Rituals of Preservation and Elimination: Vayikra Leviticus 1:1-5:26
There is almost an overwhelming consensus that the Book of Leviticus is the volume most remote from modern sensibilities. After all, it is about sacrifices, priestly garments and rites, ancient medical practices dealing with conditions such as leprosy, all apparently alien experiences. Leviticus seems so “primitive.” The volume focuses on all the distinctions among the tribes rather than the unity of Judaism. Some have dubbed it a spiritual challenge while others have been more forthright and called the Book of Leviticus a spiritual wasteland.
For Reform Jews, this section of the Torah is particularly formidable since Reform Judaism from the start repudiated a dynastic priesthood and the practice of sacrifice. Of special relevance is Reform Judaism’s explicit rejection of attempting to rebuild and restore the Temple. Calling Holy Blossom a temple instead of a synagogue was an overt and blatant exemplification of that rejection.
Rejection went along with substitution – the people, all the people, were priestly. Their mission was not to rebuild the Temple, but to be a light unto the world as they spread through the diaspora. Whether this meant upholding monotheism and the God of the Hebrews as the one true God or simply standing up for lofty ethical values of justice and peace were still matters that needed resolution, though the Reform movement has developed in the latter much more than the former direction. Sanctification was moral, not cultic. Sincerity of devotion replaced ritualistic practices as the highest ideal.
What do we do with one of the five books that is almost completely devoted to cultic practices? Do were merely focus on a few sections of the text that deal with mitzvot and the covenantal relationship to God requiring following God’s ethical and spiritual commandments? Does the purported spiritual bliss that should follow have nothing to do with the cultic practices? What do rituals, especially ones that seem both foreign and alien, have to do with spiritual enrichment? If alien, how can the passages in Vayikra be used to guide life and increase holiness in the world?
What happened to the sense of “purity”? What happened to the stress on a specific diet? What happened to the emphasis, not simply on being well-dressed, but on dressing in a special costume? Is Leviticus to be relegated to the dustbin of history, a relic of the past no longer relevant to our contemporary life? Is Leviticus a dated fossil of a species or religion that has become extinct? Alternatively, are the passages to be treated as metaphors upon which can be erected transformed practices with very different ideals wherein a burnt sacrifice becomes merely a literary tool to explore a deeper form of spiritual being?
I want to suggest that the dismissal of Leviticus may have been a mistake and that Leviticus has more to teach us that we need to recognize. This is because the prophetic voice is not the only source of authenticity. We need judges and lawyers, administrators and accountants, doctors and dentists as well as all the tradesmen, skilled artisans, labourers and suppliers of materials who helped build the mishkan in the last chapters of Exodus. We need practitioners of rituals and not just shit-disturbers who challenge those in power. I write as someone who has always revered the prophetic voice. However, we need people to do what is right and not just preachers calling for righteousness. Leviticus is a text for the practices of a spiritual community rather than about its goals, though the latter are not entirely neglected.
The mishkan was described in great detail in Exodus. It was where the holy tablets were kept, where God, when in residence as a cloud, filled the place. A tent of meeting preceded the construction of the mishkan. It was a portable place where Moses met with God. A tent of meeting is not a place for a political rally or a town hall, but a place where humans encounter God in his dwelling place. Vayikrah does not open with God occupying the holy of holies within the mishkan. Vayikrah does not open with God speaking through the priesthood. Vayikrah begins with God calling Moses, not Aaron, out of the tent of meeting. (I:1) God offers detailed instructions about the purity of the animals to be sacrificed by the people. If a burnt offering, it had to be brought before the tent of meeting as a request for atonement, as a request for expiation. Leviticus is primarily about the politics and administration of the Jewish religion to remove a blood-stain from the body politic, to clean the air of pollution.
In Christianity, Jesus personally replaced the sacrifice of animals. The blood of Jesus was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humans. Jesus body was the “more perfect tent of meeting,” for it was through the body of Christ that humans could meet with God. Jesus as the Lamb of God would forgive sins, not just specific ones, but all sins. And do so for eternal redemption. Thus, Christianity preserved, transformed and raised to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story.
Hebrews 9:11 literally depicts Jesus as personally the replacement for the high priest, himself the more perfect and greater tent offering, his own body as a sacrifice so that the God of wrath would be transformed completely into the God of love forever. Instead of a pure animal without physical blemish being sacrificed on the altar, the pure blood of Christ without a spiritual blemish would be sacrificed on a cross, not so humans could atone for specific sins, but as an atonement for all sin. Through ingesting the body of Christ into one’s own body, through surrendering oneself totally to the spirit of Christ, the Lamb of God would cleanse everyone of their sins, provided, of course, that one accepted Jesus as one’s saviour and redeemer.
