Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

DO NOT READ THIS BLOG UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM. The film is brilliant, but even more brilliant than most critics perceived.

How would you feel if you, a mother, had an argument with your teenage daughter, Angela – not exactly an archetypal angel – about whether to let her use your car to go out on a date on a Saturday evening? What if your daughter stormed out of the house saying she would walk and if she got raped it was your fault? What if you, as she fled out the door, called after her in anger that she should get raped for the foul language and insults hurled at you? What if you said this really to get back at her because you had just learned that she was exploring moving out and moving in with her father, Charlie, who used to beat you and whom you divorced when he ran off with a 19-year-old bimbo?

And then she was raped that evening. Not only raped, but murdered. Not only murdered, but raped while she lay dying. Not only murdered and raped, but her corpse burned. As much as you might live in a modern world and knew that, in this case, what happened was not a consequence of your words, the guilt you bore would go so deep and be so mutilating that you wanted, that you needed, to displace any responsibility onto another. What do you do with the ugly and agonizing pain, with the weight of that ton of guilt, with the deep burning embers of a searing grief? What better place to displace that responsibility but onto a club of cracker cops unable to find the murderer and rapist?

This is NOT a film about an enraged, unrelenting, uncompromising woman of steel, determined to ensure justice for the murder and rape of her child. It is not even a film about righteous vengeful fury. There is no righteousness whatsoever. And there certainly is no desire for justice. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) insists that she wants the government to set up a database with the DNA of every male so that it can be matched with the DNA on her daughter’s burnt corpse, it is not to obtain and exact justice, but to obtain and exact vengeance.

“Be sure and kill ‘em.” She is a hard-hearted woman so deeply frozen and dead on the inside and so full of fire and brimstone and steely edges on the outside, that we as the audience are sucked into applauding her devil take all attitude if only because the language of both sympathy and bureaucracy is so cold that we welcome, indeed applaud, someone who talks without thinking and fires away with little if no concern for or empathy with her targets. What magic when a writer/director can make such a detestable woman so tremendously likeable that we offer her our deepest sympathies. The chief target of her rage is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of affection and sensitive attachment, like his predecesor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is intelligent, sensitive and conscientious rather than an indifferent oaf.

The film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, begins with a distraught but very determined mother bent on displacing that guilt in the ostensible pursuit of justice, with which we as viewers easily identify. Especially since her method of embarrassing the police is so public. She pays for putting up signs on three obsolete titular billboards to express her rage and frustration. The motive is unbeknownst to everyone, except her son who witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter. The billboards are used to displace that deep and very painful guilt. Critics who look at Mildred as “morally unimpeachable” are truly blind and deaf.  She is a harridan, immensely likeable and sympathetic, but still a vicious harridan.

Gradually as the film unfolds, we learn of the source and depth of that guilt. But we learn much more. For Ebbing is a town where the use of foul language is the norm, where the mistreatment of Blacks is the norm, especially by one police officer, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has never been held responsible for his violent and outrageous behaviour. It just so happens that this violent cop is a mama’s boy, his mother is a virulent bitch and he is probably a repressed homosexual. He gradually wins our sympathy.

It is a town in which a happy family of a couple, a police chief (Willoughby), his wife and two children, play a game by a stream whereby the two young girls are required to fish for stuffed animals around the blanket on which they are sitting without leaving the blanket, while the parents go off for some nookie. But the instructions to the girls are delivered in the foulest language imaginable. As Mildred says at the beginning of the film when discussing the wording with her son on the proposed billboards, you may address your children in the foulest language, but on public billboards you “can’t say nothin’ defamatory.” It is a world of deep hypocrisy.

The sin permeating this town goes much deeper. When a priest, Father Montgomery, comes to the home of the distraught mother to try to persuade her to take down the billboards that are causing such stress to the popular police chief, the mother kicks him out, but not before reducing him to quivering silence by accusing him of complicity for doing nothing, just as he did nothing when his altar boy was seduced or raped by another priest. And in guilt, we sit silent in the theatre oblivious to the fact that this is a tale of raw vengeance and shame rather than of justice and guilt. The male secretive self-protective clubs of the town are now under attack by one enraged woman and her wild jeremiad. And the moral universe is inverted in McDonagh’s view when priests become priests and cops become cops because they want to do good, but are perceived now as sinister simply because of the costumes they wear, whether a clerical collar or a police uniform.

