”
“Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?”
"Think about those questions, would you?"
Aaron Sorkin, who grew up Jewish in Scarsdale but never went to Hebrew School, is right to have his characters question those who take the entire Bible literally, without challenging some of its more difficult verses. For Jews, this is hardly new. The rabbinic sages did the same thing 2,000 years ago. As my professors used to remind me constantly: We are not biblical Jews. We are rabbinic Jews.
Which is part of why I didn’t rush to replace the traditional reading when the alternate became available. Yes, it’s problematic, but one of the lessons of the High Holidays is that being a Jew is something we should struggle with and not take at face value. We don’t just toss the Torah aside if we don’t like what it says.
The other (and main) reason we stuck to the traditional reading is that we have one reader who has been reading the second Aliyah for over thirty years, since he was a teenager. Jed Sackin never missed his reading once. How could I take it from him? Some traditions are worth keeping. And as Jed’s parents passed on and his sister Hope moved away, it seemed even more important to me that his family continue to be represented at our service. So year after year, he did that problematic (and very long) reading.
So what changed? Two things. One is that the other Mincha readings no longer have legacy readers (for years, certain teens have claimed certain High Holiday readings as “their own”). And second, Jed agreed to learn the alternate reading for the second Aliyah and actually thought it was a good idea. So, Jed will still read this Yom Kippur – and we’ll learn about how important it is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
There will be something new this Yom Kippur, a flavorsome blend of Sackin and Sorkin, the same reader, a new reading – and an eternal message of love and acceptance.
Wishing you and yours a good and sweet 5783!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman