Did My Mom Know She Was Teaching Me Torah? Commentary on Parashat Kedoshim 5784

By Ezra Kiers, Rabbinical Student at Hebrew Seminary


When I was a kid, I used to argue with my big sibling all the time. I’d get all worked up over them getting the toy we both wanted. They’d think I got the bigger scoop of ice cream and we’d yell, “That’s not fair!” I don’t know why I kept repeating “that’s not fair” for so many years as a child. After all, I knew very early on that my mother’s response would inevitably be, “Fair does not mean that everybody gets the same thing. Fair means that everybody gets what they need.”

I’m not sure if my mom knew then that those words would end up being one of the most influential pieces of Torah I’d ever learn. Maybe she did—she was a Jewish educator for 25 years—but that phrase seems to have been etched into my young, spongy brain. I still hear her in my head when I wrestle with the idea of fairness, and figuring out how to tackle Parashat Kedoshim is no exception.

Parashat Kedoshim is, in true Levitical fashion, all about rules. You shall do X, you shall not do Y, and so on. To some, these parashiyyot containing many of the 613 commandments can be boring. There’s no action or adventure like the Exodus story, no mystical dreams like Jacob’s or Joseph’s in Genesis, and there are certainly no talking donkeys like Balaam’s in the Book of Numbers. But if you’re a Torah nerd like me, these rules and regulations can be a gateway into some of your deepest inner thoughts. When I first approached Kedoshim, I thought Hashem’s opener said it all: קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ (kedoshim tihyu, “you shall be holy”). (All translations here are from The Contemporary Torah.) At first glance, this totally made sense to me. Do the mitzvot as prescribed, and—BAM!—holiness! After all, this parashah contains some of the most frequently quoted examples of Jewish values:


לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל

You shall not insult the Deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. (Leviticus 19:14.)


לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. (Leviticus 19:17.)


וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ

Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18.)


These words sit well with me. They reflect the values that I was raised with. They are the morals that drove me toward the rabbinate. They serve as proof that, in fact, aligning myself with organized religious or spiritual spaces is not as harmful an experience as many of my peers in the LGBTQ+ community often express. With that said, I’ve noticed a somewhat understandable, yet somewhat problematic pattern: when many progressive Jewish communities teach Leviticus, there’s often a strong emphasis on ‘the good stuff.’ We read the words from the few verses above and pat ourselves on the back. After all, one of the reasons Jews are unique amongst our spiritually-inclined cousins is that our holy texts preach love, right? There’s no hate to be found here. And if there is a word that might be controversial, we either find another translation or talk ourselves in circles trying to find a way to use that word to serve our agendas. 

Because many of us are taught this from the get-go, we often find it challenging to imagine that our Torah, our Tree of Life, could possibly contain anything that might be truly tough to swallow, and nearly impossible to justify. But the more I continue to read the words of Parashat Kedoshim and mull them over, the more I find myself trying to rationalize and justify mitzvot that are, to me, truly and deeply troubling:


כִּֽי־אִ֣ישׁ אִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְקַלֵּ֧ל אֶת־אָבִ֛יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֖וֹ מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֑ת אָבִ֧יו וְאִמּ֛וֹ קִלֵּ֖ל דָּמָ֥יו בּֽוֹ׃ 

If anyone insults either father or mother, that person shall be put to death. (Leviticus 20:9.)


וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מ֥וֹת יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם׃ 

If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death. (Leviticus 20:13.)


I have admittedly—though accidentally—insulted my parents in the past. I am also queer. For these reasons, among many other intersecting identities and values that I hold dear, those verses make me want to scream. How could my Torah—whose story is one of my ancestors’ liberation and self-determination despite complicated parent/child relationships—dictate that my traumatic response of causing harm as a teen is a reason to be killed? How could Judaism, my Judaism, whose core is made of acts of loving-kindness and repairing the world, imply that I should die because of my attraction to my partner? 

These questions haunt me, as I imagine they always will. But these questions have also led me to more questions (as we Jews often experience). Comparing the mitzvot that both affirm and offend me, I wonder: What does it mean to be holy? Does it mean to be pious, to follow each commandment in the Torah word for word? Does it mean to act ethically, to lead with our morals? For many Jews, we like to think that the words of Torah are inherently ethical and will point us in the right direction. So what do we do when it is the words of Torah themselves that cause us to question our morality? This is where my mom’s words of wisdom come in. In addition to both the validation and struggle that Kedoshim contains, this parashah also includes “בְּצֶ֖דֶק תִּשְׁפֹּ֥ט עֲמִיתֶֽךָ” (betzedek tishpot amitekha, “judge your kin justly”) (Leviticus 19:15 [my own translation]).

Justly, not equally. We don’t all need the same things to survive, so it makes sense that a judgement we may have of one person is valid, yet applying the identical judgement to another person may be wrong. In these cases, unequal judgements seem fair to me. So, if I can (presumably) judge a person fairly—unequally, unidentically—can I not also judge different passages of this Torah this way? Is it more fair to follow the written word verbatim—take it or leave it—or to talk around the Torah, to interpret it in a way that is meaningful even if that meaning is different from the authors’ original intent?

The 19th century scholar Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin claimed in He’amek Davar on Genesis (Kidmat Ha’Emek 3) that, “Aside from the most basic, simple reading, there are in every word many secrets and hidden ideas. Because of this, there are many instances when the language of the Torah is not to be read literally” (translation from Sefaria). Now, let’s say, for arguments’ sake, that Rabbi Berlin could have been wrong. Perhaps the only way to understand the Torah’s secrets and hidden ideas is to be so observant that you almost recreate the culture in which those words were written. This could be seen as an attempt to put yourself in the shoes of our ancestors, to really live our history and revitalize our oldest traditions. 

On paper, that doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea. But what would happen if we, in 2024, started making animal sacrifices and threatening to stone sinners to death, as prescribed in the Torah? We would lose the sensitivities and empathy we have developed for all life for over  2,000 years. Rabbi Berlin had a point. It’s fair to Torah, and to us, to not take the entirety of any parashah too literally. Though some words may be intended to be taken literally, others perhaps should not. Taking Torah with a grain of salt (and a lot of historical context) to make our own meaning is exactly why this living document has remained so relevant to the Jewish people throughout our history.

I strive to be a person who sees the silver lining in Torah, in the world, and in the people around me. Admittedly, I’m not sure what to make of the mixed messages in Parashat Kedoshim, but I think that maybe that’s the whole point. Wrestling, finding our own moral compass and following its path can be the fairest, holiest thing we can do. After all, fair doesn’t mean we all get the same thing, even from the Torah. Fair means that we all get what we need.

(Thanks, Mom.)



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