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A midrash relates that our Mishnaic Sages sought one verse that would encapsulate the fundamental principle of the Torah. Two opinions are given. Rabbi Shimon Ben Azzai quotes from Genesis, “This is the Book of the generations of humankind…” (Genesis 5:1-2), stressing the universal ideal that all humans are one family descended from a common ancestor, created in God’s image.
Ben Azzai’s more famous colleague, Rabbi Akiva, cited the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Akiva’s citation is from our double Torah portion, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim, a section of Leviticus that prescribes the rules for being Kedoshim (a holy community). The commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” was the crowning precept of that holiness code, the explicit intention of which, rather than stressing universality, is to separate Jews from other nations.
The argument between Ben Azzai and Akiva is a recurring theme in Jewish life. It is often cited in the tension between the particularism of orthodox halacha and the universal ethics of Torah stressed by reformers. Yet the tension was already built in to Torah. As an example, alongside the admonitions to love the stranger are directives to have “one law for you and the stranger in your midst.” On one hand, we should welcome immigrants into our societies, and on the other hand, law is coercive and immigrants must follow the custom of the land. The Sages’ solution to this tension was to interpret the word “ger” (stranger) as a convert, who has agreed to live according to Jewish law, but this is not the simple meaning of the text.
Ben Azzai’s citation in Genesis explicitly posits the fundamental equality of women and men, yet this, too, is fraught with tension: How is equality possible if God’s punishment of Eve is to subjugate her to Adam? Further complicating this, our Torah portion in Leviticus established very rigid rules of engagement that direct the sexual impulse (the yetzer) towards (mainly) monogamous heterosexuality, while forbidding other liaisons.
Leviticus’ sweeping prohibitions on incest, adultery, bestiality and male homosexuality reflect a broader ontology. Many mitzvot regarding what to eat, what to wear and how to treat our environment reject “mixing” kinds and species. Ancient mythological creatures mixed people with animals (e.g. centaurs) and gods with human beings (e.g. Heracles). It imbued the natural world with the divine.
The Torah placed God above nature, and divided creations into types and species, commanding not to mix them. Examples include not plowing with two types of animals and not planting two types of grain in the same field, not mixing products of the same animal (its milk and its offspring), nor eating fish that display the characteristics of land animals (skin rather than scales, limbs rather than fins). These broad eidetic principles also applied to matters of sexuality and gender.
The Sages mandated teaching the codes of Leviticus to children prior to their studying the more engaging narratives of Genesis or Exodus. The Sages wanted children – before they encountered their newly discovered sexuality as post-pubescent adults – to internalize sensibilities directing the yetzer towards sanctified, pure objects, and away from abhorred, impure ones.
Oddly enough, these codes form the context for Ch. 19 of Leviticus, which teaches ethical rules of justice and inclusion for everyday life. Examples of this are: do not place a stumbling block before the blind; leave a portion of the harvest for the stranger and the poor; use fair weights and measures in commerce; pay employees on time; treat the elderly with dignity; and Rabbi Akiva’s crowning principle “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet the Torah encases this ethical heart in a hard shell of strict sexual prohibitions in Chapters 18 and 20, some of which, such as incest, we can easily understand, and others, such as homosexuality, which are difficult and disturbing.
These Sages grappled with the meaning of Leviticus while living in a civilization where marriages were mandatory arrangements primarily to ensure family wealth and continuity; in which cultural elites taught that a liaison with a boy was an essential component of a man’s education (e.g. Plato’s Symposium); in which a Roman emperor lived in an island pleasure-palace stocked with children of various genders to fulfill his every perverse fantasy (see Villa Jovis on Capri).
Rabbi Akiva’s life narrative, recounted in the Talmud, challenges convention. An illiterate shepherd until age 40, he marries for love, launching him on a path to becoming the greatest expositor of Torah. I think that for Akiva, the prohibitions of Leviticus Chapters 18 and 20 constituted a metaphorical sanctuary to house its altar, which is the sublime ethical vision of Ch. 19. The exclusive intimacy between a man and a woman was the Holy of Holies of that sanctuary, where the curse of sexual subjugation and manipulation employed by the children of Eve and Adam gives way to equality and partnership, and teaching, in the process, how to love our neighbor. That was his fundamental principle of Torah.
We live in a political-material culture that has freed us to choose our own paths, but it has not freed us from ourselves – (see Jeffrey Epstein’s private Island: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/07/horrors-of-jeffrey-epstein-private-island and this New York Times article on internet porn: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/opinion/sunday/companies-online-rape-videos.html).
Akiva’s challenge remains as compelling as ever – to direct our lives towards building a metaphorical sanctuary, to construct it and enter its Holy of Holies, learning to love and to live well in the process.
Shavua Tov from Schechter!
Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.
Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.