Double Mitzvah – Acharei Mot

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by David Bookbinder. David is an educator and part of the amazing Leadership Team of Jewrotica. For more of David’s columns, check out Double Mitzvah – Tzav, Double Mitzvah – Shmini, Double Mitzvah – Tazria, and and last week’s column, Double Mitzvah – Metzora.

Rated PG-13
Am I Normal?
How do we view and judge our own sexuality?

The media, especially magazines and television, has had an influence on shaping my sexual identity. Ever since I was a little girl, I have watched the women on TV and hoped I would grow up to look sexy and beautiful like them [and so…] young girls like me grow up with unrealistic expectations of what beauty is […] -21-year-old female

If there has been one recurring theme in my life, it’s that I often look to the magic of Hollywood to inspire my quest for the perfect date. But because of my lack of experience in the field of dating, my primary source of advice has come from movies and TV. At the age of 19, […] after one date, I quickly realized no one should get their advice from TV and movies.
-20-year-old male (1)

Society, and the media specifically, have no problem defining sex or sexuality for us. This problem isn’t limited to a heteronormative culture either. Homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, cisgendered – all these different types of sexuality are defined by our culture. So, I hear you asking, what’s wrong with that? After all, we are now a much more open culture than ever before, right? We have openly gay celebrities and public figures, many of our television shows, movies, and magazines all acknowledge that white, male heterosexuality isn’t the only thing out there. It would seem that we have a very open and freeing culture. Especially when we contrast it with our parasha this week, Acharei Mot.

Here’s the breakdown: The majority of the parasha deals with Yom Kippur and its sacrificial rite including the choosing of a scapegoat for Israel’s sins. Following this there is a small section commanding us to not murder animals (i.e., kill them needlessly) or eat their blood. Finally, we are told not to follow in the ways of the Egyptians or Canaanites. This last injunction is expressed in detail through the various sexual prohibitions which conclude this chapter: no sex with relatives, no sex with a menstruating woman, no adultery, no anal penetrative sex between men, no sex with animals.

One look at this parasha and it seems pretty clear: The Torah has very explicitly defined what sex is and it has limited it to heterosexual sex between a man and a woman. And indeed it is this part of the Bible which is oft quoted by anti-homosexuality groups. But is this what is really going on here?

Look back at our first two quotes. Society has told these people what sex, sexuality, and relationships are. These people attempted to define themselves by society’s parameters. As seemingly open as our culture is to sex, it still imposes its own specific viewpoints on each individual, sometimes to an unhealthy degree:

[…] I felt like ripping my hair out every time I saw a skinny model whose stomach was as hard and flat as a board, with their flawless skin and perfectly coifed hair. I cringed when I realized that my legs seemed to have an extra “wiggle-jiggle” when I walked. All I could do was watch the television and feel abashed at the differences in their bodies compared to mine. When magazines and movies tell me that for my age I should weigh no more than a hundred pounds, I feel like saying, “Well, gee, it’s no wonder I finally turned to laxatives with all these pressures to be thin surrounding me. I ached to be model-thin and pretty. This fixation to be as beautiful and coveted as these models so preoccupied me that I had no time to even think about anyone or anything else.
-18-year-old female (2)

It might seem that society is more open than the antiquated Bible on sexuality, but in reality, our modern society confines us to very specific boundaries of what is considered sex, sexy, and sexuality. But, doesn’t the Torah do the same thing?

Nope. Look at the summary again, or better yet, look at the actual text. Every mention of sex in this parasha is stated in the negative. Do not do this, do not do that, etc. As a matter of fact, not once does the Torah say what sex is, just what sex is not. And yes, what the Torah does prohibit can be extremely offensive and heartbreaking, even when viewed in its own historical context. (See Rabbi Steve’s Greenberg explanation of the prohibition of homosexuality here.) But let’s look purely at what the Torah is trying to do at large. Defining what sex is creates limited and oftentimes constrained boundaries on sex. By defining what sex is not, the Torah is allowing us to define for ourselves sex and sexuality.

Think of it this way: rather than being told that we CAN ONLY do x, y, and z, which therefore excludes a-w, the Torah says that we ONLY CANNOT do x, y, and z, which opens up all other possibilities. So as we enter into Shabbat, let’s remember these two very important facts. The Torah might say some really unpalatable things, but the motivation and ideas behind those things can still be very powerful for us to learn. And when we think of who we are as sexual beings, let’s not constrain ourselves to what the media or society-at-large tells us is okay. We are who we are and no one can tell us otherwise. Shabbat Shalom!

Footnotes

1. Both quotes are from Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America 4th edition published by McGraw-Hill Education, chapter 1, page 2.

2. Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America 4th edition published by McGraw-Hill Education, chapter 1, page 2.

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  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    We are so lucky to have you penning this column. Thank you for sharing these relatable, powerful and uplifting Torah thoughts!