Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reading Leviticus

This past shabbat marked the start of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, for the parashat shavua (weekly portion). In Hebrew, the book is called, as biblical books usually are, by a word for the first sentence, in this case, Vayiqra, "And He called" - that is, G-d called to Moses, saying ... and so on. The first part of the book contains detailed instructions on sacrifices, or offerings, in the Tent or Mishkan (later in the Temple). The later parts include most of the laws of kashrut and the Jewish holidays, as well as the famous Holiness Code of chapters 18-19. Many commandments in those chapters are punctuated by the injunction to "be holy, for I am holy." They include bans on sexual immorality (incest, bestiality, homosexuality) and the commandments to love both "neighbor" (meaning fellow Israelite) and "stranger" as oneself. The latter is repeated 36 times in the Torah, probably it so cuts against the grain of human nature, especially in a tribe- or clan-based society.

In Persian-Hellenistic-Roman times, the book was sometimes called Torat Kohanim, the "teaching for the priests," because so much of it is (chapters 1-16 and 27) directed at them - hence the Greco-Latin name for it, Leviticus, after the Levi'im or Levites, the priestly tribe. In its original form, it was probably intended for the priests alone. But over time, the influence of prophets and rabbis changed that, and it became a book read and followed by all Jews. All religions tend to become democratized over time. In this case, this trend is enjoined by the book itself, which envisions the whole people - not just the Levites - as a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19).

Expecting memorable narratives and theological puzzles, readers and worshippers today often have a hard time relating to Leviticus. The system of sacrifices seems especially off-putting to modern sensibilities. This isn't a new reaction. Even in ancient times, the prophets frequently attacked, not the offerings per se, but the mechanical performance of sacrifices with no accompanying inward change. Some rabbis of late antiquity envisioned a messianic era with a restored Temple, but no animal sacrifices. The great medieval philosopher and commentator Rambam (Maimonides) viewed the system of offerings as a concession to the habits and mentality of ancient peoples. He even viewed the building of the Tent and later the Temple in the same light. People need something tangible and visible related to worship. If not properly channeled, this impulse becomes misdirected into idolatry, like the Golden Calf episode toward the end of Exodus. According to this argument, Moses' apparent original vision was too demanding for the people, because it required too much abstraction and faith in the unseen. After the Golden Calf, the Tent, the Altar, and the sacrifices were thus put in place as an acceptable substitute for common pagan practices. Sacrifice, like other tangible and quid-pro-quo forms of religion, was common in ancient times. But in the Jewish case, idolatry itself was forbidden, and the authority of the priests subordinated to that of the Torah and its prophets.

Not everyone agreed with Maimonides, then or now. Another great medieval commentator, Ramban (Nachmanides), rejected this whole line of thinking, and viewed the sacrifices as an unequivocally positive way for man and G-d to meet.

While sacrifice in religion seems odd to us today, it's important to recognize that most later developments in religion are all derived from sacrifice in some way. Prayer is the verbal and mental substitute for an offering; even more so is tzedakah (what Christians call charity). Jewish tradition views study as akin to sacrifice as well. Speaking of Christianity, the whole religion has sacrifice at its heart. Many Muslims make sacrifices for certain holidays.

Of course, there are negative connotations to sacrifice, and modern people especially dislike the self-negation implicit in it. There are also destructive forms of sacrifice associated historically with religion, such as persecution or (nowadays) suicide bombers.

The key to understanding sacrifice in Judaism as something positive is to see that what G-d demands is not a lifeless corpse or flesh and bone blown up and burned, but a living offering: a life properly lived. It is an offering of "holy living" - in Hebrew, a qorban (something brought near) - not something destroyed nor "holy dying" - and that makes all the difference.

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