Unequivocally, Ebbing is a town in which sin has raged like a wildfire so that it permeates the language and behaviour of ordinary citizens and officers of the law alike. It is a town where the rule of impulse outweighs the rule of law. It is a town in which any efforts to purify the town had fallen by the wayside and became as obsolete as those billboards did when the new highway was built to bypass the old road. Bad behaviour had become the norm in this town in the heartland of America and sin is everywhere. The town is morally polluted. Not even the torching of the billboards and then the police station, and the scorching of the dumb and distasteful racist Constable Dixon, can even expurgate the sin. Dixon is, of course, the antithesis of Dixon of Dock Green (Jack Warner), the archetypal London bobby of the twenty-year long-running BBC series about a police officer full of common sense and empathy,

But that is just the background, the setting, very important but not the central theme of the movie. The town ceremonies and rituals and rites provide no opportunity any longer to expiate that sin, to cleanse the society of its moral pollution. Moral pollution has become the norm. There is no ritual whereby the town, its leaders and its ordinary citizens can acknowledge their responsibility for the sins. Everyone is complicit. Everyone “stands by.” For the movie is about guilt transmuted into shame, and sin transformed into vengeance.

Guilt goes deeper than sin. It is at the root of sin. It is the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. At the end of the film, the most vicious police officer becomes a burnt offering and seems to repent (following the guiding note of his now deceased chief of police to learn about guilt, confession and love), owning up to one’s responsibilities and learning to love oneself and others as a good Christian should. It is clear that the members of the town, especially this police officer and his ardent accuser, the mother of the raped girl, go off to possibly murder a suspect who they now know could not have killed the daughter. The town and the people of the town have no rite, no ritual, no religious practice through which they can expiate their guilt and accept responsibility for what they did and what they do. For the fundamental moral code of the town has become displacement of responsibility. The town is awash not only in sin but in guilt. There is no act of reparation available to them. Instead, they get a rifle and ostensibly set out possibly to murder an innocent man. They will decide en route whether they will do it.

There is no redemption. There is no means of redemption. Guns and violence as the answer to problems have so permeated the value structure, have so displaced any real moral code, that the only answer to any action is revenge, not understanding and certainly not any acceptance of responsibility for what has taken place. There is no mechanism to sharpen any individual’s conscience. Paganism has returned to occupy central stage in the heartland of America. It is a Manichean world in which demonic forces seem to continually defeat any divine force. It is a world which has lost most of its humanity where each human, every male and every female, assumes responsibility for him or herself to ensure a divine presence on earth and the expulsion of the demonic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is about the demonic taking control of a town in the heartland of America just as it has taken over the White House. Any rituals to contain and dispose of moral impurities have largely been sacrificed to cowardice, to ambition and to complicity. We have returned to an age in which a young teenage girl is raped, is murdered, is raped while dying, is offered as a burnt offering, but not to a divine order of a healthy, responsible life, but to a demonic order of guns and irresponsibility, of anarchy rather than the rule of law, of impulse rather than thoughtful consideration. It is a world in which the police station as the central symbol of the rule of law has been burnt to the ground. It is a world in which we who watch cheer this act of revenge and pseudo expiation, thrilled at the violence rather than discomfited by the phenomenal moral deterioration in our human moral code.

God is death. Humans must be wedded to life. The rituals of death, of sin and guilt need a place, a temple, where they can be disposed of. If a rabbi reminds me of the sensuousness, the incense and the smoke, the vibrancy and the flavours of a place of temple sacrifice, then that rabbi is totally out of touch with the function of the temple and the meaning of its absence. For without a temple, all responsibility rests on each and every one of us to be accountable for the commissions of sinful acts that thrust shards of guilt deep into our souls. The destroyed temple does not simply belong to a more primitive past in the sense of appealing to our basic sensuality as if it is simply an outdoor food market.

Why do we need to significantly reduce and limit a gun culture? When do we need blood prohibitions – when the police chief vomits up blood from his cancer, we must recognize the symbolic significance. After all, as McDormand says, “When you croak, the billboards won’t be as effective.” When the sadistic dentist is forced to drill into his own fingernail rather than into the not quite frozen tooth that needs removal, we get a glimpse of a place where inflicting pain has become a way of life and not a place where we try to make pain as painless as possible. So even the police chief’s self-sacrifice to minimize the pain to be inflicted on his family comes across as a positive but largely meaningless gesture, for the core meaning of what this hero did for the town is lost in a miasma of meaningless vengeance totally detached from justice.

Death is now totally intertwined with life instead of hived off and restricted so that life can thrive and blossom. The billboards ask a question intended to embarrass the police. But they are a sign of a society reduced to a shame rather than a guilt culture, a society in which out of helplessness and hopelessness conflicts are resolved by either coercion or shaming rather than by acknowledging guilt and assuming responsibility.

When a movie can put such a profound theological and social commentary before our eyes, and do so with humour and wit, when it so deliberately and cleverly misleads us into a failure to recognize who the hero and who the villain is, when a movie takes us into the bypassed rural routes of the heartland of America to unveil the miasma of sin and the absence of guilt and the rule of law that pervades the town, and when the acting by Frances McDormand , Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all so brilliant, the writing and direction of Martin McDonagh so nuanced, the movie deserves every reward it received even though it appears that most commentators missed its religious and social profundity.

