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 Yom Kippur Drasha 5763


by Leah Hofkin

Thank you for the incredible honor of sharing some thoughts on Torah with you on this most holy day. This opportunity is especially meaningful because the topic I've chosen to address- Holy Love and Sex, or Reclaiming Torah as a Contemporary Handbook on Dating and Relationships--reflects the convergence of a very personal challenge in my life and one of the traditional teachings of Yom Kippur. As many of you know, I went through a divorce this past year. And, while it is my hope ultimately to go through life with the blessing of a committed, loving partnership, starting the quest to new love is more than a little terrifying. How can I be true to myself, to my own spiritual journey while undergoing the trials and tribulations of dating and G-d willing, cultivating a new relationship?

Our tradition suggests that Yom Kippur is an auspicious time for considering, if not answering, these kinds of questions. As I'll discuss momentarily, the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon deals directly with the boundaries between holy and prohibited or unholy sexual relationships. Before I explain, please let me underscore that I claim neither special expertise beyond my own personal experience nor do I promise any easy solutions. Indeed, I predict I will raise many more questions than answers, particularly since there is no way I can adequately cover the entire subject of Jewish sexuality in the time we have here. It is my goal simply to begin what I hope will be an ongoing conversation within this community about seeking, finding, sustaining, and nurturing loving, intimate relationships on our Jewish spiritual path. I also want to acknowledge that while my personal viewpoint is female and heterosexual, my intention is to offer some observations and, if we're lucky, some insights that you will find useful on your own journeys, regardless of your gender, orientation, or current relationship status. Perhaps together we can create a new Torah-driven conception for love and relationships.

Scholars tell us that on Yom Kippur afternoon in Temple times, after the elaborate atonement ritual performed by the High Priest, the community would assemble for wild celebration that included the potential for sexual abandon. Thus Yom Kippur afternoon became the time for engagements within the community.

This seems peculiar to us today. We equate Yom Kippur with self-denial, abstinence from food and sex, and solemnity. Also, it is difficult to even fathom the idea that one sexual encounter under the influence, whether of alcohol, drugs, or a peak spiritual experience-while perhaps not without consequences--will lead directly to marriage or long-term commitment.

Now, I do not propose a mad round of speed dating-let alone something racier--here in the Golden Gate Room during our break. Our contemporary Yom Kippur practice of prayer, quiet contemplation, and fasting, is designed, ingeniously in my opinion, to help us achieve a much-need state of at-one-ment with the Divine and with ourselves. Yet, I believe that the lessons of Yom Kippur offer a starting point for defining holy love.

On Yom Kippur, as our prayers and fast take hold, we begin to feel our egos slipping away. The masks we don to hide or separate ourselves from G-d and from the sense of the Divine within each of us come off. As the day wears on, as we examine and then let go of our mistakes of the past year, we start to savor the prospect of forgiveness, of beginning a new year, a new life with a clean slate. We sense that there truly is an inner core to our beings that is pure and holy.

Daniel often shares a Chassidic teaching, a play on words really, that connects Yom Kippur with Purim, the other Jewish holiday involving masks. Yom Ha Kippurim is like Ha Yom, the day, of Purim. On Purim, we dress up in costume and party, losing ourselves by putting on masks, by drinking, by acting foolish, and letting go. For some of us, at least, this Purim state of consciousness-or maybe purposeful unconsciousness-is one that pushes us along on the path toward potential love. You probably would not think it strange if a friend said she met someone at Purim party or if after a Purim celebration, another friend reported he had consummated a budding relationship.

I reiterate that I am not suggesting that we add a mating ritual to Yom Kippur. For the moment, I invite you simply to consider the idea that our love lives might benefit from some Yom Kippur consciousness. For example, on Yom Kippur, and the days preceding it, we list our failings and then ask those we've wronged, including G-d, to tear up those lists. What would it look like if we applied this lesson to the realm of dating and relationships and tore up the lists we've been hanging onto: the lists of mandated attributes of potential mates, the lists of reasons why we're not deserving of love, of why it will never work out for us, and for those of us in relationships, the lists of all the petty grievances we've collected against our partners.

