These two sections are part of the Aharei Mot parasha. 16 is about cleansing rituals that Aaron is instructed to do to make expiation (atonement) for himself, his family, and all of Israel. Then god commands that in the seventh month on the tenth day, the Israelites need to practice self-denial in order to cleanse and atone – a law that must be practiced every year, for all time. 18 is about certain acts that the Israelites are not allowed to partake in since they are practices of the people from whom god has separated them. These practices, most of them sexual in nature, have caused others to defile themselves and their lands which is why the Israelites are not supposed to do them. These acts are: homosexuality, bestiality, incest, adultery, etc.
David Greenstein discusses 18 in his Yom Kippur chapter of Torah Queeries called ‘What is Atonement?’ He reminds us that all of these words are up for interpretation and that there are many ways that a person can define anything in the Torah (emphasis on the ways in which people define 18:22 which condemns homosexuality). Then he tries to answer why the focus is on sexual acts and why there is such an interest in issues of sexuality and sexual practices for this holiday. Greenstein explains a way one could look at the cleansing ritual of the holiday itself as an answer. The act of cleansing is a sexual one, but one that requires preparation and consent. Aaron’s two sons entered the space of the Divine without taking proper steps and die horrible deaths; therefore Aaron has to learn a way to enter into this space properly.
“The act of atonement is, at least in part, an act of penetration. The atonement of Israel is allowed because God allowed the Divine ‘insides’ to be entered and bloodied” (Greenstein 292)
The day itself, in ancient times, was was a “day of erotic celebrations,” with practices such as women dancing outside in order to attract a male partner (Greenstein 292).
This holiday is about being aware of our actions and trying to apologize, give and receive forgiveness, and take responsibility for what we have done and reaffirm our values. It’s like renewing vows, recommitting to a relationship, and choosing to find new paths forward without forgetting the past. Because we can read God as the mother, father, or lover of the Jewish people, it makes sense to see this in a way that could be sexual and/or romantic. The problem arises when it is one-sided – this has to be mutual, which is where Greenstein’s interpretation loses me. It seems to me that the relationship being described between the priest (Aaron) and the divine space is really just Aaron taking on the entire burden not only for himself but his entire family, and the only thing he gets from god in return is being cleansed. I just think that there has to be some responsibility on god’s side of this equation and it’s unfair that Aaron or the priests or all of the Jewish people have to take on the responsibility themselves when it’s not clear that there is a balancing force. Arguably, the fact that we have a Covenant and that we have a god that favors us might be enough to balance it out. After all, harm, violence, etc. – all the things that we are asking atonement for – are human acts, they are what that we have to take responsibility for ourselves and cannot push onto a supernatural being. So I’m not sure the analogy of the cleansing ritual as a sexual consensual act is really fitting, but the imagery that comes with it is quite striking and it’s definitely interesting to grapple with.
In sharing these thoughts with Rabbi Jeremy and a few other friends from my university’s Hillel, a theory for why 18 is read every year was shared with me: these prohibitions regarding sexuality and sexual practices are about service to a god – condemning practices from other religions that engage in certain forms of worship. The acts that we read through every year are reminders of worship methods that other people use that Jews should not do – not necessarily the condemning the act itself, but the practice of acts such as these as religious rituals.