The land needs to be cleansed, especially the heartland Only then can positive mitzvot and proper ethics once again rule in the land of milk and honey.

Shame and Humiliation in Judaism versus Christianity

Shame and Humiliation

Part V of V: Shame and Humiliation in Judaism versus Christianity

by

Howard Adelman

In the first part of this series, I referred to Tamar in relationship to her father-in-law as well as to Joseph and his brothers in the Torah and their rejection of shame and humiliation, especially shaming another. Instead, Judaism generally stressed guilt, remorse for what you specifically did, and not for who you are. This guilt element in Jewish cultural history emphasizes the rule of law and due process. It stressed respect for the Other and oneself. However, ancient Hebrew culture also has a deep understanding for a shame culture, for it is that which is rejected, that which represents falling into a bottomless pit. After all, the obverse of trying to abide by rules and experiencing guilt when one fails is not experiencing deep shame. It is summed up in Proverbs 13:18. If you do not follow a disciplined path, you will end up impoverished and in disgrace, totally ashamed of yourself, but if you learn from your mistakes and listen to criticism, you will be honoured. “Poverty and disgrace befall him who spurns discipline, but he who keeps reproof will be honoured.” רֵישׁ וְקָלוֹן פּוֹרֵעַ מוּסָר וְשׁוֹמֵר תּוֹכַחַת

Shame is the hell Israel will be forced into if the nation fails to follow God’s laws. “They will put on sackcloth and be clothed with terror. Every face will be covered with shame, and every head will be shaved.” (Ezekiel 7:18) But if the Israelites can throw off shame, if the dry bones of those who live without hope can be infused with self-respect and discard shame, then “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” will come to life with flesh and spirit. (Ezekiel 37)

Further, those who try to humiliate and shame me for my beliefs and my practices will, in the end, be shamed and feel shame deep in their souls and disgraced in their very bones. “Then my enemies will see that the LORD is on my side. They will be ashamed that they taunted me, saying, ‘So where is the LORD–that God of yours?’ With my own eyes I will see their downfall; they will be trampled like mud in the streets.” (Micah 7:10) Shame revisits the shamer. To be mired in shame is to be an eternal wanderer without direction, without hope and destined to live in the deepest darkness.

The opposite is escape from shame, escape from humiliation. If one escapes shame, escapes humiliation, if one is to grow flesh on one’s dried up and dead life, out of that dry ground one must grow into a tiny plant rising from the cracked and parched earth seeking self-respect and light, seeking to respect others. When I was a young man, I wrote a play that was produced called “Root Out of Dry Ground” (Isaiah 53:2) about that struggle. I was denounced from the pulpit of Canada’s largest synagogue for being a self-hating Jew. Especially some sects experts at shaming even though shaming is antithetical to the core of their religion.

Though one be humiliated, though one can be shamed, though one can be “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” and though others turn away, despise the shamed one and refuse to come face to face with him (Isaiah 53:3), though we hide our faces from him; “he was despised, and we esteemed him not,” that is not the path, the light and the way. “Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed. Neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and the reproach of thy widowhood shalt thou remember no more.”

אַל-תִּירְאִי כִּי-לֹא תֵבוֹשִׁי, וְאַל-תִּכָּלְמִי כִּי לֹא תַחְפִּירִי:  כִּי בֹשֶׁת עֲלוּמַיִךְ תִּשְׁכָּחִי, וְחֶרְפַּת אַלְמְנוּתַיִךְ לֹא תִזְכְּרִי-עוֹד.

Before we get to the story of Cain and Abel that we referred to earlier, it is important to properly understand the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. In the standard misinterpretation, Adam and Eve disobey God’s command, eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, experience deep shame and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They experienced deep shame for their disobedience. They experienced deep shame for having sex with one another.

I have written many times on the phenomenology of this experience, and so I will try to be very brief. Adam is placed in the garden. He aspires to be like God, to say and there is. After all, he is given responsibility for naming things. Enamoured with his vocation, he is ignorant of his own body, its desires and its needs. He does not even recognize he is lonely. He does not even acknowledge his body as his own. He may have been a brilliant naturalist, but he was also one dumb dude totally ashamed of who he was as an embodied being.

