The combined portions of Achare Mot and Kedoshim teach us as much about the development of Judaism as they do about any specific ritual or tradition, of which there are many covered from Leviticus 16 -20. The portion of Achare Mot opens with a detailed description of the Yom Kippur ritual in Tabernacle and Temple times. For the most part, the ritual focused on the High Priest and his purification of the sanctuary through the sacrifice of animals and the dispatch of the scapegoat. These rituals are elaborated upon in the Mishna and recalled in the Avodah service on the day of Yom Kippur. However, they are no longer practiced. Instead, with the destruction of the Temple and the virtual end of the role of the priest, the focus of Yom Kippur shifted to the individual and the requirement to practice self-denial. While we continue to celebrate Yom Kippur, because of historical circumstances, how we do so has little to do with the ritual that is the focus of the Torah and far more to do with those few verses that relate to each individual (Leviticus 16:29-32).
Other aspects of this combined teaching demonstrate even more than historical factors, human moral development affects how we read and apply Torah. On one hand, parashah Kedoshim opens with the Holiness Code, a standard of ethical and ritual teachings at the core of Judaism to this day. (It includes a restatement of what is known as the 10 commandments in addition to many teachings on justice, equity, compassion and human responsibility.) On the other hand, both Achare Mot and Kedoshim have in their concluding chapters (18 and 20, respectively, of Leviticus) the teachings against gay and lesbian relations that have become the anathema nearly all congregations affiliated not just with Reconstructionism , but also the Reform and Conservative, movements. In fact, it is one of the teachings of the Holiness Code – you shall love your neighbour like yourself –among other principles of Torah teachings that moves us to read the prohibitions against gay and lesbian relationships in a new way.
The question in front of us is how can we mere mortals decide, beyond changes in historical circumstance, which verses of Torah to expand and elevate, and which verses of Torah to contextualize and virtually eliminate? The answer is we have no option to interpret and apply, but an obligation to do so. The very mind and heart implanted in us by God – the creative, compassionate, intelligence – that motivated our earliest sages to adapt the Torah to their times compels us to do the same. The rabbis, in their clever way, turned the passage in Deuteronomy that required the stoning of the rebellious child into one that was never applied but only written in the Torah to test our ability to reason and teach. Similarly, the early rabbis virtually eliminated the death penalty and read the passage “an eye for an eye” as “the value of an eye for an eye”. The rabbis began a process of reading Torah in order for it to be living Torah, developing new meaning not just because of changed historical circumstances but human values in social context.
In our embrace of Torah and living Judaism, we must courageously continue the work of our ancestral teachers. The combined reading of Achare Mot and Kedoshim shows us that over thousands of years there are those parts of Torah that we must continue to highlight, and others whose dark shadows are revealed in that light and must be re-read. Each parashah has a core principle to guide us. In Achare Mot it states: Chai Bahem (and you shall live – or enhance life – by the teachings of Torah). In Kedoshim it states: Kedoshim tiheyu – you shall strive to be holy. We create kedushah, holiness, in the way that we expand or restrict the teachings of Torah to enhance life and the good of Creation.