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Ask a Jew: Are there any biblical texts that you clearly understand to be not for our time?

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“‘Keep my decrees.’ ‘Do not mate different kinds of animals.’ ‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.’ ‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’ ‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. (Leviticus 19:19, 27 NIV).’ These verses are only a few verses away from the verse often quoted as being the biblical mandate against homosexuality. Should we hold these verses as mandates for our modern lives?

SPO_Ask-a-Jew-ad_042114I feel I cannot adequately answer this question without first invoking the pioneering work of humorist, author, and fellow Semite A.J. Jacobs, whose book “The Year of Living Biblically” is subtitled: “One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” Interpreting Old Testament verses as “mandates for our modern lives” may not be for everyone, but it is clearly not outside the realm of possibility.

Regarding the verses you quote, I have numerous thoughts. “Keep my decrees” is a tough one, considering I was taught there are not just 10, not even 15, but a whopping 613 commandments. The relevance of these rules to my life, and to the lives of many other contemporary Jews, varies greatly. I’m totally down with No. 96; after all, I’ve never had much interest in committing incest with my brother’s wife. Nor have I often been gripped by the urge to “afflict an orphan or a widow” (No. 40), “eat the flesh of unclean beasts” (No. 144), or “possess inaccurate measures and weights” (No. 183) for the purpose of scamming customers. (What a Jewish stereotype!) However, my wife and I reserve the right to neuter male cats (forbidden by No. 106) and “swear needlessly” (No. 204). I think you get the idea.

The prohibition of seed miscegenation, cotton/poly blend T-shirts, and a lack of sideburns and a beard — these do not strike me as the pillars of a meaningful modern theology. On the other hand, Leviticus 18:22 keeps right on fueling America’s so-called culture war, even as an increasing number of states declare same-sex marriage legal. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs as the Velveteen Rabbi and ardently supports LGBT rights, opposes literal interpretation of the Torah, as she eloquently explained in a 2004 post titled “(Re)Reading Leviticus 18:22”:

Most Jews today would argue instead that we should follow the reinterpretation of these [Levitical] laws established by the Rabbis and sages. The crowning achievement of the Rabbinic age was the shift from reading Torah literally (the Torah says we must sacrifice so many animals on such a date each year, therefore we must do so) to reading it metaphorically (since there is no Temple, we can fulfil the mitzvah by reading about the sacrifices instead). According to this mindset, halakhah evolves, and Torah can be reinterpreted to meet a changing world. That’s the viewpoint I favor.

Me too. I was raised Reconstructionist by two liberal academics, and I haven’t fallen far from the tree. My understanding of Judaism has always been that its chief strength lies in its ability to adapt, within reason, to modern life. Defending the civil rights of an historically oppressed population sounds like a pretty healthy adaptation to me.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest for 14 years. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services and also works as a copy editor at the Spokesman-Review. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, baby son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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  • Jan Shannon

    Neil, thank you for answering one if the questions that came up in the discussion that followed my last article! I posed this question but received no answer from the other person in the conversation. Clearly, you and I share similar methods of interpretation, and I appreciate you taking up the dialog.

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