God knew he was alone. Adam himself never recognized his needs or his loneliness. And, as I have written, loneliness is at the core of suffering from shame. Adam is ashamed and he does not even know it well before he eats of the Tree of Knowledge of good and Evil where eating thereof allowed him for the first time to know, to acknowledge that he was ashamed. Though God had created Eve in the same way as Adam, in Adam’s dream, in his fantasy world, Eve is merely a projection of his own flesh without a mind of her own, without a centre of self-determination. He does not recognize her. He does not respect her. He does not even respect his own body. So when his erect penis in the form of an othered Being, viewed only as a devious snake, seduces Eve, that penis is not his. It is a trickster who beguiles Eve. It is not Adam who had sex. He was taken off guard. He was led down the garden path. Adam takes no responsibility for his acts. He was too enamoured with being a disembodied mind to appreciate he was an embodied creature with feelings and attachments.

But his body, not his mind, saves him. It introduces, but only introduces him, to determining what is good and what is evil, to the world of ethics and not just the knowledge of external nature, to the world of prescriptions and imperatives and not just descriptions. It began with recognizing that he felt ashamed, ashamed that he was an embodied creature and not a disembodied divine Being. With this knowledge, he could no longer live in the illusory purely mental world of the Garden of Eden. He automatically was thrust into the real world.

The shame experienced is not because of disobedience of God’s instructions, for God had simply warned that IF you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will no longer be able to live in a cut off disembodied world of the mind. You shall surely die and be reborn as a flesh and blood creature. Thou shalt not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is not a categorical imperative. It is not even an imperative at all. A conditional anticipation is not an imperative. But because Adam had not yet eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he could not recognize the difference between a categorical and a conditional. He could not recognize the difference between an imperative and a descriptive generalization, especially one that referred to what could be rather than what is.

Nor were Adam and Eve punished for eating of the tree. The consequence followed as described, but the shame arose from the lie, from the cover-up, from the displacement of responsibility. Where they should have felt guilt about this projection, about the failure to respect who he was as an embodied mind and not a disembodied God, for who Eve was as an independent self-respecting human being, they covered up their flesh. They felt ashamed. This was the Fall, not eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having sex is not a sin. Denying who we are, blaming others are sins. And Adam was deeply immersed in shame long before he and Eve had sex.

The history of man in throwing off a metaphysics of shame and accepting a metaphysics of guilt defined by rules and discipline became an effort of thousands of years. The start, however was ominous. The children of Adam and Eve demonstrate this. If Cain and Abel no longer could see themselves as demi-gods, each could at least try to define themselves and be respected as the one chosen to be closest to God. This was the new fantasy that replaced the older one. How do you achieve that recognition? They follow the reverse path of the Greeks where humans are helped by the gods – in this case by second order gods. But for the Hebrews, men still aspired to be next to God and to be recognized as God’s second-in-command.

How to get there? Show your indifference to the best products of your physical labour. Sacrifice the best that you have made and produced with the labour of your body to God to gain that desired recognition. The farmer sacrifices the best of his grain and Cain asks for recognition for his labour and service to God. Abel, the hunter, the cattleman, the rancher, sacrifices the best of his herd. God gives the recognition to Abel. Cain, instead of understanding that recognition is a step backwards, a step backwards to dependency on nature, a step back towards the image of man as a disembodied being, goes into a jealous rage and feels totally shamed. He lashes out and kills Abel.

God punished Cain by ejecting him from society and not just the Garden of Eden. The pain experienced and acknowledged there had been a piece of cake. He becomes the wanderer, the individual without a settled home who will have to roam through the wilderness of dry bones and shame, but will eventually redeem himself on a higher plane as the founder of cities, of civilization.

I recognize that this is not the Genesis tale you were taught as children. But, I suggest, you were educated in a culture that esteemed shame as a tool of progress, of redemption, as a spur to salvation. Instead of a state that had to be abandoned and left behind totally. In Christianity, it will be left behind, but by and only through grace. As it is written in Timothy 1:12, “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” Suffering is redemptive. And one is freed from shame only be being accepted as one with Christ, a far more ambitious goal than that of either Cain or Abel, who wanted simply recognition from God. If Jesus is God and a person can be one with Jesus, then one can be one with God. And that is the only route to escape shame and sin because man is by nature a sinner. As Christianity teaches, a true Christian stands unashamedly only when he finds the cross and lives as one with the spirit of Jesus.

Instead of positing guilt and shame as belonging to opposite worlds, guilt is absorbed into shame and the Hebrews are characterized as inherently wallowing in shame, suffering from faithlessness because they rejected Christ as their saviour and as a reborn God.  However, if one is a Christian, one accepts Christ as one’s saviour and the route out of sin and shame; one rejects the Jewish belief that the rejection of shame requires you and only you to have respect for who you are and not depend on another for recognition. Accepting Jesus is not only not the route to salvation but the route to reinforcing a shame culture. So Christianity was built, not on Judaism as a brother religion, or Judaism as the source religion of Christianity, but as something which has to be buried and upon which the cornerstone of the Church of Christ has to be built. As Peter put it, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (2:6) Jews became shameful, but if you trust in Christ, you will never suffer shame.

