By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
If anyone was bent on convincing us that Torah is old-fashioned, this would be a good parashah to prove it. Vayikra (Chapter 18) contains the Bible’s Immorality Act. Our moral code — the forbidden relationships, who may marry whom and who may not — all come from this week’s reading.
We read this same chapter every year on Yom Kippur afternoon. And every year in every shul around the world someone asks the very same question. “Why on Yom Kippur, rabbi? Was there no other section of the Torah to choose besides the one about illicit sex? Is this an appropriate choice to read in shul on the holiest day of the year?” Fair question. So the rabbis explain that this is the ultimate test of our holiness. The most challenging arena of human conduct, the one that really tests the mettle of our morality, is not how we behave in the synagogue but how we behave in our bedrooms. To conduct ourselves appropriately in public is far easier than to be morally consistent in our intimate lives.
Old-fashioned? You bet. In a world of ever-changing, relative morality where everything goes, the Torah does seem rather antiquated. Manmade laws are forever being amended to suit changing times and circumstances. When a new superhighway is built, traffic officials may decide that it is safe to raise the speed limit. Should there be a fuel shortage, these same officials may decide to lower the speed limit in order to conserve the energy supply. Human legislation is constantly adapting to fluctuating realities. But G‑d’s laws are constant, consistent, and eternal. Divine legislation governs moral issues. Values and ethics, right and wrong, these are eternal, never-changing issues.
Humankind has been confronting these problems since time immemorial. From cavemen to Attila the Hun to nuclear superpowers, the essential issues really have not changed very much. Questions of moral principle, good and evil, have been there from the very beginning. Life choices are made by each of us in every generation. These questions are timeless.
So we read that adultery was forbidden in Moshe’s day, and it still is in ours. So is incest. But it wouldn’t shock me at all if the same forces promoting new sexual freedoms soon began campaigning for incestuous relationships to become legal. And why not? If it’s all about consenting adults, why deny siblings? Given the slippery slope of our moral mountains, nothing is unthinkable anymore.
Ultimately, morality cannot be decided by referendum. We desperately need a higher authority to guide us in the often confusing dilemmas of life.
In Egypt and Canaan, lots of degenerate behavior was acceptable, even popular. In this week’s parashah, G‑d tells His people that He expects us to march to a different beat. We are called upon to be a holy nation, distinctively different in this, the most challenging test of our morality. It doesn’t matter what is legal or trendy in Egypt, Canaan, America, or Scandinavia. We have our own moral guide, our own book of books, which requires no editing or revised editions for the new age. Because right is right and wrong is wrong, and so it will always be.
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm once wrote that we mustn’t confuse “normal” with “average.” Since there are people out there who, tragically, may have lost a leg, this would mean that the “average” person has something like 1.97 legs. But that isn’t quite the norm. When Torah teaches us to be holy and distinctive, it is reminding us to be normal, not average. Average can be rather mediocre.
Just be normal and retain your Jewish uniqueness. It may not be easy. It may not be politically correct. You probably will not win any popularity contests. But you will be faithful to the eternal truths of life. And in the long run, you will be right.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.