However, Judaism is not about personal redemption as the ultimate goal. Individuals do have to atone for their personal sins through a guilt-offering and atonement through compensation. And the form of atonement depends on their station in the religious hierarchy – high priest, tribal chief or an ordinary individual. However, atonement is also needed to preserve the community; atonement for sins of the whole community is a distinct act itself. Judaism is about the eternal nation, עַם הַנֶּצַח (ahm hah-NEH-tsahkh). Eternal is not about that which remains unchanged forever, that which is above and beyond change.
Judaism is about a nation that will not and cannot be allowed to die and must change in order to live. The Jewish nation is timeless, is immortal, is everlasting – not in the sense of having a transcendent existence, but as being an everlasting and perpetual cause. Israel, Judaism, is the eternal nation, the body politic that must be preserved in perpetuity. Israel is about creating נִצְחִי (neets-KHEE) that nation. The study of Torah is the means to reconcile the God of history with the current historical moment. The ritual of Torah has to do with discriminating between that which must be expiated and eliminated or wiped and hidden away, on the one hand, and that which must be preserved, raised up and put on high on the other hand.
God is referred to as עוֹלָם (olam), as existing always and forever, permanently and perpetually. God is everlasting and lives continually for and in all time. God is not transcendent, living beyond time. God is a creative spirit who lives in time, in history, and even occupies space, though God is not embodied. The Jewish people as a collectivity have the responsibility for embodying the spirit of God.
Adam and Eve could not eat of the Tree of Life, could not live for eternity, lest they live forever וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם. (Genesis 3:22). Contrary to Christianity, God and man would not be together in spirit forever, וּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:3) God has a reputation, has renown, that lasts forever. And the goal of the Jewish people was to become a mighty nation with a reputation and renown that would live forever. רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:4) The message is not about one’s soul living forever outside of time and space in some transcendent heaven, but about humans living in this world as embodied creatures trying to earn renown for the people as a whole. Any nation can be a holy nation. Israel must be a holy nation.
That is why the Torah is a tale that runs from generation to generation (Genesis 9:12) so that we may pass on such ideals from parents to children and convey the mission of themselves as individuals to serve one’s people and thereby to serve God. Eternity is about succession and not about transcendence. That is why Jews are bound by an everlasting covenant and why Canaan for committed Jews must be an everlasting possession.
That does not mean that other people cannot live in Canaan. That does not mean that Canaan cannot be a national home for another people. In fact, if Canaan is to be an everlasting home for Jews, it must become a home not only for the Jewish nation, but can be a home for the Palestinian nation. Not their exclusive home. And not the exclusive home of Jews. But a home where Jews can dedicate themselves to a body politic that will glorify God’s name forever. (Genesis 48:4) Jews must not only be embodied, but their national being must also have a body. But a body dedicated to the service of God’s name, for God is forever. God’s name is forever. God’s name is לְעֹלָ֔ם. (Exodus 3:15)
Jews are commanded to celebrate God’s name as a permanent ordinance, as a permanent covenant between God and his chosen people. Not His superior people, but a people chosen to carry the burden of the covenant. It is that which must be remembered. It is that which must be celebrated. And Leviticus is about that celebration. That celebration involves statutes that are passed on from generation to generation. That celebration is about a nation that lives under the rule of law and for the sake of justice. And that is why the nation requires the equivalent of a priesthood as a group dedicated to the perpetuity of the covenant, of the statute, of the law (כְּהֻנָּ֖ה לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם וּמִלֵּאתָ֥ יַֽד־ Exodus 29:28) in addition to the responsibility of individuals to perform mitzvot.
Leviticus is about putting that obligation into practice. It is about administrative justice. Why start off with a sacrifice on the altar in front of the tent of meeting? Why only a male animal for a blood sacrifice, and one without blemish? Because sacrifice must be about our works – about the best of our flocks and the best of our agriculture. It is not about the sacrifice of humans, any human, and not about the sacrifice of Jesus. The sacrifice of a male animal without blemish means that the best of what we can make or do must be in service of perpetuating God’s name.