The choice for Christians was either everlasting life in Christ or shame, everlasting shame. One escaped shame not through respecting oneself and who we are, not by respecting Others for who they are, but by accepting that Jesus is the one and only way to escape your life as a sinner. Sin was shameful and man was inherently a sinner and cannot escape sin without the grace of God through the assistance and mediation of Jesus. One had to confess one’s natural sinfulness. Instead of an expansion of spirit, one had to experience contrition. Unless one accepted that path of salvation, one was condemned to everlasting shame and contempt. So guilt, instead of being a regret for one’s own responsibility in offending a social norm, becomes a synonym for shame instead of its opposite. Guilt says you are unworthy and not that you are guilty for the specific act you did.

Thus, when David cries out to God not to be cast aside in shame and thrown into the pit with the wicked, this is interpreted as a request for grace when it is no such thing. It is a request that as a person I stand up on my own two feet, accept who I am and what I must do to be better, but reject, not accept, that one is inherently shameful; to reject not accept that one needs a mediator to accomplish this task, to accept that shame cannot be a tool of redemption, but must be cast off and left in the desert of dry bones unable to rise up with flesh on those bones and a smile on your face.

In a guilt culture, one is inculcated with norms. When one disobeys those implanted norms by digressions in one’s behaviour, one feels guilty, not for who you are but for what you did. In a guilt culture, one confronts another in private so as not to humiliate the other for her or his failure to follow those norms. And when those norms shift, then there are cultural clashes within ourselves and between us and others. But this requirement for discourse is not a cause for shame, but for rejoicing. For it creates the foundation for a dialogical society. This does not entail that guilt cultures insist on total conformity, but rather they insist on a second order set of rules for altering primary norms governing behaviour, in secular parlance, a constitution. The problems really occur when these second order rules themselves are in disarray or have lost their respect.

Now some would class shame cultures as those which esteem self-pride and honour, superficial appearances and upholding of those appearances. But that is just one instance of a shame culture and a pretty debased one at that. Deep shame cultures do not attribute shame merely to how we appear but to who we fundamentally are. We are born sinners. And it is only when we accept that, when we accept that we are totally dependent on a divine hand to escape from wallowing in sin and shame, that we can escape its quicksand effects.

But doesn’t Christianity require confession of specific misdeeds? Doesn’t Christianity require restitution? Yes, but only as a step towards being reborn only when one accepts that one is by nature a sinner. In contrast, guilt without shame is the feeling that arises within when we violate the ethical norms planted within, when we violate our conscience. An individual may suffer guilt even if no one else knows of that error of your ways. The feeling of guilt can only be eased by taking responsibility for what you did as when Judah confessed his previous failure to take responsibility for his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and when he made restitution. Guilt cultures rely on the internalization of external norms which become the enforcers of behaviour. Purely shame cultures rely on external sanctioning, external shaming, external humiliation. In a guilt culture, one has to learn to accept punishment for your misdeeds, but, at the same time, learn to respect yourself. Accepting responsibility for what you did is a first step. When you accept that  responsibility, when you make up for the error of your ways, when you make restitution, you can forgive yourself, and forgiving oneself precedes anyone else offering forgiveness. And to do that, you cannot and should not be humiliated in the process, you cannot accept self-denial, you cannot and must not be humbled.

If Christianity is such a shame culture, how come there are so many beautiful Christians? I went to St. Michael’s College after I left medical school to complete my bachelor’s degree. One of my best friends was Vince Kelly. I only learned several years after we graduated that this beautiful smiling soul had hidden his homosexuality from me. And when he owned up to it, he recognized that at the time he would and could not realize his dream of becoming Prime Minister of Canada. If he had only lived to see Premier Kathleen Wynne, a lesbian, become the leader of our government in the Province of Ontario. If only he had lived to see the Supreme Court in the United States recognize gay marriage. He would have been a great Prime Minister. He was an extraordinary terrific president of the student council at the University of Toronto, leader of the young Liberals and campaigner to be one of the youngest Members of Parliament when he ran in Smith Falls, his home town.

When I was in medical school, when I was still in pre-meds, in fact, in my first year, Father Gregory Baum picked me up at the corner of Lawrence and Bathurst in his little Volkswagen beetle as he was coming down from the Catholic retreat where he lived. He gave me a lift to the University of Toronto. By the time we reached the university, we had become friends. Though we would much later have a falling out over Israel, I never ceased to view him as a beautiful soul. His mother had been Jewish and his father a secular Protestant. He had been recommended by a fellow internee, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, in the Canadian prisoner-of-war camps for German Jewish nationals, to explore attending St. Michael’s College because of his enchantment with the mediaeval world, though he would first earn his bachelor and master’s degrees in mathematics. St. Mikes then hosted the leading centre of mediaeval studies in the world. Gregory converted to Catholicism and, not long after I first met him, rose to be a very prominent theologian and advisor to Vatican II as a peritus or theological advisor. It was he who led the Catholic Church to recognize that the effort to convert the Jews, especially after the Shoah, was an effort in religious genocide and had to be abandoned.

