Earlier in this term I gave a d’var — a speech interpreting the weekly Torah portion— at a Hillel Shabbat dinner. The portion started off in typically Biblical fashion with a detailed description of how the High Priest performs services on Yom Kippur. But then we got to the texts’ discussion of sexual morality and commandments that get at the social consciousness that I believe is at the core of Judaism. For me, this portion juxtaposes what attracts me to Judaism and what pulls me away from my Jewish heritage. The prohibitions, the you-shall-nots, the and-you-shall-be-stoned-if-you, et cetera have always seemed constrictive and often problematic. I do believe that we must follow certain moral codes and that religion can be useful in guiding us, but I still struggle with the text. Further, if I chose not to do so and engage with the text intellectually or not at all, how does that change my relationship to Judaism?
I often feel a twinge, and sometimes a lot more than that, of dissatisfaction with religion. I remind myself that people use and distort religious texts and teaching around the world to degrade, to humiliate, to abuse, and even to kill. How do I separate people’s actions from religion? Do I simply remind myself that their interpretation is a distortion if it is harmful? Or do I reject religion like I have for most of my adult life? From this Torah portion, I am left with a sense of profound awe at the social consciousness that is built into my heritage even while I may not agree with all of these prohibitions and find some to be harmful. I will grapple with Judaism in all its complexity. The section obligates the Jewish people to follow a certain moral code because the Land of Israel will physically reject them. To posses a land flowing from milk and honey one must be just or moral. I think there is much to be learned from thinking of our relationship to land and ownership as a responsibility and to stretch that from the literal text to a place where we value protecting the environment. I still struggle with the text, so much so that I used to feel like I didn’t want to engage with it at all. It felt irrelevant and often seemed sexist. But I think the point should be to struggle, so thank you for struggling along with me and enjoy a further exploration of religion in this issue.