Commands to Inoculate Against Dowsers and Firebrands

Tzav. Leviticus 6:1−8:36 – Commands to Inoculate Against Dowsers and Firebrands


Howard Adelman

[This blog written on 24 March but left incomplete and not sent out.]

God called.  God says to Moses. But Moses is to command Aaron. This portion begins with God telling Moses what he should do and Moses, not only carrying out “the request,” but issuing it as a command to Aaron. Moses was the Political Commander and he was instructed to “command” (tzav) Aaron and his sons. Even to the High Priest, God delivered His commands indirectly through a prophet rather than directly through a religious authority. On the other hand, the prophet had to deliver through an established institution. However, though indirect, there is the sense that there can be no dilly-dallying and no omissions. Commands must be carried out, both strictly and promptly.

Terrorists have once again released explosives in an airport and in a subway train, this time in Brussels. [This was initially written two days after the terrorist attack on Brussels on 22 March.] It is urgent that the authorities get their act together in sharing intelligence and improving coordination to arrest, but, more insistently, prevent future terror attacks. Repetitive routines are not just about preserving past rituals, but about protection and prevention. We are not just dealing with routines empty of meaning. These are institutions to be inculcated with repetition and precision. Why “command”? Just include an instruction booklet with the various parts and contents of the mishkan. But the instructions are not merely technical; they are holy. The five priestly sacrifices (burnt, meal, sin, guilt and free offerings), defining how meat is to be consumed, as well as the procedures and rituals for the ordination of priests, have deep implications, but I will only take time to unpack the first, the ritual of the burnt offering.

In the burnt offering, what must be done is not to take care of yourself and your loved ones. For the offering left only ashes. The importance of action could not be related to the self-interest of the priests. In the current reigning economic and, by extension, political orthodoxy, the core issue is always, “What’s in it for me?” But there is nothing in it for Aaron and his sons. For among Jews, the highest commandments were reserved for what you do for others when there is no gain for yourself. The dictum is not, “Behave, and certainly not believe, so that you too may be saved.” Further, this is not about their or our calling, what we are chosen and destined to do, but about what we must do in imitation of the duties that the priests were commanded to perform. It is about sacrifice, about Vayikra, “drawing closer to the Lord.”

The first command:

This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. 3 The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. 4 He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. 5 The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. 6 A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. (Leviticus 2-6)

These are the bare facts without interpretation:

  • A living creature is killed, burnt and turned into ashes
  • The cremation takes place overnight even though the slaughtered animal is placed on the altar in the morning
  • The fire which consumes the flesh is an eternal, perpetual flame (versus the immortality of flesh), kept burning, not simply by wood, but by the fat of the sacrifice
  • The priest wears linen
  • The priest removes the ashes from the altar and places them beside the altar
  • The priest changes clothes
  • The ashes are then removed from beside the altar, taken out of the tabernacle and put in a clean place

What are we to make of this?  Some of the elements are obvious – the eternal flame of God versus the mortality of the flesh – but also that the eternal flame only keeps burning if it is fed by wood gathered by humans and supplemented by the fat of a mammal. You cannot outsource the feeding of your personal and embodied self. That is our highest and most sacred duty – not just for pleasure (the apple of desire is just so sweet), not just for self-preservation (the potato, symbolic of power and control), not just so that we can appear attractive to others (flowers and aesthetics), and not even for ensuring our health and freedom from

pain (plants as treatments and for relief from pain). The priests (and, by extension, ourselves) perform the burnt offering when there is nothing in it for ourselves, but what we do is entirely for the Other. And the symbol of the Eternal Other is the flame, for man, as the food journalist, Michael Pollan, has written, eats not primarily for his/her health and well-being, but for pleasure, for sociability, for establishing identity and power relationships. (See his 2006 volume, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which my son, the farmer, contends has transformed his life and his beliefs. Too bad Michael Pollan is so rabidly anti-scientific.)

But why wear linen for a very dirty part of the job, collecting and moving ashes from the altar to beside the altar? And why change when moving the ashes away from the altar? The clothing consists of a linen coat, breeches, belt and mitre, usually interpreted as white and symbolic of purity, for the angel of God is clothed in linen. Because the extraction and weaving of linen is such an expensive and labour-intensive process, we now associate the material with refinement and high style, with quality and expensive attire. But linen is strong and durable. In the Middle Ages, linen was used to make shields (the Etruscans wore armour made of flax and the sails of the Roman fleet were made of flax) and, until very recently, the paper used to make our paper money consisted of 25% linen. By volume and weight, linen is not only much stronger than the core wood of the flax plant from which the linen fibres are separated by retting and scutching, but the longest and finest linen fibres are stronger than steel.

