Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between (together called the Ten Days of Repentance) are the spiritual high point of the Jewish year. These days provide each one of us with a much-needed opportunity to reflect on the year that was, along with a chance to think about the kind of person we want to be in the new year we just started. Repentance, celebrating the gift of life, appreciating the ability to apologize for past actions, and refocusing ourselves on what is essential in life, are all part of this time of year.
It is vital that during these Days of Awe we create an atmosphere that is conducive to a sense of community, a greater understanding of our responsibilities toward each other, and a sensitivity to each individual. With those ideas in mind, my community made a liturgical change this past Yom Kippur that I know already has affected who we are as individuals and how we understand ourselves as a community.
The High Holy Day Torah and haftarah readings are, for the most part, an inspiring element of the liturgy on these days. They are the tragic human stories of the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah, along with the powerful imagery and yearning represented in the haftarot, the ritual of the High Priest we read on Yom Kippur morning, the haftarah taken from Isaiah that extols the virtues of combining ritual along with a strong ethical code, and, of course, the haftarah for Yom Kippur Mincha, the Book of Jonah, the quintessential story of repentance in the entire Hebrew Bible.
The only reading that seems a bit out of place in this list is the Torah reading for Mincha on Yom Kippur. The traditional reading is Leviticus 18, which is a listing of forbidden sexual unions. The reading contains the verse that calls male homosexual behavior an abhorrence (Leviticus 18:22), a primary source for those within the Jewish community (and the Christian community as well) who wish, in 2019, to outlaw homosexuals from leadership positions or even from full acceptance within the community. It is also a source of intense pain and exclusion for those within our community, no matter their sexual orientation, who feel that reading this verse on Yom Kippur drives home the message that some people just do not belong in our community.
My community did not read this verse this past Yom Kippur and I am thrilled with this change.
Before I explain what we did read, a few questions need to be answered. Why is Leviticus 18 the reading for Yom Kippur afternoon? Three possible answers emerge from our tradition. Number one, Leviticus 18 follows almost immediately after the reading for Yom Kippur morning, and maybe it is read because it was located conveniently. Number two, maybe we read Leviticus 18 because, given that Yom Kippur is all about repenting for past actions, we should read about one of the sins that many people fall victim to — illicit sexual relations. Number three — there was a custom in ancient Israel for the late hours of Yom Kippur to be a time for young couples to meet and fall in love. So maybe the reading is present in order to remind everyone to behave properly when they see each other.
Is there any flexibility in our holiday Torah readings? There is a great deal of discussion in traditional sources about different readings being appropriate for holidays. Without a doubt, the reading for Yom Kippur Mincha is mentioned specifically in the Talmud, but that does not detract from the fact that other holiday readings have changed over time, and that the holiday Torah readings in general do not have the sanctity of the weekly Torah reading cycle.
Has the Yom Kippur Mincha Torah reading changed recently? Since the mid 1800s, several non-Orthodox machzorim (special prayer book for the High Holy Days) have contained either two readings for this service, the traditional reading and an alternative, or only one reading, and that one reading was now the traditional reading of Leviticus 18. There is no explanation given in the machzorim about why they made those changes or offered those alternatives, but my guess is that they did so because they felt that Leviticus 18 just did not apply to them anymore. In other words, they probably felt that a reading about sexual ethics was not important to them; that it was irrelevant.
In 2019, we know better than to think that a Torah reading about sexual ethics does not apply to us. We live in an era when sexual ethics are trampled upon every day. The world we live in and the world in which we are raising our children and grandchildren is one in which sexual abuse of children and adults, clergy sex scandals, online pornography and so much more are abundant. The truth is, we need the reading of Leviticus 18 more than ever.
But what to do with the problematic verse about homosexuality that is offensive to me and to so many other people? Is there a way to keep most of Leviticus 18 and to somehow deal with Leviticus 18:22? One possibility is to read the traditional verses as usual, but to read the verse 18:22 in a low voice, at a faster than normal rate, or with the musical notes of the Book of Lamentations (Eicha).
I found another answer, though, with the help of a colleague, who decided to read Leviticus 18 in his synagogue, but to change the splitting up of the aliyot so that the three required aliyot did not require reading Leviticus 18:22.
I reworked a bit of my colleague’s solution, and came up with something that works for my shul: reading three aliyot on Yom Kippur afternoon, Leviticus 17:12-16 (not part of the traditional reading) as the first aliyah, reading Leviticus 18:1-5 as the second aliyah (traditionally the first aliyah), and reading Leviticus 18:6-21 as the third aliyah (traditionally the second aliyah).
This solution keeps Leviticus 18 where it belongs, in the Yom Kippur Mincha Torah reading, and removes the objectionable verse from the celebration of the holiday. I do not believe that it is possible to remove any verse from the Torah in the weekly Torah reading cycle, but I am thrilled that there is a method, within Jewish law, to remove this verse from our communal and individual spiritual and religious quest on Yom Kippur.
The Torah tells us to afflict our souls on Yom Kippur, and that is understood as the source for the restrictions of the day (not eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, etc.). I do not believe that we should feel afflicted by the liturgy itself. The liturgy of Yom Kippur is meant to inspire, to raise up, and to give us an opportunity to reflect on who we were last year and who we might be this coming year.
I believe that with this change my community, and all of our members, will be able to better achieve those lofty and important goals in 5780. With God’s help, we are well on our way.
Joel Pitkowsky was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has been the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck since 2011.