30 Apr Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: Together in Holiness
The second portion of this week’s reading gives us a chance to talk about what we mean when we use the term kadosh, holy or sacred, and what that means for Judaism and Homosexuality.
This root shows up in our liturgical tradition time and time again – we say the Kadish many times during each prayer service, both to mark the separation of the different parts of the liturgy as well as to allow those mourners among us a chance to honor their dead, even though the prayer’s content does not speak about mourning per se. Also, numerous times each day the Kedusha (kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai tzevaot) is recited according to ancient tradition. We say the Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays and we speak of a wedding ceremony in terms of huppah v’kiddushin.
Fifteen years ago I began a serious reevaluation of the traditional Jewish wedding liturgy. I had been asked by two women to officiate at their wedding ceremony. Neither they nor I knew exactly what that would look like, but the three of us committed ourselves to a process of over six months in which we met, studied together and discussed just exactly what having a religious wedding ceremony would mean to them. And in essence, since this was not just another “straight” wedding between a woman and a man, it was also a process for me, in my own rabbinic capacity, to examine exactly what “Kiddushin” meant in this context.
The central part of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is when the groom places a ring upon the finger of the bride and pronounces: “harei at mekudeshet li b’taba’at zo” – “you are hereby set aside, or sanctified unto me, as symbolized by this ring” Since this is based upon the principle set out almost 2,000 years ago that a man may sanctify, or set aside, a woman for himself, by means of money, document or sexual intimacy (Mishhah Kiddushin 1:1), and since according to that tradition, this was only a one-way transaction, where the man essentially purchases the woman, it was clear to us three that some other understanding of the word “Kiddushin” needed to be offered.
In fact, our understanding of the word kadosh/kedusha had changed long ago and was no longer the same as in biblical times. When we use terms like “holy” and “sacred,” most of us, as with many before us, think in terms of something that is “morally higher” or “more truthful” or perhaps “more spiritual.” Take, for example, what we all do when we recite the famous quote from the book of Isaiah during the Amidahi: kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai tzevaot, we actually rise up on our toes, as if to join the angels in heaven whom we are imitating at this point in our prayer.
This meant that the traditional formula during the ring ceremony could be maintained, though with a different intention, and of course uttered equally by both people standing under the huppah.
And there were other liturgical challenges, some lesser, as in the case of the seven blessings which read “hattan v’kallah,”, “bridegroom and bride,” which was easily changed to “ahuva v’ahuvata,” “a beloved and her beloved.” But some greater, as in the case of what is known as birkat ha’erussin:
ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו מלך העולם אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציוונו על העריות, ואסר לנו את הארוסות והתיר לנו את הנשואות לנו על ידי חופה וקידושין ברוך אתה ה’ מקדש עמו ישראל על ידי חופה וקידושין.
Praised are You, Lord our God, Master of the universe, who has made us holy through the commandments, and commanded us regarding illicit relations, and has forbidden to us the betrothed, but has permitted to us those whom we have married through hupah and kiddushin; Praised are you, Lord, who makes our nation holy through hupah and kiddushin.
This wording is problematic in my eyes on a number of different levels:
- It assumes that couples today do not have sexual relations before getting married, or if so “are living in sin.” In over two decades of officiating at well over 200 weddings, I can remember only one couple who were not living together, and although I didn’t ask them, I imagine that they had been intimate long before meeting with me. In any case, neither those couples, or myself, see this in terms of permitted and forbidden the way the traditional blessing does;
- It is written from a male, and only a male, point of view, based on the older traditional understanding that the groom is the active one and the bride is essentially a passive, albeit agreeing, object who is being “sanctified.” In our case it was two women of equal standing.
- Even if the blessing had been worded in a more egalitarian fashion, and even if we would have agreed that pre-marital sex is a bad thing – is this really the topic that we would choose (if given the choice) to begin this most majestic and meaningful ceremonies?
In truth, all of the above applies just as much to a straight, man/woman couple, as it does to a same gender couple, but I had simply not thought of the ceremony in these terms until then. In any case, it was clear to me that a new blessing needed to be composed, while at the same time attempting to preserve as much of the old wording as possible. After weeks of work I came up with this:
ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצויונו קדושים תהיו ואשר אמר לא טוב היות האדם לבדו ועל כן תדבק נפש בנפש בקדושה ובטהרה. ברוך את ה’ מקדש ישראל על ידי חופה וקידושין.
Praised is the Lord, our God, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us that we shall be holy and has said, it is not good for a person to be alone. Therefore two souls will come together in holiness and purity. Praised is the Lord who has sanctified our people of Israel through huppah and kiddushin.
It was from this week’s reading that I learned that the essential positive commandment appropriate to mention at a wedding is not about sexual misconduct (that’s also in the text) but that of being holy. And since I believe that to reach a higher degree of holiness in this world, human beings should not be alone, I found it also appropriate to quote from the second story of creation in the beginning of the Torah.
This “holistic” approach is not unique to Judaism and certainly not anything new. All of us, I think, have been influenced (either consciously or not) by Aristotle’s words in his Metaphysics:
The whole is different from the sum of its parts.
Or at least – for people my age and with my musical tastes – by the Indigo Girls’ “Power of Two”:
Adding up the total of a love that’s true, multiply life by the power of two.
This life multiplied by the power of two – and all the more so when individuals come together in loving community – is, I believe the basic framework for being a holy people, am kadosh. A people that strive to leave this world a better place than the way we found it.