What characterizes linen most of all is its archival integrity, particularly when the slubs, the random small knots in the linen fabric, are not removed. Although in the finest linen fabrics, the slubs are removed, in the authentic and strongest linen, the irregular and discordant slubs that take away from perfectly smooth and refined linen remain. The beauty of linen is not in a wrinkle-free ironed look, but in a material that looks and feels and appears to be part of everyday life. Unlike wool or even cotton, moths cannot attack and weaken the fibre. Neither can water. In fact, unlike other textiles, linen is even stronger when wet and wet linen is not clammy like wet cotton; linen sluffs off water easily. But, most of all, linen resists dirt and stains. There is no better fabric, other than perhaps a rubber apron, to wear in a religious slaughter house or when collecting and setting aside the ashes of a burnt offering, especially since linen is such a cool fabric.

So it is better to think of linen in terms of integrity rather than purity. Though the Hebrew priests wore linen in imitation of the Egyptian priests, it is the combination of functionality with authenticity that is crucial to the wearing that material. But what has all of this to do with the burnt offering? What has all of this to do with the meaning and mores of our contemporary society? Think of God as fire by night (when the burnt offering was consumed by the flames) and cloud by day (water suspended in air), all in pursuit of land by nomads, by hunters and gatherers, for a civilization of settlement.

What are the respective roles of the divine and the human? Let us think of humans that try to make themselves into gods, that presume to take on the role of leadership as firebrands appealing to the rhetoric of strength through sacrifice or, a very different type, anarchists who advocate puffy and cloudy revolution against solidity and routine, against institutions and rituals. We have had illustrations of both types of populists in human history, including the history of the last century. Let me eschew initially the firebrands, especially the better known ones like Hitler and Mussolini, and begin with the amorphous varieties of clouds that throw such a damper on order and good government such as the hippies of the sixties and the preachers of Marxist liberation theology.

I begin by asking why Jews are forbidden to interweave wool and linen. “Thou shalt not wear a mingled garment of wool and linen together.” (Deuteronomy 22:11) Certain mixtures, shaatnez, are forbidden. Josephus, a critic of these priestly rituals, argued that the dictum was to preserve the distinction between the separation of the priestly and the ordinary classes, but that ancient Marxist class explanation never made sense to me since it would have been easier just to forbid ordinary humans from wearing linen. It is the mixture that is forbidden. Further, even in ancient times, the wife of a noble was clothed in fine linen and dressed her bed with the finest linens. (Proverbs 31:22) The point of an establishment is not exclusion but inclusion, not separation from but service for, not to presume superiority but to stand as a bulwark against the inferior. When we mix wool and linen, muddled thinking and disorganization with an elevated institution, we not only get aesthetic shlock, but a dangerous source for undermining the institutions and practices necessary to maintain society.

Rebels against standing institutions can succeed when a country’s institutions reveal extreme fatigue and failure in many of its areas and functions. When inherited practices and customs break down, a vacuum is created to be filled by arsonists and/or mystifiers and mystics – the latter lovers of ambiguity and disorganization. The former arsonists are firebrands; the latter are false prophets who claim to be rainmakers. These dowsers or water-witches promise to imitate Moses and allow water to spring out of rocks and sandy soil using political “divining” rods backed up by pseudoscience. In addition to being dysfunctional, existing political institutions demonstrate an inability to resist the attacks of firebrands and mismanaging mischief makers. The former set out deliberately to destroy existing institutions; the latter do so inadvertently by letting mold and rot seep further into the structures of continuity.

Let me illustrate by first discussing the anti-politics of the cloudy types, the dowsers, and then that of the firebrands, both of which would usurp God’s exclusive role, both of which are determined to tear down inherited traditions and institutions. Dowsers are far less dangerous than firebrands. The dowsers claim to get their power by being in sync with the vibes of the earth. They believe in physical bodies and its instruments, divining rods of all kinds that enable humans to talk with the Earth. When you begin accepting that your physical body can, and is now, absorbing energies from the Earth, then you begin to speak the language of dowsers. At your basic dowsing level, you have “felt”– or been signaled by – the flowing water inside the Earth.