Why a male? Why not an ewe? After all, female goats without blemish can be sacrificed for a guilt offering, for a sin committed by an individual against another. (Leviticus 4:27) However, males in general need to be reminded that though they, like women, are created in the image of God and must serve God in the activity of creation, they are embodied. Adam was a geek who thought he was there simply to be a scientist, to offer at its most basic a taxonomy for the world. He had to learn that he was an embodied creature with sex drives and an obligation to reproduce and raise children and to raise them to serve God. That is why one sacrifices a male animal’s body without blemish as a burnt offering to atone for being oblivious of what a male’s obligation is and remains. Eve knew it in her body. Adam did not. Lest we forget, sacrifice of a male animal without blemish is intended to atone for forgetting.
However, preservation, putting away and raising up are not the only functions. Sins must also be expiated, eliminated or removed. They must be wiped away (Akkadian kuppuru) and covered (Arabic kafara) rather than raised up. In Macbeth, as much as the Lady cries out, “Out, out damn spot,” the blood stain remains unless there is expiation.
Man in the form of Jesus is not a substitute for an animal sacrifice. Rather, an animal sacrifice is a substitute for human sacrifice which reminds man what he must give his life for – an embodied existence, a life that commemorates the renown of God and raises up the nation of Israel as a memorial to God. We give of our blood and sweat to make a better world and do not rely on the blood of a God-man to escape this world for eternal salvation. For what must be saved is the here and now, the moment that must serve all time. There is NO eternal redemption, only the task of continual, of perpetual redemption.
There is eternal damnation, not by being sent to purgatory, but by being put to “death,” destroyed spiritually as a Jew, by being cut off from one’s people. Execution means exile from the community, most generally, self-inflicted. Why is idolatry the greatest sin? Because idolatry is the worship of a material artifact as divine rather than the human collectivity in a divine relationship. What is a sin offering (hattat)? In Yitz Greenberg’s words, it is “a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society.” (my italics) Moral impiety becomes a sin and not just a state of guilt because society is polluted. The public is therefore ultimately responsible for moral pollution. Humanity, handed the gift of freedom by God, has the responsibility of tilting the balance of creative versus destructive forces in favour of creativity.
As individualism was stressed more and more, Jews became even more removed from cultic practices precisely at a time when rituals were more important than ever for preserving the cohesion of the community. Reform Jews have emphasized and extolled non-cultic piety at the expense of ritual piety, stressing the importance of the individual Jew rather than the preservation of the community. Reform rabbis argued that this was the way Jews survived the destruction of the Temple. However, one could argue that the reverse was true, that the preservation, transformation and raising up of cultic piety and the practices of expiation as removal, as wiping away rather than covering up sin, preserved the people; the over-emphasis on the individual simply leads to the creation of ethical humanistic Judaism and the gradual erosion of Jews as a people. This argument suggests that performing other-oriented mitzvot is insufficient for preserving cohesion among the people.
Like Christianity, Judaism must preserve, transform and raise to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story, but in a very opposite way to the Christian path, through service to God via service to God’s people, to God’s nation, to making that nation an exemplification of the preservation of the covenant. We have not discarded the Kohanim on the dustbin of history. These patrilineal descendants of the Aaronite priesthood are given special privileges and duties in the rituals of worship in a synagogue. Reform in rejecting the priesthood took away those privileges. They should be restored for that is how memory is preserved from generation to generation, by preserving, by raising up and putting a traditional political practice onto a bima of ritual. That is a function of ritual – to preserve, to transform and to raise up on a more formal plane what was once a core embodiment of the nation’s spiritual richness and to remove and wipe away the blood stains of its historical sins.
Should a blood inheritance be the instrument of such preservation? Or should the inheritance of the spirit of special dedication allow anyone to become spiritually a Koan? Or can we do both? Should each synagogue collectively recognize a dedicated group who are assigned the responsibility of maintaining the schedule of synagogue service on a rotating basis? We already do so without designating the group as priests. Volunteers come forth and serve that function. They should be esteemed and given recognition in what they wear and in the deeds they perform in the service.
We could consider resurrecting the Davidic practice of giving over to six families the responsibilities for two of the fifty-two weeks of the services, with one family performing those roles for each day of the week that their collectivity carries that responsibility. That means 26 x 6 = 136 families assuming very systemic and recognized roles in the life of synagogue worship.
The ritualistic practices of old can be preserved, can be transformed and, in being transformed, raised up so that the Jewish people can perpetuate itself as a people in a covenantal relationship to God. At the same time, this restoration also requires elimination, rituals of wiping out and covering up sins by unveiling them, by eviscerating the body politic and exposing the blood stains that pollute and make impure our political life.