This week, in Acharei Mot we read about all manner of forbidden relationships. Included in the list of forbidden relationships – and there are more than you might imagine – is the now infamous 18:22. The word toevah, abomination is used in application to any man who may lie with a man as one lies with a woman. How do we bring understanding to these words, particularly in our Judaism that welcomes people who are in relationships “technically” not sanctioned by Torah?
Many people feel pained by reference to this verse, when it is used to exclude – and so they should. Especially as many statements throughout Torah of stronger condemnation of other behaviours seem to slip past notice. (Stoning to death for refusal to comply with the laws of Shabbat, for example). We always need to remember our Written Torah is our beginning point of learning. “Lo bashamayim he” (It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” (Devarim 30:12). Torah is for us. Here on earth.
Written Torah must be wrestled with by human enterprise, and it’s words are not to be taken as absolute, or as literal truth. This understanding is reinforced throughout our teachings, including the famous story of the Oven of Aknai, whereby the Talmudic rabbis claim the right to decide the status (pure or impure) of an oven and thus, of all matters here on earth. The Talmud states: Rabbi Natan met Eliyahu [Hanavi] and asked Eliyahu what God was doing while this debate was going on. Eliyahu answered that God “was smiling and said ‘nizchuni banai, nizchuni banai, my children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.”
But that ‘defeat’ implies our continued engagement to wrestle with Torah, a commitment to learning, a commitment to understanding that just as our earth is an ecology – a system where all is linked – so is our Torah an ecology. And we are a most necessary party in that oneness that is Torah.