When much more recently for twelve years I produced and hosted a television show called Israel Today, that show was financed by evangelical Christians, not because, as many wary Jews suspected, they believed that the path to salvation required the resurrection of Israel, but because many of them had learned not only to love Jews but to love the Jewishness of their own faith. When one watches President Obama at the service commemorating those killed in Charlotte North Carolina and leading the 5,000 collected there to celebrate the lives of those destroyed by a deranged racist, and Obama leads the multitude in singing Amazing Grace, one cannot help but admire and appreciate the positive and powerful spirit of that religion.

But it is not what it once was. And that is to the good. By and large and to a significant extent, it has left a theology of shaming and public humiliation behind. It has reconciled itself with its Jewish roots. In America with that country’s deeply religious faith in the American constitution and the rule of law, it has emerged there as a religion that stresses guilt for one’s specific misdeeds and the need to and possibility of recovering from error, including Whites recovering from their heritage of offences against Blacks, of heterosexuals for their offences against gays, from the White Man’s offences against the natives of North America.

But the genie of shame and humiliation has not gone far. It has become secular. It has been resurrected in our public life and on the internet in a much more virulent form.

We are all obligated to combat it wherever and however it appears.

Parashat Vayikra.Leviticus 1:1- 5:26.Peace, Sin and Guilt.16.03.13

Leviticus 1:1- 5:26 Peace, Sin and Guilt 16.03.13

Parashat Vayikra

by

Howard Adelman

Why do Jewish children begin their Biblical Jewish studies with Leviticus? On the surface, Leviticus is a total bore for children. Once you try to analyze the text, you have to conclude that the concepts must go way over their head. Further, if the book is a set of instructions for priests (Torat Kohanim), why should a youngster be interested? In any case, rabbinic Judaism prevails and there is no longer a Jewish religion centred on temple rituals, so what relevance could such a book have as an introduction to contemporary Judaism? Why would any child be interested in different categories of sacrifice, initiation rites into the priesthood and the horrific consequences if you make a mistake?

Leviticus is an emotionally disturbing book. A child has not yet acquired the censors and indirection, the inhibitions and redirections. The direct even involuntary attraction towards a powerful emotional response provides the power of the text. It is not that the children are pure in being without sin but pure in the sense of their openness to another, especially empathy for the emotions of the other.

Leviticus is about such openness. "Vayikra" means that God called. Moses is called. We as inheritors of the Mosaic credo will eventually be called. We are not called from heaven. The voice calling us comes from midst of the Tent of Meeting. In the Maori community that I will discuss at the end in reference to the movie, The Whale Rider, the call comes from the spirit of the whale. We all have a calling. Depending on our community, that calling can originate from different sources. Children have to learn to listen for their calling.

1. And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying,

א.וַיִּקְרָא אֶל משֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר:

And what are we called to do?

2. Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.

ב.דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַיהֹוָה מִן הַבְּהֵמָה מִן הַבָּקָר וּמִן הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת קָרְבַּנְכֶם:

We are called to speak to the children of Israel.That includes real children as well as adults who still behave as children. Why and how do we speak to the children first about sacrifice?

The first lesson we are required to impart is in the form of a horror movie. A man, adam not ish, a representative of all humanity rather than a specific human, comes near so the child can witness. What is sacrificed on the high altar before the temple? Preferably an unblemished bull, but possibly a sheep or goat or even a turtle dove. In every case, killing, dissection and creating a bloody mess are involved. There is a slaughter of the animal, splashing its blood on the altar, skinning the animal, dissecting the animal into sections, piling the parts in a particular order with the head and fat on top of the wood so the fat drips down and sizzles in the fire. When the innards have been cleaned, washed and piled with the other parts of the animal and the hind legs on top, we then watch the face and eyes and mouth of the animal consumed first by the flames as the animal is burnt until there are only ashes left. It is a scene designed to arouse fear in the child.

This type of sacrifice is called a burnt offering. We can capture its meaning by going back to the first sacrifice, Cain and Abel providing a burnt offering to the Lord. Cain was a farmer. He offered the best of his labour, grain, as a sacrifice. But God chose to recognize Abel’s animal sacrifice. In a jealous rage, because the sacrifice of the best products of his labours for God were not recognized, Cain killed Abel. God preferred to recognize the nomadic way of life of the shepherd even as humanity was adopting to a sedentary agricultural way of life. The irony is that God’s recognition was not for that which was to be valued as historically the superior way of life, but as the way of life that had to be sacrificed to give way to agricultural societies.