Now, let's consider what else our tradition might offer us. We just completed the morning Torah reading. Traditional communities, though not Keneset HaLev, read a second selection from the Torah as part of the afternoon service. For this reading, as I indicated, the Rabbis chose the portion of the Torah that delineates prohibited sexual relationships. Leviticus 18 is one of the most troubling and puzzling sections of the Torah. I want to share just a small piece of it. It begins with this preamble:

"G-d said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and tell them: I y-h-v-h am your G-d. Do not act according to the practices of the land of Egypt, where you live, in their ways you may not walk. Keep my statutes and my judgments through which a person may live."

What stands out for me is the statement, "Do not act according to the practices of the land where you live, Egypt." Egypt, Mitzraim, also translated as the narrow places. Building on what I said earlier about using the experience of Yom Kippur as a guidepost for relationships, we might re-conceive this teaching: Do not act from a constricted place of fear or anxiety as you venture along the path toward holy love and sex. Enter and live in loving relationships from a space of openness, of wholeness, of holiness.

Think about how revolutionary this could be. This is almost the opposite of what we learn about dating and relationships/love and sex growing up and living in contemporary United States culture. What I glean from our broader culture is the message that dating is a game: play hard to get, countless supposed experts tell women; or learn the rules or tricks to "catching" a man. Men, in turn, we learn, must avoid being trapped, while having as many sexual liaisons as possible. One book on the shelf at my favorite bookstore says the solution to beating the odds of finding the right partner is to create a business plan, suggesting that you need the acumen, and presumably the ethics, of a corporate leader to succeed in the marketplace of love. We have all been guilty of perpetuating this destructive way of thinking every time we say, out of our own fear and pain, something like "What can you expect from a man?" Or, my personal favorite, "Be careful. Her clock is ticking." We do not have to be learned in Torah-or even a believer--to acknowledge that this cannot be the healthiest starting place for a loving relationship. We have enough war; can we find an alternative to the battle between the sexes?

Perhaps there is an answer in our Torah portion. Let's look. After the instruction to walk in G-d's way, the text continues by itemizing a number of prohibited sexual liaisons. It starts with incest:

"No one may come near to a close relative to uncover that person's nakedness. The nakedness of these may not be uncovered: your father and mother; your father's wife for it is your father's nakedness; your sister or your father's daughter, or your mother's daughter; the daughter of your son or daughter; the daughter of your father's wife; your father's sister; your mother's sister; the wife of your father's brother; your daughter-in-law; your brother's wife, for that is the nakedness of your brother."

At first glance, this passage doesn't seem all that pertinent to us as we seek love in our lives. More troubling to me is that it speaks only to men; the absence of women's voices from our tradition is particularly glaring when it comes to questions of love, sex, marriage and relationships. A number of feminist writers have pointed out that these incest taboos are concerned predominantly with protecting turf among men-between fathers and sons and between brothers. One of our challenges as the contemporary guardians of Torah and Jewish wisdom is to respond to the distortions of patriarchy that mar much of Western culture and understand that they are distortions. In my view, however, they are not reasons to abandon Torah as a path to holy love and sex.

So is there anything here that we can reclaim as part of our contemporary handbook on dating and relationships? By prohibiting certain sexual relationships, this passage teaches us that when it comes to sex, just like in other areas of Jewish life, there is a key distinction between that which is holy and that which is not holy. Banning sex initiated through abuse of power is one boundary the Torah sets up. Prohibitions against incest involve the abuse of power relationships within families. A few paragraphs later, the Torah portion will go on to prohibit bestiality, clearly an abuse of humankind's power over the natural world. Further, in the Talmud, the Rabbis make it explicit that mutual consent for any sexual union is necessary even in marital relationships.

