Acharei Mot (After the death)

Acharei MotLeviticus 16:1 to 18:30

Torah presents a list of forbidden sexual offenses. These were composed over 2,500 years ago. Today’s ethics and lifestyles have changed and suggest that this list should be revisited.

The two parshotAcharei Mot, read this week – and K’doshim – read next week – are one of seven pairs that are usually read together …. However, during a leap year, which this is, they are read separately.

Acharei Mot takes place after the death of Aaron’s two sons. The Eternal relates the ritual practices to be followed by Aaron in the Tabernacle. The parsha also discusses laws regarding eating of sacrificial meat and forbidden sexual contacts.

In this week’s comments I would like to focus on the section dealing with forbidden sexual contacts and note how the contemporary views and ethics of our 21st century world have changed what is accepted and what is not.

The Ten Commandments forbids adultery (assumed to be sex outside of marriage). But in this week’s reading, Torah goes into more detail by listing specific types of forbidden sexual contacts for the male. Even though the female is not mentioned (except in regard to bestiality); by extension, if an act requiring both a man and women is forbidden, it can be assumed that a woman should not be part of this action.

Torah states that a man is forbidden to “uncover the nakedness” (have relations) of any one of his own flesh. (Lev. 18:6) This includes the following which are specifically mentioned:

  •  Mother (Lev. 18:7)
  • Father’s wife – Stepmother (Lev. 18:8)
  • Sister – Includes step-sisters… any daughter of your father or mother (Lev. 18:9, 11)
  • Granddaughter – Daughter of a son or daughter (Lev. 18:10)
  • Mother’s or father’s brother or mother’s sister – She is flesh of a mother or father (Lev. 18:12, 13)
  • Wife of father’s brother – also know as an aunt (Lev:18:14)
  • Son’s wife – daughter-in-law (Lev: 18:15)
  • Brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16)
  • Daughter of a woman with whom one has had relations … or her son’s daughter or  daughter’s daughter (Torah states this is a “depravity.”) (Lev. 18:17)
  • “Do not marry a woman as a rival to her sister in her lifetime.” – Interpretations of this understand the rivals could be sisters. (Lev. 18:18)
  • A woman during her menstrual period (Lev. 15:19 stated that a woman is ritually impure during this period) (Lev. 15:19)
  • Neighbor’s wife (Lev. 18:20)
  • “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” (Lev. 18:22)
  • Relations with an animal. Torah also states that women are also forbidden on this issue. It is the only place where women are specifically forbidden, (Lev. 18:23)

A review of this list seems to indicate that all but Leviticus 18:19, 20 and 21 prohibit relations within the family unit. Based on prior biblical stories, marriage with relatives was not unusual. Abraham and Isaac married cousins. Marriages within a given tribe were encouraged. But marriages involving close relives are discouraged. However, sex outside marriage with an unmarried women is not specifically forbidden. This writer gets the impression that these commandments were given with the specific goal of maintaining shalom – peace – within a family unit. There is a definite theme of avoiding jealousy between family members, close relations, and neighbors.

However, this writer sees two other sexual practices that should be forbidden (and are forbidden by contemporary law… but not included in the above list.)

First, incest with one’s child – son or daughter – should be forbidden. Many commentators feel it is included under Leviticus 18:17 which forbids having relations with a daughter of a woman whom a man has had prior relations. Also, Gunther Plaut hints that this may not have been a major issue for people in Biblical times because marriage took place … or was arranged … at a very early age. Thus, other commandments applied. (Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. p. 786)….. Maybe this is true …. But, because this is such an important issue – which has huge effects on the victim – it should have had a specific mention.

Maybe child abuse was not included because it was felt that a child was the property of the father. As such, his treatment of this child was not a matter for public knowledge. Today this may seem outrageous; but, in a different time, it may have been an issue that was not even discussed.

The second sexual practice not mentioned is unwelcome sexual advances by a person with power over the victim. This could be an adult over a child… a teacher over a student … or a workplace superior over a subordinate. The victim feels that they must submit or bad outcomes may follow.

In most cases, both of these offenses remain private because of the fears of retaliation. The victim feels powerless. As a result there is no threat to the shalom or peace of the community. However, there is great harm to the victim.

Then, there is the issue of homosexual behavior (Leviticus 18:22). The Reform Movement believes that all people are created b’selem Elohim (in the image of God) and as such are to be treated with equal dignity and respect. This includes the right to marry someone an individual loves, regardless of sex. It is clear that heterosexual, gay, bisexual, and lesbian couples are entitled to find happiness and strength in the holiness of their relationships. It is felt that the sincerity, dignity and increased self-esteem created in these relationships is of greater meaning to the goals of Reform Judaism than those implied in Leviticus 18:22. The Reform movement has been an advocate for gay and lesbian rights since 1965 when the Women of the Reform Judaism (WRJ) passed a resolution for decriminalization of homosexuality. A year later, the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) passed a resolution supporting the rights of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage and voiced opposition to government efforts to ban same-sex marriages.

This writer feels that the list of offenses presented in the Torah should be amended. The stated goals of the commandments against sexual offenses today should not only include the maintenance of peace in the community… but, by encompassing the above information, add the a goal of establishing dignity, self-esteem, and a feeling of safety for every member within that community.

Earl Sabes

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