Let me begin with a former Salesian Catholic priest who was a dowser. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was initially held in such high esteem because he stood out as a purist in opposition to the corrupt and powerful in Haiti under the Duvalier regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”. He was first democratically elected President of Haiti in 1990 with 67% of the votes in an honest election and served until 1991 when he was ousted by a coup d’état, reversed in 1994 by US pressure, the threat of force in Operation Uphold Democracy and reinforced by UNSC Res. 940 on 31 July. Aristide took office for a second time in 1994 when he formally left the church and served until 1996 as President of Haiti, and then was re-elected and served from 2001 to 2004 when he was once again ousted in a second coup.

Aristide first earned fame in Haiti as a crusading parish priest for liberation theology when in 1985 he gave a rabble-rousing Easter Week sermon delivered at the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince urging Haitians to reject the regime in the name of righteousness and love, the signature words of a dowser engaged in promoting revolution on behalf of the people so “they would not go hungry.” As if we can feed ourselves on justice and love! Serving the other entails first ensuring that each human is entitled to survive and, against the priestly order, self-survival ranks higher than service to the Other. In 1988, Aristide was forced into hiding for defending the dispossessed and preaching participatory democracy when “vigilantes” attacked his church, burning it to the ground and killing 13 and wounding 77 parishioners with machine guns and machetes as the military and police stood by and refused to intervene.

When Aristide was first elected as President, he was the leader of the Front National pour le Changement et la Démocratie (National Front for Change and Democracy, FNCD). In his second election, he had broken with the FCND, finding its earth-based emphasis on survival alone as inadequate. He founded the Organisation Politique Lavalas, the Struggling People’s Organization (OPL) which demanded a much more radical flood torrent (lavalas in Creole). A revolution cannot be founded on a reference to needs alone but requires that the existing powers be swept away by the turbulent waters underneath that hunger for survival. Revolution, though not resorting to fire, required water as well as earth.

When elected for the second time, the Aristide regime made enormous advances is education (increasing schools, school attendance and access), health (training of doctors with the help of Cuba, reductions in communicable diseases, access), social welfare (public housing, doubling the minimum wage) and counteracting private sources of military power, such as the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes. However, whatever social and economic advances were made, Aristide never managed to bring institutional stability to Haiti even as he advanced democracy and the protection of human rights. This is the failure of dowsers – they are unable to ensure stability and continuity, including their own.

There are many other cases of dowsers achieving political power – in Latin America alone, Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay – but I have to move on to discuss the threats from firebrands as well.

Instead of finally working to wash away the structures of corruption and the control of the instruments of coercion, firebrands and revolutionary strongmen come to power initially by literally setting fire to opponents and their institutions. Instead of promoting both populism and the constitution, populism means deconstructing and sweeping away any elements of constitutional protection. Essentially, any institutions that stand in the way of their absolute power must be eliminated or mangled beyond recognition, and set aside just as the High Priests of the ancient Hebrews set aside the ashes from the burnt offering. Firebrands usurp the role of the priests to emphasize humans in service to the Other in favour of power for themselves.

Lenin was a firebrand as were Mussolini and Hitler. Sticking to our own hemisphere, Fidel Castro stands out. More recently, so do Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Like the dowsers, they bring about important and valuable reforms, but at far greater cost to human liberty than the dowsers. Further, and more importantly, they have considerably more staying power. All are anti-constitutionalists who end up resting power in the hands of individuals rather than institutions and adding more and more power to the individual leader. They gain power by systematically weakening and attacking any opposition instead of recognizing the crucial role that an opposition plays in a democracy. They attack the rule of law, in particular the judiciary and its independence, as well as institutionalized democracy through an electoral process which they systematically subvert. Finally, they turn their guns on a free press to enable their continuation in office to be secured. They work to suborn the media to their own powers, thereby securing their continuation in office.

I do not believe I need to go on. Firebrands are too familiar. We need institutions in place to protect us from firebrands, but from dowsers as well, for dictatorial democracy in the name of the people and participatory power in their name as well, are inimical to lasting stability combined with fairness and justice. Currently, that role is served by constitutional representative democracy in opposition to populism. In the ancient world, high priests and oracles performed that function. By referencing and ritualizing the repetitive reading of the “burnt offering,” we provide one source of immunity against dowsers and firebrands.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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