Parshat Achrei Mot: Reexamining Leviticus 18:22

Avi Sax
Avi Sax (Noah Wolfinger)

By Avi Sax

Achrei Mot includes laws governing what we eat, how we pray and how we love. Some of the laws make a lot of sense to me, but one does not make sense to me at all: the famous passage in Leviticus 18:22: “Do not lie with another man as one lies with a woman.” For centuries it has been interpreted as a ban on homosexuality, but I wonder if this interpretation could be wrong?

For my Torah reading, I read the following sentence: “But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you.” Let’s look at the phrase, “the stranger who resides.” We know that the word HaGer means “the stranger.” And, Hagar? We know that Hagar was a handmaiden to Sarah. We also learn that Sarah oppressed Hagar and banished her. This is a contrast to the requirement to love the ger as yourself. Hagar’s name literally means HaGer, “the stranger.” This situation is the complete opposite of the Passover story we just celebrated. Here, an Israelite is oppressing not only an Egyptian, but also literally “the stranger.” Sarah’s action against Hagar will help us understand why we should disagree with a simple interpretation of Leviticus 18:22.

Hagar is the only person in the Torah to actually name God. She names God “El Ro’i” (“the God who sees me”). Sometimes we don’t see the people who we are oppressing, yet God always sees them. How do we teach ourselves to see others in the same way that God does, with compassion and love? Sarah didn’t see Hagar and persecuted her. Through this bad behavior, the Torah is teaching us “to see.” We have a duty to see our fellow human beings in the same way God sees us. I think Leviticus 18:22 is actually presenting us with an opportunity to see the shared humanity of our loved ones in LGBTQIA+ communities.

Many commentaries accept a simple reading of this text. In contrast, Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s rabbinic ruling in support of gay marriage makes a simple and important observation: Jewish law needs to consider the points of view of gay people, rather than speak about them as if we can’t see them. Like God seeing Hagar, Jewish law needs to see “Jews who are gay, who love Jewish tradition, and who are committed to Jewish life and community.” I agree with Tucker and I believe that the Jewish people are closer to God when all of us are equally included in Jewish life.

Avi Sax is a student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

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