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Angela W. Buchdahl
On our Fundamental Humanity (Parashat Emor)

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  May 11, 2012

A long time ago, before there were rabbis, there were priests.  They served as our religious leaders and also they were intermediaries between us and God in worship, as they would offer up our sacrifices up at the temple on our behalf. 

Now the role of the priest was so important and so holy and so preoccupied and dedicated to life, that priests were not allowed to come in contact with the dead.  For coming into contact with the dead would make the priests impure, and then they would no longer be allowed to enter into the Temple if they were impure from touching a dead body, or being near a dead body, and so they would have to be purified before they could serve God any longer.

So imagine what that must have been like, though, to have your religious leader not even be able to visit you when you are on your deathbed because they can’t come in contact with the dead, or being unable to officiate at your funeral, or the funeral of a loved one, because of this potential impurity and this higher calling to serve God.  This is how important the principle of embracing life and remaining pure was for the priesthood.

But in this portion, Parashat Emor, there’s one exception that they lay out.  Priests are not only allowed, they’re actually commanded, to care for their dying or dead immediate family members.  To prevent a priest from burying their own parent, or their spouse, or Heaven forbid, their child: this would be inhuman.

What this exception teaches is that the principles, even those as noble as lifting up life or serving God, these principles are not higher than our fundamental humanity.

I think this teaching has particular resonance this week in light of the historic declaration of President Obama in support of gay marriage.  His statement on the biggest civil rights issue of my generation affirmed that even amidst differing views and even some longstanding religious views on homosexuality, that the recognition that gays and lesbians have a right to marry is a fundamental statement of our humanity.  And I’ve seen up close how painful it can be when that humanity is denied.

Fifteen years ago, I participated in the wedding—before I was even a rabbi or a cantor, I was in cantorial school—for two of my best friends from college, Amy and Tanya.  It was a joyous event, although it was tinged by two very painful facts.  The first, that their wedding just two months before my own, was not recognized as a real marriage by the city, by their state, or by their country.  And they were denied the more than one thousand rights and benefits that come with marriage, that we received as a matter of course just two months later.

The second, and the more grievous pain, was that so many of Tanya and Amy’s family refused to come to the wedding, including grandparents, siblings, and even Tanya’s own mother, who essentially said the proverbial Kaddish when she came out as a lesbian.

But years passed, and attitudes changed.  Tanya had a baby boy and she named him for her deceased father, and her mother reconnected with her.  And in 2004, seven years after their first symbolic wedding, with Tanya and Amy’s three children in tow, we all went up to Massachusetts for another wedding.  This one, recognized by the state of Massachusetts with all its requisite rights, and this wedding was attended by the many family members who refused to come to the first.

The arc of history bends toward justice.

Now you may argue or hear others argue that in the Bible, in Leviticus 18, it forbids homosexuality.  I have a strong belief about this verse, like many others, that they are a product of its time and context and it is often misrepresented and needs to be reinterpreted.  But that topic is for another d’rash.  I can’t tackle this in my only five minutes tonight.

But instead I do want to refocus on the message of Emor: that even if you have a religious principle that conflicts with the stand on homosexuality, that you never lose sight of the very real lives and families and children whose very selfhood and dignity are affected by their rights and recognition that our society gives them.  Which is why President Obama’s declaration of support was not only the right thing to do, it was the religious thing to do.

The priests are obligated to embrace purity at virtually all costs, but not at the price of their humanity.  For our Torah teaches that seeing the humanity in others—that is ultimately the highest way that we serve God.

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