Sex and Yom Kippur

By Plaskow, Judith | Tikkun, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Sex and Yom Kippur


Plaskow, Judith, Tikkun


Sex and Yom Kippur

Judith Plaskow is professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, where she teaches a course titled Sexuality and the Sacred.

For some time now, many non-Orthodox congregations have been changing the Torah reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, substituting the ethical precepts of Leviticus 19 for Leviticus 18. While the origin of the traditional reading--a list of prohibited sexual relationships--may be connected to an ancient custom of dancing and courting in the fields on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, in the context of contemporary observance of the Day of Atonement, the recitation of Leviticus 18 seems out of place and even slightly bizarre. I had always supported the substitution of a different reading--until a recent incident made me look again at the function of Leviticus 18 and raise some questions around it.

After a lecture I delivered this year on rethinking Jewish attitudes toward sexuality, a woman approached me in a very distressed state. She told me that she belonged to a Conservative synagogue that had abandoned the practice of reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather, she said, she felt betrayed by that decision, since she wanted to hear her community state publicly the parameters of legitimate sexual relations on a day when large numbers of Jews gather.

I responded to the woman that it was not the purpose of the incest prohibitions of Leviticus 18 to protect the young and vulnerable. Rather, these strictures served to guard the honor of adult males through injunctions not to "uncover the nakedness" of those who belong to them. As part of the Bible's "holiness code," which deals with the laws of purity, Leviticus 18 is far more interested in the purity of genealogical descent, the prevention of improper mixtures, and the preservation of proper class boundaries than it is with "sexual ethics" in the current sense. The text's striking silence on the issue of father/daughter incest--the most common violation--is one indication of the gulf between biblical concerns and contemporary interests and values.

While I argued with my interlocutor that reverting to Leviticus 18 would not really address her needs, I also was quite aware that I had failed to provide a satisfactory response to her desire to see the themes of self-examination and atonement publicly linked to issues of behavior in intimate relationships. Although this person was not necessarily committed to the understanding of sexual holiness expressed in Leviticus 18, she felt that in quietly changing the Torah reading her community had avoided issues of sexual responsibility altogether.

The criticism points to a broad pattern of communal evasion of issues of sexuality, which affects many people other than survivors of sexual abuse. When one considers the enormous amount of work that many Christian denominations have devoted to issues of sexual ethics over the last twenty years, it is striking how sparse and how recent the Jewish discussion has been. Many sectors of the Jewish community have engaged in debates about homosexuality. But focusing the community's anxiety about sexual norms on a particular minority often has served to deflect attention from broader consideration of changing Jewish sexual behavior and values. It is only just now, for example, several years after the movement's decision to admit gay and lesbian students to Hebrew Union College, that an ad hoc committee of the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis is working on a report on human sexuality. In the Conservative movement, the 1994 "Jewish Pastoral Letter on Intimate Relations," written by Elliot Dorff for the Rabbinical Assembly partly to contextualize discussion of homosexuality, was drafted with the explicit noncooperation of the Jewish Theological Seminary and United Synagogue.

I think there are a number of reasons for this reluctance to take up sexual issues. …

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