The animal sacrifice is now given not for its recognition as having a higher status, but for atonement, for acknowledging the sacrifice and loss of a way of life that once was and is no more. There must be a sacrifice to atone for a way of life that no longer exists, that has gone up in smoke, and now persists and exists only in symbolic and token forms. God requires that we recognize and atone for the ways of life that have been sacrificed in the civilizing of humanity. Through the rituals of sacrifice, the community symbolically preserves its past. The rituals provide the songline for community survival.

How does the child experience this? A child would certainly not grasp the symbolic significance. I am convinced that this is where fear and trembling are appropriate and properly describe reactions that could be expected on first seeing such a truly awesome sight, the burnt, or more accurately, ascendant offering upon the high altar. What ascends to heaven entirely in a cloud of smoke is no more on earth and in history.

In Ezra 3.3, even in the face of enemies, especially when surrounded by enemies, the burnt offering must be made to teach a community that it is fighting for its way of life. If death from the enemy is to be feared, the greater fear is the existential one, that the way of life of your community and society will be wiped from the face of the earth and from history. "Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening sacrifices." Children of Israel are instilled very early in life with existential fear.

Animal and grain sacrifices are no longer made competitively side-by-side, but in succession. Ch. 2 begins with the depiction of the meal sacrifices, a fire rather than a burnt offering, an acknowledgement that bread must be made and food cooked by applying heat. Except for Shavuot, leavened bread is not sacrificed on the altar. It goes on the table. Only unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, is sacrificed. As chapter, verse 11 states, "No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made [out of
anything] leavened. For you shall not cause to [go up in] smoke any leavening or any honey, [as] a fire offering to the Lord." We keep the tastiest and best now for our own consumption.

Chapter 2

1. And if a person brings a meal offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it.

א.וְנֶפֶשׁ כִּי תַקְרִיב קָרְבַּן מִנְחָה לַיהֹוָה סֹלֶת יִהְיֶה קָרְבָּנוֹ וְיָצַק עָלֶיהָ שֶׁמֶן וְנָתַן עָלֶיהָ לְבֹנָה:

2. And he shall bring it to Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim, and from there, he [the kohen] shall scoop out his fistful of its fine flour and its oil, in addition to all its frankincense. Then, the kohen shall cause its reminder to [go up in] smoke on the altar; [it is] a fire offering [with] a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.

ב.וֶהֱבִיאָהּ אֶל בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים וְקָמַץ מִשָּׁם מְלֹא קֻמְצוֹ מִסָּלְתָּהּ וּמִשַּׁמְנָהּ עַל כָּל לְבֹנָתָהּ וְהִקְטִיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת אַזְכָּרָתָהּ הַמִּזְבֵּחָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַיהֹוָה:

For all fire offerings, we add salt. For of the three parts of earth – wilderness, settled areas and the sea – the settled areas increasingly displace the wilderness. But what of the sea? The sea too, even though it was never a way of life, once covered all of earth and had to recede. The sea must be used in service to settled society. Thus, with all offerings, salt must be added. Salt becomes the symbol of the Covenant. In order to have settled life, the sea had to recede. Civilization proceeds by pushing back the subterranean life, the life of the sea, and expanding human settlements of the land and bringing as much as possible into the light of day. Salt, the best preservative known in the ancient world, allows food to be preserved and put away in storage. The salt of the Covenant allows that which is preserved and stored away to be raised up. That is why Israel was given to King David and the children of Israel to be preserved and raised up. (Chronicles 13:5).

"And every sacrifice of your meal offerings salt with salt and do not banish salt, the Covenant of your G-d from on your meal offerings. Place salt on every one of your offerings…" (Leviticus 2:13)

"All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for you and for your offspring as well. (Numbers 18:19)

Once the dialectic of the Cain and Abel sacrifices are re-enacted, three other sacrifices are depicted – the peace offering, the guilt offering and the sin offering. Chapter 3 begins with the peace offering. In analyzing the peace offering, we must ask in what sense are we both drawn closer to death and enriching our experience of life? What is being substituted for and lost through the sacrifice? In what sense is the offering an offering of oneself? In one sense, in a peace offering, we give up very little.

3 And he shall offer of the sacrifice of the peace offering an offering made by fire unto the LORD; the fat that covereth the inwards, and all the fat that is upon the inwards,

4 And the two kidneys, and the fat that is on them, which is by the flanks, and the caul above the liver, with the kidneys, it shall he take away.

