old engraving shows Moses pointing at a man while others hold up rocks
A "blasphemer" about to be stoned by Moses and the Israelites

How this week’s Torah portion speaks to domestic violence

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Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Ezekiel 44:15-31

It’s no wonder that the Torah was written in black and white. It is full of binaries. In the ancient world there was kodesh (holy) and chol (profane), tumah (unclean) and taharah (pure). Even the world itself is pronounced “good,” when God first creates it. Then, it is washed away in a sweeping gesture of destruction when God notices that humanity has become corrupt. There is not a whole lot of nuance here, or room for shades of gray. One moment the world is good. The next moment it’s underwater.

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, works hard to define these exclusive, categorical boundaries for the priests. Our text delves deeply into what is holy and what is not, who may bear an offering to God and who may not, who may partake of the offering, and who may not. Whole groups of people are disqualified from these holy tasks: those with blemishes or defects (Lev. 21:16-24), those who have the wrong social standing (Lev. 22:10), or those with the right social standing who married wrong (Lev. 22:12). As the Israelites parse out their relationship and connection to God, there is a clear sense of who is “in” and who is “out,” based on a variety of factors — some of which are under personal control, many of which are not.

Every week when we read our Torah portion, I am both thankful for this spiritual foundation and simultaneously grateful that these texts no longer describe the way that we live today. We don’t need to worry anymore about who can or can’t participate in the sacrificial rites. But we do still live in a Jewish community where there is pressure to “keep up appearances.” Sometimes this comes in the form of those struggling financially who hesitate to ask for dues relief. Sometimes it looks like a parent glossing over a child’s learning differences on Hebrew school registration forms. Sometimes, perhaps for the sake of appearances, we might even endure unhealthy or painful living circumstances. It doesn’t have to be this way.

All of our homes — the homes where we live, and the homes that we find within the Jewish community — should be places where we can find safety and refuge.

I have been called this month to reflect on the topic of domestic violence in the Jewish community. Shalom Bayit, which is the Bay Area’s center for domestic violence prevention and response within the Jewish community, asks each year for rabbis to share the message of their organization as it relates to Torah, and Parashat Emor could not be more relevant. So often we find that women or men who are in abusive relationships don’t speak up because of precisely the expectations set forth in Parashat Emor: Either you are clean, or you are unclean. You are holy, or you are not. You are a good Jewish boy or girl with a good Jewish marriage, or you aren’t. Even when we are modern or progressive or feminist, there may still be an internalized message that if we are suffering at the hands of abuse, it must, somehow, be our fault.

We are fortunate to have an organization like Shalom Bayit in the Bay Area Jewish community. Shalom Bayit spreads the message that “love shouldn’t hurt,” and that no one has the right to abuse another person — and no one deserves abuse. All of our homes — the homes where we live, and the homes that we find within the Jewish community — should be places where we can find safety and refuge. Despite the Torah’s attempts to categorize and facilitate boundaries, Torah also gives us the gift of these words: “I, Adonai, sanctify you” (Lev. 22:32). We are holy not because we are perfect. We are holy not because we fit into one category and not another. Rather, we are holy because we are God’s. It really is this simple.

Toward the end of Parashat Emor, God commands Aaron to do something poignant. Moses shares God’s instruction, telling Aaron to light a lamp that should burn in the Tent of Meeting from evening until morning (Lev. 24:3). In the darkness of night, this light would remind the community of God’s presence. No matter their status, no matter their role, no matter their age or gender or experience — there is always a light shining through the darkest depths of night.

Now, generations beyond those desert nights, it is our job as a Jewish community to be the light for those we meet who may be suffering at the hands of abuse.

If you or someone you know needs help, call Shalom Bayit at (866) SHALOM-7.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected].