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Ahrei Mot-Passover Sermon

This sermon was written for Friday, April 15th.

Why is it that the holiday that celebrates the creation of the Jewish people appears today to give rise to far more divisions?  There is the Ashkenazi and Sephardi divide.  Do you eat rice on Passover?  Do you only cook with potatoes?  There are the Reform and Orthodox divisions.  Do you observe seven days or eight?  There are the endless discussions about kitniyot (legumes) and of course this year’s quinoa controversy.  Apparently rabbis have been dispatched to South America’s Andes to discern if there are wheat particles mixed in with the quinoa.  Personally I have been enjoying this gluten free grain for years.  I recommend the red variety in particular.  I recently read that there are even some who won’t eat meat, drink milk or eat eggs from animals that have been fed hametz.  (If you don’t believe me listen to Tablet Magazine’s Vox Tablet podcast “Against the Grain” here.)

You can really start losing sight of the import of this holiday in its details.  These “kosher battles” and the accusations of who is more religious can diminish the ideal that we are supposed to be promoting.  We are one people despite our many different ways of observing.  All must hold fast to the idea that we are remembering slavery and celebrating freedom.  These are the essential messages of the Passover holiday.  The rest is commentary, or if you prefer decorations.  The potential small pieces of wheat in a box of quinoa or the microscopic bits of hametz in milk are not the essence.  By the way the left is not entirely innocent.  There is a restaurant that I read about, also in Tablet Magazine, which goes out of its way to make its food traif.  It serves matzah balls wrapped in bacon. (Again you can read that article here.)  Yes we are free and can eat whatever we want, but need we flout Jewish history and memory as well?   Bacon donuts might be one thing, but matzah balls dripping with pork fat seem an entirely different matter.

In case these differences are not enough, in this week’s Torah portion we find another law that divides us.  Ahrei Mot contains Leviticus 18, a detailed list of prohibited sexual relations.  So controversial was this portion that it is no longer read in the vast majority of synagogues as Yom Kippur’s afternoon Torah reading.  In all Reform synagogues, and many Conservative, Leviticus 19’s holiness code is read instead.  In this week’s portion it relates: “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife…or your sister… or your son’s daughter…”  These are of course not the controversy, although many seem to feel that all of this talk of nakedness is not befitting Yom Kippur.  The controversy is not about bestiality or incest but found in one verse: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” (Leviticus 18:22) 

This law is the biblical basis for the prohibition against homosexuality.  We should be careful to note that traditional Jewish law understands this to mean a prohibition against the homosexual act alone.  It is not a statement of feelings.  It is only about actions.  The Talmudic rabbis added a prohibition against lesbian sex.  Still the Jewish world remains terribly divided about this issue.  The Reform movement openly ordains gay and lesbian Jews as rabbis.  Some Reform rabbis officiate at commitment ceremonies.  Others do not.  The film, “Trembling before God,” explored the excruciating challenges of gays and lesbians living in an Orthodox world.   It is a wrenching film.  (You can watch the entire movie on Hulu.)  Years after first watching this film, I still find that it continues to have a profound effect on me.  I cannot forget the endless statements of abandonment and pain.  Parents shunned children.  Rabbis advised young people to remain celibate rather than transgress the Torah’s words.  Many expressed over and over again how they would choose another life if they could.  But their attractions could not be swayed, just like mine for a woman cannot be changed. “Why can’t I be both gay and Orthodox?” they asked.  “Why can’t the Torah’s words, like so many other verses, be reinterpreted?”

Rather than see these individuals, and couples, as human beings standing before us, Jewish leaders make rulings.  We rule and draw divisions.  “We accept you.”  And under our breath, we say, “We are therefore more compassionate.” Or we say, “We cannot accept your desires.”  And under our breath, we say, “We alone are the guardians of Torah true Judaism.”  We speak as if homosexuality is some theoretical issue about which we can agree or disagree.  But then lines are drawn across peoples’ lives.  We divide ourselves by our theories and interpretations, beliefs and ideologies.  We pretend that people are like bits and pieces of hametz.  And we therefore remain forever divided and fractured—and fellow Jews feel cast aside.  Can we still remain one people?  If we looked instead into the eyes of others perhaps we would be drawn together.

And that is what pains me the most during this year’s celebrations of Passover.  We are but 14 million people at best.  Rather than being drawn together we draw lines between us.  Why can’t we hear the command also in our Torah portion, v’chai bahem—live by them, as a command to our entire people?  We must live—together.  Instead we scream and yell at each other.  We believe that our way is the only way.  Only this week a Reform synagogue was vandalized in Tel Aviv.   Do we prefer violence and potentially even death to living together? 

It pains me that the holiday that made us one people today makes us even more divided.  But I will not let go of Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people.  We are one people.  Most people think that the Shema is only about proclaiming God’s oneness.  But it is also about declaring our people’s oneness.  Shema Yisrael is in the singular.  Hear O Israel is its opening words.  You can read this, as the tradition mostly does, as a statement made to each individual Jew who must hear this command affirming one God as directed to him or her.  I prefer instead to hear it addressed to the Jewish people when we stand as one.  God is only one when we are one.  When we stand as Am Echad, one people, then and only then is God one.

Only together can we proclaim God’s oneness.  We need each other.  We need less kosher for Passover products (although I really do like the jelly rings).  We need fewer divisions.  We need less looking over our shoulders at others, or looking down at others.  We need more standing together as one people.

On this Passover we need more unity and oneness.