Revolutionary Judaism

Parshat Acharei Leviticus 16-18: Revolutionary Judaism

by

Howard Adelman

This week’s portion of the Torah gives rise to one very major question: how can you continue to be an adherent to a religion in which the sacred text and commands as described in this week’s portion depict a sect in which forgiveness of sins and redemption are obtained through rites that read, with all the sacrificed animals on the altar and all the blood splattered around, like a Haitian voodoo religion? Further, how can one belong to a religion in this day and age when a verse in chapter 18 of Leviticus commands:

22You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination. כב וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּֽוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא:

I choose that among a series of different abominations lest one be defiled – sleeping with your neighbour’s wife, your mother or father, your father’s sister (your aunt) or his wife (your step-mother), your sister or your step-sister or your sister-in-law, your granddaughter or your adopted daughter. That prohibition against homosexuality has finally been almost totally undermined in our contemporary society in the West, and in Judaism in particular, though there is still a strong residue in some ultra-orthodox circles. A religion which makes homosexuality a matter of disgust and something deserving of hatred, which connotes disgrace and horror, and which provokes outrage and detestation, aversion and loathing, is unworthy of attachment.

So we have a choice, seemingly – accept the commandment and degrade both the person and the act, or dismiss the demand as irrelevant and recognize that homosexuals deserve recognition, respect and dignified treatment. If I dismiss the command – and I certainly do – what happens to an adherence to the religion? Let me begin to answer that question by first dealing with the first question I raised. How can I adhere to a religion which demands participation in a voodoo-like priestly cult?

Part of the answer comes from understanding the transition from a temple-centred religion to the rabbinic Judaism of the last two millennia. As Josephus wrote, in classical Judaism there was one temple for one God. When the temple was destroyed, how could the centre hold? The simple answer – it did not. Temple-centred Judaism died, but the physical destruction of the temple was merely the final blow. By the time the temple was destroyed by the Romans, the priests were widely viewed by then as a self-centred greedy group, a corrupt, hypocritical and impious lot. In the revolution against the priestly religion of the temple, both rabbinic Judaism and its kissing cousin, eventually called Christianity, emerged. However, whereas Christianity over its first four centuries remained as a chaos of clashing cults until a dominant creed emerged, Judaism consolidated itself around a set of specific rituals (some rejected by Christianity – circumcision, kosher laws of food preparation) and others assimilated into Christianity, such as keeping shabat.
In that development, the rabbinic Judaism redefined itself, amassed a unique new literature, a new culture and a new way of thinking. Judaism had undergone a successful revolution. The final consolidation took longer than Christianity because it was less necessary, but by the 6th century, the codification in the Talmud had emerged to control and police Torah interpretation while not only permitting but encouraging a wide spectrum of interpretation. But the revolution was premised on a radical transition of Judaism from a temple-centred cult into a universalist rather than a tribal religion whereby the God worshipped by Jews was not a tribal god but the God for all humanity, a revolution that may have taken place as early as the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the first temple. Practices might be particular to the Jewish people, but the fundamentals were not. Jews in the Persian exile merged the dialectical tension between their two faces of God to differentiate the Jewish religion from Zoroastrianism.

Between the destruction of the first temple and that of the second, the foundations for the birth of the new Jewish religion out of the literal ashes of the old following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, had been put in place, but the cost was enormous – the loss of homeland, the end of the Hasmonean royal dynasty and the Sanhedrin as the supreme legislative body and Supreme Court combined. Add to those losses the rejection of Hellenic rationality but replaced by the construction of a unique Judaic historically-rooted hermeneutics veering between the predominant egalitarian, pragmatic school of Hillel and the much stricter aristocratic, elitist and absolutist school of Shammai. The latter retained the commanding authoritative tone of the destroyed ancient regime. The House of Hillel preserved the old order, held it reverentially aloft, but put it away as an impotent artefact. Idols could be preserved but not worshipped.

From the civil war among the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots and the Essenes, a version of Pharisaic Judaism emerged supreme, in part by preserving, raising up and putting away the role of the Sadducees into an impotent place of nostalgia in the Judaic legacy, in part by relegating the mystic stream to the margins, and, most importantly, by totally suppressing the militaristic platform of the Zealots. Revolutions only succeed when the militancy that gave rise to those revolutions is eventually squelched and by reading back into the Torah text their own characterization of Judaism. So the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were left simply to debate whether the revolutionaries were to be honoured by lighting one candle on the first night, two on the second night and eight on the final night of Hanukkah or to reverse the order, lighting eight on the first night and only one on the last.

All this is merely a roundabout way of saying that some parts of text have to be relegated to the background, given a formal but empty status and effectively ignored in practice. This is what happened to voodoo Judaism. And this is what is finally taking place with one of the final bastions of prohibition versus obligatory practices – the ban on homosexuality. Today is not the time and place to write about the great significance of the castration of that ban.

My teacher, Emil Fackenheim, tried to inscribe into the Jewish historical canon a new 614th commandment – Never Forget! So each year I, as many others do, reflect on the memory and significance of the Holocaust. My recent blog was my effort this year. But the Holocaust and the re-birth of a Jewish homeland together have revolutionized Judaism as much as the loss of the temple in 70 CE. The meaning of this twentieth century revolution is still cloudy and I have yet to bring my full attention to offering an attempt at clarification. But I do know that the revolution includes the full acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate sexual practice and the establishment and preservation of Israel as a central task. The debate is now over how and no longer over whether that latter task is to be achieved.

What is the connection between these momentous steps? That intellectual task remains. In the interim, I am re-working my thoughts about revolution that I began with my superficial probe into the Irish Revolution in my review of Revolution and its emphasis with connecting that revolution to feminism. In the next blog I will write about the Iranian revolution following the excellent lecture I heard yesterday by U. of T. Professor Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, a Professor of History and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations on, “The Iran Deal and the End of the Iranian Revolutionary Radicalism,” assuming I can recall the lecture in three days time since I did not take notes. I will follow that with a piece on our Visual Revolution by reviewing an excellent documentary that I saw late yesterday evening on the previously unknown artist, Vivian Maier, appropriately entitled, Finding Vivian Maier. I then intend to get back my explorations of the analogy between the historical upheavals of the last century or two and plate tectonics as a theoretical probe.
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