Monday, April 26, 2010


It felt good last week to have such a feel-good parasha - who could question the commandments to treat others well.  We could all read parshat Kedoshim and feel proud of the universally accepted human values that our Judaism introduced to the world.
Not so much this week!  With the exception of the descriptions of when important holidays fall in the calendar, we are faced with some concepts that are less than comfortable for most of us in today's world.
First, we have a list of those relatives whose dead bodies a priest, a cohein, is permitted to come in contact.  Not so troubling - in fact it is understood to be precisely these relatives for whom we are obligated to observe the rituals of mourning.
Next is a list of the physical deformities which disqualify a cohein from offering sacrifices - a problem for today's society, as it seems to contradict the values we promote - specifically the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of physically handicapping conditions.
The parasha continues with the times of celebration of our relationship with God - Shabbat and the other holidays about which we are given dates according to our calendar and certain standards of behavior.
The parasha closes with more uncomfortable news - someone is stoned to death for using God's name disrespectfully, and we hear for the second time about equitable punishment - eye for eye, etc.

Here are some sources that may or may not help you understand the troubling passages.  One thing is certain - they demonstrate that we aren't the only ones disturbed by them.

  1. The issue of cohanim needing to be perfect physical specimens is discussed here by Rabbi Levi Cooper, a member of the faculty at Pardes in Jerusalem, and the rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, a suburban community near Jerusalem.
  2. An eye for an eye is explained in various ways by various religious traditions
    1. A Christian interpretation assumes that the words in the Torah are to be taken literally, and represent an improvement over previous impulse to escalate responses.
    2. The traditional Jewish interpretation is quite different, as you can read in this lesson from Nechama Leibowitz, teacher of Torah at the highest level.
  3. Here is a concise commentary on the major issues of this parasha written by a rabbi in England.  It highlights the section about the holidays, and includes some information that may be new for you.
If you are teaching this parasha, which of the main points would you choose to focus on?  For which age groups?  Why?  Which concept(s) can you find contemporary issues that seem relevant?