Not much of a sacrifice! You simply put on the altar what you would not eat anyway – fat and blood. The rest is divided between the priest and the sacrificer. We are not talking about giving to express gratitude for a benefit gained. Nor for a benefit expected! The zevach sh’lamim or "sacrifice of well-being" was a voluntary animal offering, sometimes to fulfill a vow. (Leviticus 3:1-17) What is given up and surrendered is excess. The fat is burned on the altar. It must not only substitute for but be inclusive of what is excessive. By giving of ourselves in acts of charity and benevolence we gain a sense of who we are as humble beings. For we identify then with all who are humble. In that way we come to peace with ourselves and with every other member of humanity. If fear accompanies a burnt offering, happiness and contentment accompany a peace offering.

Historically, in Judaism, Judah ha-Levi exemplified the giving and the product of a peace offering. The sages taught that none drew so near to God as Judah. By giving up the work that defines you for a day of rest, by substituting prayer and study and worship for blood, sweat and tears, we gain a new love, Shabat. "On Friday doth my cup o’erflow, What blissful rest the night shall know, When, in thine arms, my toil and woe Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!" The highest reward for the peace sacrifice is Shabat itself. "Bring fruits and wine and sing a gladsome lay, Cry, ‘Come in peace, O restful Seventh day!’"

In chapter 4 of Leviticus, we are introduced to the sin offering. Note the emphasis on "unintentionality". The sin is inadvertent. But the offering is not; it is an obligatory one.

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,

א.וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:

2. Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a person sins unintentionally [by committing one] of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, and he commits [part] of one of them

ב.דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר נֶפֶשׁ כִּי תֶחֱטָא בִשְׁגָגָה מִכֹּל מִצְוֹת יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה וְעָשָׂה מֵאַחַת מֵהֵנָּה:

3. If the anointed kohen sins, bringing guilt to the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed, an unblemished young bull as a sin offering to the Lord.

ג.אִם הַכֹּהֵן הַמָּשִׁיחַ יֶחֱטָא לְאַשְׁמַת הָעָם וְהִקְרִיב עַל חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא פַּר בֶּן בָּקָר תָּמִים לַיהֹוָה לְחַטָּאת:

What happens if the children of Israel unintentionally sin? The text immediately jumps to the koanim sinning and bringing guilt to the people. Only later do we return to the sins of the community committed out of ignorance. Are the people punished for unintentional sins? Can the koanim commit unintentional sins? The text is clear. The koanim and the community as a whole bear a greater responsibility for sins of ignorance than any individual; a young male bull must be sacrificed.

14. When the sin which they had committed becomes known, the congregation shall bring a young bull as a sin offering. They shall bring it before the Tent of Meeting.

יד.וְנוֹדְעָה הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר חָטְאוּ עָלֶיהָ וְהִקְרִיבוּ הַקָּהָל פַּר בֶּן בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת וְהֵבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:

The animal parts are not consumed nor even burnt on the altar but taken outside the camp to be consumed by fire. Depending on your status in the community, there are different expectations and different levels of sin offerings.

Finally, we have the guilt offering. It differs from the sin offering in that, although the actions may appear inadvertent, whether it is the neglect of the Catholic Church or the Canadian government to have protected children sexually and otherwise abused in the aboriginal school system or the interpersonal digs and actions that upset our partners as indirect ways of expressing our anger, they are actions that hurt another, actions that we can be conscious of and correct. Our secular society relies on therapeutics instead of ritual outlets to deal with guilt and anger. Our society lacks rituals to deal with inadvertent sins and sadness when it blankets the whole community.

Last night I once again watched the beautiful and very moving movie, The Whale Rider, the 2002 film directed by Niki Caro about a young Maori girl of eleven years old in a Maori patriarchal community on the east coast of New Zealand. It is the strongest feminist film I have ever seen. The Whangara Maori date their history back through many generations to a single ancestor, Paikea, who travelled to New Zealand by canoe but before his arrival, the canoe capsized and he was saved by riding to shore on the back of a whale. The chiefs have always been the first-born sons of Paikea’s direct descendants. The eldest son of Koro, the leader of the community, left New Zealand to pursue an art career in Germany. He left behind his daughter, Pai, who has to break through the melancholy that hangs like a heavy cloud over the community to eventually prove, against all Koro’s inherited beliefs, that she, Pai, is the one destined to inherit the leadership of the community and bring it back to the joys, celebrations and love of a way of life that need not be lost by modernity. Pai heard her call.

Only after the community has overcome the sin of ignorance to break through the collective melancholia, only once they as individuals and a community have broken through the various degrees of guilt over self-indulgence, bad habits (smoking and lack of exercise), to not caring sufficiently for one another and the next generation, only once they have broken through once again to re-connect with their animal spirits, the whales, who in the breakdown of spirit have beached themselves on shore, only when they once again re-engage in a form of peace offering, can the community truly enjoy and celebrate the equivalent of a shared communal meal and the fire offering to the divine.

Vayikra.Leviticus1.1-5.26.Peace.Sin.Guilt.16.03.13.doc