OPINION: On Yom Kippur, who do we leave out?

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OPINION: On Yom Kippur, who do we leave out?

by Benjamin Ellis, Keshet UK

Benjamin Ellis
Benjamin Ellis

I haven’t been to Yom Kippur Mincha for years. Which to most people might not sound odd.

By late afternoon synagogues are quite empty. The dramatic morning prayers are over. Blood sugar and caffeine levels are low. Heads are sore, mouths dry. So while the story of Jonah is read to rows of unfilled seats, most of us are taking a walk or having a nap, seeing to our families, catching up with friends – recharging ourselves before the final Ne’ila prayers.

But that’s not why I’m not there. I can’t bear to stay in because I am terrified of Yom Kippur Mincha, the afternoon service.

I start to dread this service from the moment in the summer that the High Holidays appear on my mental horizon.

Specifically the Torah reading. And specifically one verse seared on my soul in letters of fire and smoke: Leviticus 18:22 – Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.

As these words are chanted I hear cruel undertones of rejection: you are wrong, you bring shame here, you have no place here, you are unwelcome here. For me and many others, these words and their alienating echoes permeate Yom Kippur, Ellul, and every minute of our Jewish lives.

Much has been written about these words: What do they mean? What exactly is the prohibition? What is meant by “abhorrence” (or “abomination”)? What was the intended context – can they be reinterpreted?

But there is another question: Why were these words chosen to be read on Yom Kippur? Because reading them aloud on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar adds to their power to cause pain.

This verse is part of a longer list of forbidden sexual relationships. The origin of the tradition to read them on Yom Kippur is unclear and several explanations are offered.

Some see this public reading as a device to trigger thoughts of repentance, given the vulnerability of humans to sexual wrongdoing.

Others explain that these verses serve as a warning against sexual impropriety – necessary on Yom Kippur itself when men may be tempted as the women “decorate themselves to honour the festival”, or perhaps at the (now defunct) post-fast feast where the Mishna tells us that men were given an opportunity to choose a wife from the women present.

Whatever response this Yom Kippur reading was intended to elicit, we must recognise the impact it has on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and their families.

Many Jewish communities now want to be more inclusive, and want LGBT people to feel welcome, including in our places of worship. So we must recognise the pain and suffering this reading causes, and we must decide how to respond.

The traditional response is to do nothing. There are many reasons why our communities make this choice. Perhaps we never noticed the dread that some among us have on hearing these words read aloud, and the heartache that is caused.

Perhaps we are nervous about the idea of change; we lack the knowledge or skills to argue for innovation; or we want to do something but we don’t know what? Yet we must recognise that to select this default option is to make an active choice, and it is one that perpetuates alienation and exclusion.

For communities who do want to be welcoming to LGBT people, there is a powerful opportunity to turn this moment of exclusion into a moment of welcome, to create dialogue where there has been silence.

Communal leaders can meet with the LGBT people in their communities, along with their families and allies, and discuss which approaches could be explored.

There are a wide range of available responses.

Some communities have chosen to read alternative passages. Others keep the traditional reading, and through ritual they recognise the human misery these words have caused by reading them quietly (as we do when we read the biblical curses), or using the Eicha trop, the mournful melody of Lamentations (that makes a brief appearance when we read the Book of Esther).

Some have adopted the defiant practice of honouring a gay man to recite the blessings over that reading, as if challenging these living words to explain themselves to us. Other communities respond physically, either standing upright – in protest, or in solidarity; or removing their shoes as a sign of sorrow for the historic exclusion of LGBT people.

Prayers can be said before the reading asking for God’s support to help us include all Jewish people in our communities, or a short declaration can be read simply stating that all LGBT people are welcome in the community. Beyond that, some rabbis may choose to dedicate a study session or sermon to their views on including LGBT people in our communities.

On Yom Kippur, we are all asked to make choices, to write for ourselves and our communities a better future. Where there is exclusion, alienation, shame and sadness we must make a choice to act. Choosing the default here – inaction, silence, exclusion – reinforces the message that LGBT people are unwelcome in our communities.

Instead, we can take this opportunity to speak up, and demonstrate our commitment to being inclusive. Let us be bold, and resolve this Yom Kippur to fill our synagogues with love for all our community.


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