Acharei Mot: Finding a new scapegoat

I can’t be the only person to have seen the connection between this week’s parasha, Acharei Mot, and last week’s historic decision by Israel’s Schechter Rabbinical Assembly  (which corresponds to the Conservative Movement here in America), to finally accept gay and lesbian individuals into the seminary.    In this week’s parasha, we read the infamous Leviticus 18:22 text, which has long been read as a prohibition, indeed, an “aveira” (abomination) against male homosexuality.

I know I’m not the only person whose first thoughts were, “It’s about time.”  The US Conservative Movement has been encouraging this ruling for years, as have many non-Orthodox Israeli Jews who, along with Conservative and other Progressive Jews around the world.

You can read about the Masorti Seminary decision here  (, and I’m sure you can search for much more written on the topic.  Right now, I’d like to focus on another connection between this text, this action, and another piece of text from the Torah portion.   Earlier in the portion, we read of Aaron’s offerings on behalf of himself and the community.  Basically, Aaron is to take a bull, offer it up on his own family’s behalf, and shpritz some of the blood on the Sanctuary itself, thereby purging it of the community’s transgressions.  Then Aaron has to take the two goats, and let fate decide which one is for God, (read: slaughtered) and which one is for Azalzel, to be sent out to die in the wilderness. But first,  Aaron has to put his hands on the wilderness-goat so he can  lay all the Israelites’ transgressions on it. It was the original scapegoat.

In the Jewish community, it has taken a long time to begin purging the homophobic actions of many of our leaders.  There is so much more to be done.  The continued mis-treatment, alienation, marginalization and degradation of gay and lesbian Jews still goes on, particularly in the Orthodox traditions.  I’m certainly not saying all Orthodox Jews are homophobic.   Indeed, the modern Orthodox movement is to be acknowledged for recognizing the issue ( and trying to reconcile difficult, uncomfortable Halachic quandries.   But to the extent that Aaron, in a leadership position as High Priest, caretaker of the communal “soul”, was responsible for purging transgressions from within the community,  so are our leaders responsible.   The Schechter Rabbinical Assembly in Israel has taken a big step towards that end.

Aaron’s offering of expiation is in two parts:  his household, and then his community.  Our atonement for how the gay and lesbian community has been treated must be offered the same way: look at our own household’s actions, and then offer up atonement for how the rest of the community has behaved towardin a way that will begin to remove the transgression of hatred from our midst.   Acharei Mot means “after death.”  Aaron picks up after the deaths of his two sons who apparently did something drastically wrong in the Sanctuary.  Much rabbinic ink is used to try and explain what it was, and for many, it’s hard to imagine what they could have done that was worth being killed for.  We too, must pick up after too many deaths of (mostly) our sons and daughters, for whom it is even less clear what they have done “wrong”.  We can begin to heal after those deaths by halting the hate that caused them.

It’s interesting that both of the goats Aaron uses in the Sanctuary die; one by his own action, the other in a passive way.  The same can be said for the effects of homophobia in our society. Some people act out their hatred, and actively slaughter a soul.  Others remain passive, but still “allow” the goat to die.

As Aaron did, let’s lay our hands on an offering, transferring our intolerance,  lightening our community’s load by purging it from our midst, following the example of leaders who are opening their arms to include and welcome.  The Seminary has made a bold decision. Perhaps it’s belated, perhaps it’s just the right time, but either way, our community is uplifted by it.

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