Terror and Absolute Power: Sh’mini (Eighth) Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Yesterday, I wrote about Brave New World and made reference by way of contrast to the novel, 1984. The former was a 1932 dystopic novel about a consumer society in which obedience to central authority is extracted by the use of drugs and advertisements to keep everyone complaisant on the drug, soma. The contrast to Aldous Huxley’s novel was another dystopic one written by George Orwell, but this was about a central command economy focused on production in which obedience to central authority is extracted by terror. This week’s Torah portion is an early version of 1984 in which obedience is ensured by intimidation and dread.

Look at these 10 key elements of the story:

  • Mass intimidation as the entire population is collected to receive the commandments of a divine authority.
  • A leader in a uniform and covered in the equivalent of epaulets.
  • A fearful setting, effectively an altar treated as an abattoir in which one large animal is slaughtered and blood is scattered around and against the pillars of the altar like wild rain in a hurricane.
  • The ceremony of fire was an offering to the Lord.
  • The ceremony was turned into a populist feast.
  • Collective hysteria followed when what was left disappeared in a puff of smoke.
  • The ultimate punishment followed for a minor deviation in the rigid ceremonial order, for even the minutest improvisation was forbidden.
  • A father, in this case, the High Priest, as well as relatives and the rest of the congregation, were forbidden to mourn or even cry.
  • The agent to whom the sacrifices are made is God who is also the source of a truly frightening dictatorship wherein a rigid line is drawn between the secular and the sacred, the sacred and the profane, the holy and the common, and the clean and unclean such that the sacred, the holy and the uncommon are held to be both above the law and the source of the law.
  • Though the economic situation remains precarious, the rewards go to those who totally conform; no deviation let alone disobedience is permitted and that way, social unrest is absolutely contained reinforced by rigid rules about what and how we eat reinforced by the repetitive pronunciation of the message akin to propaganda and advertisements; in this way, the will of one is imposed on the many.
  1. A Commanding Authority

God does not work by persuasion or argument. Instead, we have a command authority. Leviticus 8:1 opens: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:” and continues (8:2-5) “take Aaron and his sons, his garments and anointing oil, the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread, and assemble the entire congregation at the door of the tent of meeting. Moses did as the Lord commanded him…and Moses said to the congregation, ‘This is what the Lord hath commanded to be done.’”

  • The Adornment of the Leader in a uniform and medals,

Moses put upon Aaron, “the tunic and girded him with the girdle, and clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod upon him, and he girded him with the skilfully woven band of the ephod, and bound it unto him therewith, and he placed the breastplate upon him, and in the breastplate he put the Urim and the Thummin, and he set the mitre upon his head, and upon the mitre, in front, did he set the golden plate, the holy crown.”

  • The Altar as an Abattoir of Slaughter

After adorning Aaron’s two sons in the same way, the bullock of the sin-offering was brought forth, And when it was slain, Moses took the blood, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about with his finger, and purified the altar, and poured out the remaining blood at the base of the altar, and sanctified it, to make atonement for it, And he took all the fat that was upon the inwards, and the lobe of the liver, and the two kidneys, and their fat, and Moses made it smoke upon the altar, but the bullock, and its skin, and its flesh, and its dung, were burnt with fire without the camp; as the LORD commanded Moses. This was repeated with the ram of the burnt offering, for it was killed and Moses dashed the blood against the altar round about, and “took of the blood thereof, and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot,” an action which he repeated with Aaron’s sons. The performance did not end there. Moses “took the fat, and the fat tail, and all the fat that was upon the inwards, and the lobe of the liver, and the two kidneys, and their fat, and the right thigh, took one unleavened cake, and one cake of oiled bread, and one wafer, and placed them on the fat, and upon the right thigh,” placed them in the hands of Aaron and his sons who “waved them for a wave-offering before the LORD.”

  • An Offering

Blood and oil and the smell of burnt flesh was everywhere as the sacrifice was delivered as an act of devotion to a deity as an oblation.

  • Popular Participation

After Aaron and his sons went through a seven-day consecration, the people were gathered around, along with a bull-calf, a goat, a calf and a lamb and they too were sacrificed in a similarly bloody way as Moses said, “This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do; that the glory of the LORD may appear unto you.”

  • Collective Hysteria and Mass Supplication

“There came forth fire from before the LORD and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces.” (9:24)

  • A Rigid Order: even a trivial improvisation, was forbidden.

“Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them, and there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.” (10:1-2)

  • Silence was commanded even after the death of one’s own sons.

“Aaron held his peace.” (10:3) and no one was permitted to mourn lest they too be put to death. “Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, that ye die not, and that He be not wroth with all the congregation.” (10:6) 

  • There is one above the law who makes the law.

“Ye may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.”

  1. Conformity Rewarded and Social Unrest contained

Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s wo remaining sons, took the place of the older brothers who were slain and shared in all the spoils of the office of the High Priest, but only so long as they strictly conformed to the commands of the absolute ruler. Conformity was rigidly reinforced with detailed edicts and repetitive messaging.

What we have is a very early version of a 1984, a rigid system demanding absolute conformity and obedience. When Abraham was commanded to go to the top of Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, his one and only beloved son from his wife, Sarah, he did what he was told. But there was a reprieve. Aaron’s sons were not even given explicit instructions not to perform the sacrifice in the way that they did, only rigid instructions on how to do it.

The result was more than disproportionate to the action that provoked the Lord’s response. It was obscene. It is one thing to test a man’s faith by demanding what for him would be the most extreme sacrifice, possibly as a test of faith. It is quite another to mete out such an extreme form of punishment when the variation was not even explicitly forbidden, when it was trivial, when there was no warning, when no time for appeal was allowed, and when there were no known negative consequences except the message that an iota of creativity was definitely not permitted.

The Pirates of Penzance, the comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, was also calledThe Slave of Duty. In that musical, the lyrics of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” go as follows: 

“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.

For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.”

It is certainly easier to read a satire of a strictly authoritarian order and its empty folly entailed, than the one represented by a frightening dystopia and certainly much less terrifying than the depiction of the real thing. Perhaps a performance of The Pirates of Penzance might be preferable to reading Leviticus 8-10.


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