Revolutionary Judaism

Parshat Acharei Leviticus 16-18: Revolutionary Judaism


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.

Sacrifice and Charity

Sacrifice and Charitable Giving: Vayikra Leviticus 1:1 – 5:36
Howard Adelman

When I was a youngster, I dreaded when we started reading Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. I found it such a bore. This year, it perked some interest. I thought I would write about the depiction of when leaders sin, whereas with everyone else the issue is if they sin. It is as if, qua leader, you were expected to sin and the only issue was when.

But as interesting as that issue is theologically and politically, I will not write about it this year. Instead I will write about the difference between sacrifice and charitable offerings or donations. Because I am going away and will not be back until after the due date for filing my taxes, I had my tax return completed early and began reviewing my return this morning. I noticed there was no entry for deductions for donations and gifts. I had given my accountant a pile of charitable tax receipts, but there was no entry for the total that I could find. Had he slipped up or was the entry where I could not find it? I will email him, but it did get me to think about the relationship of charitable killing to charitable giving.

Both sacrifice and charitable giving must be done of one’s free will. A compulsory assessment is not a charitable donation unless there is a free will component. We may give, but we do not just have to. If we give, the holy ordinances laid down apply. Often the sermons at this time of year in synagogues will make references to one’s charitable giving, especially to the synagogue, as the historical successor to the burnt offerings and sacrifices in the ancient temple. It is said that congregants contribute to a synagogue in a system similar to the ancient Israeli practice of korbanot. I question the connection, except for the common elements of a free will and the concept that you give in accordance with your means.

Look at even some of the obvious differences:

  1. A Temple offering, whether a bull or a sheep, a goat or a pigeon, a turtle dove or a  meal offerings, must be unblemished and be the best of your animals or, if a meal offering, made by the finest oils and flour; it is not a sacrifice if you are giving what you do not want anyway. Who checks whether money offered for charity is legitimate or not?
  2. There seems to be a superficial resemblance between bringing a sacrifice to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting where a judgement will be made whether what is offered qualifies. After all, the contemporary Tent of Meeting, Parliament, decides which donations meet specific requirements. Except, not quite. Parliament decides which charities qualify and that determines whether a charitable donation qualifies. There is no scrutinizing of the motives of the donor or the purity of the gift, just of the services performed by the organization claiming to be a charity.
  3. The determination of whether an organization is a charity is made by Parliament on behalf of the people; a sacrifice made before the Tent of Meeting is determined as qualified by the priest, but it is on behalf of the Lord, not the people.
  4. A sin or guilt offering is given to expiate sin; a charitable donation may be given to expiate sin – as viewed in all those scenes in movies when a priest orders a confessor to say ten Hail Marys and drop ten dollars in the charitable box to expiate his or her sin. However, normally, a donation is considered worthy if the organization to which it is given is judged worthy, that is, whether it serves good and charitable purposes in health, education or welfare. Charity is given to make up for sin and shortcomings not to balance accounts in the soul of the giver.
  5. When you offer a sacrifice, one presumes the person offering the sacrifice feels deep guilt. In charitable giving, the presumption, though not the actuality probably, is that an individual gives out of “purity of heart” and is meant to feel good in the giving.
  6. When offering a sacrifice at the entry to the Tent of Meeting, given the way the carcass of the dead animal was banged around and the blood scattered, the place had to stink like a slaughter house, even if the odour was “pleasing to the Lord.” {That in itself is worthy of a separate blog – why the Lord our God finds the smells of a slaughterhouse and a smokehouse so pleasing and why the priest as a ritual slaughterer is remote rather than social or pastoral, a severe rather than a comforting and instructional individual.) A charity as a place to donate, by contrast, should be squeaky clean compared to the altar in front of the Tent of Meeting.
  7. Vayikra does not, literally, mean sacrifice; it means “drawing closer to the Lord.” The point of offering a sacrifice is to be near God, to experience God’s presence. In our contemporary culture, do we experience God’s presence through charitable giving? Perhaps sometimes. But I suspect charity is mostly offered by those who are already close to or actually in the presence of God.
  8. The major difference between the two forms of giving is that, in our modern world, we try to take the sacrifice out of charitable giving and most of us give only when it really costs us very little, when there is little pain in the process. Sacrifice always entails pain, pain of a poor shepherd in giving up the best of his herd for a sacrifice and pain experienced by the animal or bird sacrificed. Modern modes of appealing for a charitable offering are usually designed to make the giving as painless as possible.
  9. In a sacrifice, other than what the priest gets to eat, everything goes up in smoke; a charitable offering is intended to serve a functional purpose over and above the services provided by a welfare state. In the evaluation of charities, a key measure of success is the degree to which the charity contributes to the community with the fewest proportion of expenses spent on administration. In charity, you are supposed to get a “bang for your buck.” Sacrifice, in contrast, is a negative sum game according to measurable standards.
  10. You may give a sacrifice in celebration of and, hopefully, the continuous prospect of good fortune. In the contemporary world, charitable giving is often a display of good fortune.

Last evening we watched an Indian film, Amal. Amal is a rickshaw driver, those three wheel open crosses between a motorcycle and a taxi that replaced the two-wheeled pulled tilted version; the auto baya eased the burden on these traditionally illiterate workers. In the film, rickshaw drivers are generally portrayed as shifty and dishonest, but Amal has a heart of pure gold. In the film, his act of charity is truly a sacrifice and there is no indication that he can get a tax deduction for his contribution.

I am not Amal. I will call my accountant to ensure that I receive the appropriate credit from my taxes for my charitable contributions.


With the help of Alex Zisman