Parashat Acharei Mot – Censorship of Torah
Once again this week the NUS ‘no platform’ policy has come into the firing line. The policy asserts that no person or organisation with deemed racist or fascist views should be given a platform to speak. The policy was voted in with a majority 63% of votes and further, more than half of current students agreed that it should be extended to people who are classed as intimidating. It has been frequently criticised and there have been many attempts to overhaul the policy. It is now under the scrutiny of a leading human rights activist, who argues that the policy, despite being voted in democratically, takes away a basic human right, the right to free speech.
Peter Tatchell stated:
“I don’t think people with offensive views should be given a free pass. They should be challenged. The best way to do this is by open debate to refute their intolerance. If you censor or ban them, the ideas just get suppressed. They don’t cease to exist and they cannot be effectively countered.”
As we leave the festival of Pesach behind we know even more now what it means to be free. We have learnt that true freedom should not happen at the expense of others; we do not become free by oppressing someone else. Hence freedom of speech is a right that we cannot deny ourselves, or others, even if we disagree with their views.
Yet it is a right we so often deny to our biblical authors. Our calendar of Torah readings determined by the Progressive movements for each week is a way of censoring the bits of the Torah read in our communities across the UK. A perfect example of this can be seen in the readings chosen for this week’s parasha. As we approach some of the most controversial bits of our text found in Leviticus 18, we do not confront their words but rather skirt around them with neither the lectionary for the Reform or Liberal movements offering this prose as a suggested reading.
What are we trying so hard to avoid? This chapter of Leviticus, found almost dead centre to the entire Torah, in plain tells us about who we are and aren’t allowed to have sex with. It is a prime text for use by others who attempt to prove that Jews are incestuous, homophobic, or that we involve ourselves in child sacrifice rituals. And while we could argue that this is not the true meaning of the text, unless we confront it, in all its gory detail, how will we ever know?
On the surface these laws seem rather gruesome, uncovering the nakedness of close family members, prohibiting incest, gay relations and the handing over of our children to Molech, a potential reference to child sacrifice. Yet their inclusion in our text by the biblical authors, who argue that no word of Torah is superfluous, must suggest these are not laws in vain. According to Sifra Acharei Mot, we need these laws because we are already doing these things. Perhaps led astray by the cultures surrounding us, or perhaps on our own merit, the laws are a necessity in order to stop the inevitable.
If we accept the Torah at face value then this interpretation is fine, one need look no further. Yet if we believe that the text has deeper meaning, we need to delve in a little more in order to uncover whether the exposure of nakedness is actually a euphemism for something else. Maybe if we examine the familial relations we can learn a little more. The people listed in this chapter are all the closest family members. Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles suggests that it is in front of these people that we are most exposed, as they know us best. They know which parts of us are fronts and which parts are true. So perhaps this text is actually about our own weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and the exposure of them. This section of Torah hence forbids us from exposing the weaknesses of those we are closest to, helping us to keep our family’s secrets within the family.
Therefore should the same be said of our Torah, the piece of text we are closest too? Should we keep its secrets, vow not to expose its vulnerabilities? When we cover up our own vulnerabilities and do not allow them to be exposed, they become even more deeply rooted in us and act as a barrier between us and the world. Whilst the option of exposing our weaknesses often seems impossible, due to a fear that if we reveal our authentic true selves we may be labeled, misunderstood or rejected, when we take the risk we open ourselves up to the possibility of true connections. The same is true for our Torah. If we never read the parts that we class as a ‘weak link’ in an effort to deny their existence, how will we ever grapple with the real meanings behind the surface? How will we defend our text and argue with it, in a battle to keep it alive? Rather if we get to know the text intimately we can become more deeply connected to it. We can find meaning in the bits that are often most difficult to read, often exposing something beautiful beneath the ugliness.
The Torah is our text, the stories in it are our stories. We have the ability and the right to take ownership of and learn from them. We are the authors of our own Jewish narrative, and the freedom to tell our story in the way we wish is a basic human right. May we struggle with the text to find meaning, may we thrash out the difficulties, and may we learn to love our Torah, warts and all.
Ken Yihi Ratson
Student Rabbi Hannah Kingston
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.