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.
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.