The Yom Kippur Dilemma Becomes a Prayer

When we read the sexual prohibitions on Yom Kippur, gay Jews hear their lives debased. That's why I wrote this addendum.

BY: Rabbi Steven Greenberg


Every Yom Kippur, gay Jews who attend services are faced with a dilemma. In the afternoon service the portion from Leviticus delineating the sexual prohibitions is read in most traditional synagogues. The whole of chapter 18 is read. It is a list of sexual violations from incest, to adultery, from sex with a menstruant woman, to bestiality and of course, sex between men. And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination. How are we supposed to respond to this public humiliation?

For nearly two thousand years gay Jews, and particularly gay men, have had to listen to their lives debased on the holiest day of the year, their sexual relations demonized with the word toeva, abomination. It’s no wonder that many liberal synagogues have rejected this tradition of reading Leviticus 18 and have replaced it various other readings.

However, despite the difficulty, there is good reason for communities to sustain the traditional reading. Repressing difficult texts is a lot like repressing feelings; they inevitably resurface and often in much more destructive ways. It seems better to me that we read Leviticus 18 and deal with it than deny or ignore it. First, it seems right that Yom Kippur should include a public reminder of how destructive sexual abuse can be. Toward that end, the first part of the prayer addresses those who are the victims of sexual transgression.

Second, reading Leviticus 18:22 in shul on Yom Kippur makes gay people present in a powerful, if challenging way. With the proper acknowledgement, the reading can become a call to greater empathy, understanding. We can use it to bring to communal memory the countless people throughout the ages, who, on the most holy day of the year, had no voice in the face the most devastating misrepresentation of their hearts. And lastly, it can serve as an impetus for learning and reinterpretation of the biblical and rabbinic texts that should no longer be a source of self-loathing or exclusion.

Toward these ends I wrote this prayer along with my friend Danny Wohl to accompany the afternoon Torah service on Yom Kippur. It is printed below for communities to use and where that is not possible, for individuals to use privately.

With wishes for a Yom Kippur that helps us all to overcome the obstacles in our way toward greater authenticity, generosity of spirit and aliveness and may Jewish communities everywhere come soon to embrace their gay and lesbian sons and daughters.

Prayer to accompany the Torah reading of Leviticus 18
on Yom Kippur Afternoon

By Rabbi Steven Greenberg and Danny Wohl

Click Here for the Hebrew Text

Master of the Universe

On this Yom Kippur,

As the noonday sun descends,

We open up your sacred scroll,

And read with awe its words of wisdom.

Troubled, we share our meditations with You.

In the beginning You created us in your image,

Breathed into a pure body opposing desires,

The human was created, lonely and alone.

When You repaired the flaw, transformed it by love

Your creations rejoiced, their longings fulfilled.

Flesh of Flesh, bone of bone,

One made two and two made one.

But You have also kindled the storms of our passion,

How, brazen and reckless, we slake our thirst.

We are overwhelmed by a sea of desire.

Only the bonds of covenant restrain the torrent,

Setting boundaries that cannot be breached.

Continued on page 2: 'Master of the Universe, to Whom All Secrets Are Known...' »

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Related Topics: Faiths, Judaism, Yom Kippur, High Holidays