Taking this a step further, the Torah demonstrates the importance of boundaries generally in sexual relationships. In some cases, such as incest and other abusive relationships, the boundaries are so important that the community agrees to some collective limits on acceptable behavior. We might extend this to include the idea that if we are aiming to create a holy space for loving sexual relationships in our own lives, then we have a responsibility to set our own boundaries and honor those of others. That way, we might be better equipped to handle one of the more challenging aspects of dating. When we recognize and appreciate boundaries, saying no, or taking no for an answer becomes holy and spiritual work. We might no longer have to fear rejection as a measure of our self-worth or own holy essence.

I ask you not to get distracted by the fact that this portion enumerates a list of don'ts, or as I indicated earlier, as if you weren't aware of it already, that our tradition often evidences perspectives that are patriarchal and homophobic. Taken as a whole, the Jewish path is one that affirms sex as a natural part of life-that as a gift from G-d, not unlike food, sex offers the potential of bringing holiness into our lives. Stories throughout the Bible and other Jewish literature, on make this clear. Our Jewish legacy includes one of the most beautiful, erotic poems in existence, The Song of Songs. Jewish mystics saw the potential for unity with the divine in sexual terms, and an interesting and beautiful selection of homoerotic love poetry grew out of the flowering of this mystical tradition in medieval Spain. And, while there is no question of the importance of having children in Jewish life, sexual union between couples was seen as so vital that Jewish law requires a man to ensure the gratification his wife-even if she could not conceive a child because she was already pregnant, infertile, or post-menopausal.

I suspect we all know that it is a Mitzvah, a commandment, to have sex with your partner on Shabbat. What you may not know, but I what I find interesting and will therefore share with you, is that the Talmud enumerates the minimum number of times per week a man is required to have sex with his wife based on his occupation. For example: once a week for donkey drivers, twice a week for ordinary workers, and once a day for wealthy men of leisure.

Thus, we are presented with a wisdom tradition that tells us that sexual union between couples not only is natural but fundamental, a holy step on the journey of life. Union, whether or not sexual, between couples is fundamental, a holy step on our journeys. Loving relationships must be cultivated; perhaps the lesson is we do not find holy love, but we create it.

But there's a problem, well at least one problem that I'll try to tackle, that clouds this sex positive picture. If we continue reading the Torah portion, we hit the following: "You shall not come near a woman during her monthly period." This is the taboo against sex with a woman during her menstrual period that the Rabbis then extended to include up to 7 days following. Surrounding this is some very beautiful, life-affirming, feminist wisdom that honors the powerful cycles of women's bodies-as well as some misogynistic concepts that trouble many of us. It's a huge, complicated topic, one that I'm not going to address completely here. For my purposes, I highlight only that these rules limit the mandated sexual contact between couples to only half of the month.

For now, I invite you to consider this symbolically and contemplate the idea that as much as relationships must be nurtured through physical and emotional union, individuals who are in intimate relationships need separation to explore and experience their unique wholeness and holiness. Even as we stand before G-d today as holy community, we really must take this journey on our own. We ask forgiveness for ourselves individually, and only individually can we each take the steps that transform our lives. The Jewish path is about our individual relationships with the divine. Despite what the menstrual laws say on their face, we might agree that women and men must take the time to honor and cultivate our own humanness-whether or not we live or hope to live in intimate partnership with another.

I began by presenting my own personal challenge about creating and maintaining a spiritual life while seeking the promise of new love. What I am discovering. and what I pray that we all can experience, is that this quest-despite what the larger culture might say-is integral to and can be incorporated into our Jewish spiritual path. We learn on Yom Kippur that we have been given a legacy that directs us to pursue love and sex that is holy and teaches that each of us has the capacity for creating it in our lives. May we blessed with a year of holy love and many fruitful conversations about what that means.

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