Learning to Love Leviticus: Parashat Vayikra

This post is dedicated to the memory of Steve Miller, one of our community’s Torah study leaders, who passed away unexpectedly around this time two years ago. We miss you, Steve.

From the folks at G-dcast:

I Didn’t Believe My Eyes When I Saw It Happen.

I was in a synagogue on a Saturday morning for the first time. I was at the beginning of a two-year journey that would lead me to the waters of the mikvah, the ritual immersion central to Jewish ceremonial life, coming out as Shim’on, son of Abraham and Sarah, and finding my radiant spiritual home at that very synagogue.

But I knew none of that at the time. Instead, I was just a bemused tourist of sorts, watching as dozens of highly educated people danced and clapped and grinned like little kids. One of the rabbis carried a Torah scroll as big as his upper body, and people crowded into the aisles to touch it, some with their fingertips, some with their prayer shawls, which they then brought to their lips.

Until that day, I had only known the Hebrew scriptures as a weapon — with Leviticus as its poison-laced tip — aimed at me and anyone else who didn’t live up to a ruthlessly gendered culture of conformity.

As soon as I could, I fell into the sweet embrace of a Bible-free grown-up life. I bought prime stock in the belief that the scriptures, especially those dreadful first five books, were not something a thinking person would ever want to engage with.

My draw to Judaism was at first an intellectual one — its commitment to ethics, to social justice, to learning, and the way Jewish observance seemed to help people live mindfully. I wanted that. I figured I didn’t really have to deal with the G-d part, or the Bible part, since there is no real credal test in Judaism. So that morning I let the Torah scroll pass by as I clapped along politely with the congregation.

But the sight of those people’s faces I’ll never forget.

They greeted that Torah scroll like it was an ice cream truck on the hottest day of summer.

How Could That Possibly Be?

That’s what I asked myself as I began the year of study and observance that is the first requirement of a would-be Jew by Choice. I studied on my own and with a weekly Torah study group at our synagogue. That was a lovely introduction into the way Jews approach the scriptures — as the starting point of a gorgeous mess, commentary on commentary, storytelling, and debates that unfold over centuries. Through it all, an expectation of agreement is pretty much the last thing on anyone’s mind.

No one tries to gloss over the text’s obvious seams and contradictions, because Torah is sublime and imperfect, grand and petty, otherworldly and flesh-and-bones. The text isn’t really about floods and begats and homicidal livestock. It’s about us. It’s about making sense of the world and what role a divine being might or might not play in it.

Book after book, story after story, the text opened itself to me, almost always in the presence of my passionate, irreverent, and mostly female teachers and study partners.

About six months into my journey, I reached out and touched the scroll as it passed by, and I kissed my fingers, and I felt a sweetness like none other.

And Then There’s Leviticus

Jewish congregations read the entire five books of Moses in a regular cycle, usually lasting about one solar year. We’re just starting Leviticus, and we’ll be in it until the end of May.

That is a very, very long time to spend reading about the ritual slaughter of animals, the sprinkling of blood, sexual hygiene, how to deal with skin conditions of one kind or another.

For someone who grew up in the tradition, Leviticus is mostly just another quirky anachronism you live with. Most Jews don’t understand Hebrew anyway, so it’s easy enough to not pay attention.

But for someone who first engages with the tradition with an overactive adult mind — and the passion of a convert — it is anguishing. It is deeply painful to encounter something so repellent, so alien to the concept of Judaism as justice and mindful, ethical living.

But no one who celebrates the procession of the Torah scroll sits on their hands when it’s Leviticus time.

I had to confront this strange book head on. And until I found a little volume by an unlikely author, I had no idea how to do that.

Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature

Robert Alter’s translation, The Five Books of Moses, was the first readable English version of the text I’d ever picked up. Not just readable, but literary, fluid and full of character. But not even Alter can make Leviticus less alien than it seems, and as he tries to make sense of its ritual obsessions, he refers to Mary Douglas’s Leviticus as Literature.

Mary Douglas (z”l) was a lifelong Roman Catholic and trained anthropologist, with an interest in how a culture’s theories of cosmology and ritual shape everyday life. She did field work among traditional African tribes in the 1940s and then found herself studying, alongside other interests, notions of ritual purity and rigorousness in social organization.

Douglas was already in her seventies when Leviticus as Literature came out in 1999, and I imagine it took an old career lady’s sense of self to wade into such a fiercely guarded layer of Bible scholarship. The book is witty, fearless, and even laugh-out-loud funny at times, about the last thing you’d expect from a study of a volume she sums up thusly:
Sacrifice means killing and cutting up large animals and disposing of their blood. The book gives gory instructions for how to sprinkle the blood seven times, dash it against the side of the altar, pour it out at the base, smear it on the altar and on the priests. Its descriptions of skin diseases are fit to turn the appetite, its sins lusty and punishments violent.

Although the formal style softens the macabre effect by making it all seem unreal, it is not a book for squeamish. Yet, Leviticus is the Bible book to which many little Jewish children are first introduced. There does not seem to be much here to attract the young mind. A child is not likely to enjoy the literary finesse, the subtle cross-referenceing and elaborate balancing of themes. Friends have confided that theis early confrontation has put them off the book for life. Others revere it as one would a family heirloom. (p. 14)

A common starting point, certainly for me. But Douglas tackles the whole gory volume with such a sense of delight and wonder. She gets there with the perspective of a trained anthropological field worker — one traditional Bible scholars might not arrive at on their own in a million years. She even spent time learning from kosher butchers, many of whose procedures originated in Leviticus.

Take the opening verses of Vayikra, instructing your average Israelite on how to bring a sacrifice to the Tabernacle, that portable temple described in lavish detail in the closing portions of Exodus:

And he shall slaughter the young bull before the Lord. And Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim [priests], shall bring the blood, and dash the blood upon the altar, around [the altar] which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. And he shall skin the burnt offering, and cut it into its [prescribed] sections. And the descendants of Aaron the kohen shall place fire on the altar, and arrange wood on the fire. And Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim, shall then arrange the pieces, the head and the fat, on top of the wood which is on the fire that is on the altar. (1:5-8)

What’s the dashing of blood about? Why cut the animal into pieces? Why put the head and the fat (eww!) on top? Sensible questions, but Douglas teaches us they’re the wrong questions for this culture:

Leviticus’ literary style is correlative, it works through analogies. Instead of explaining why an instruction has been given, or even what it means, it adds another similar instruction, and another and another, thus producing its highly schematized effect …
They serve in place of causal explanations. If one asks, Why this rule? the answer is that it conforms to that other rule. If, Why both those rules? the answer is a larger category of rules in which they are embedded as subsets or from which they are distinguished as exceptions. Many law books proceed in this concentric, hierarchical way. In Leviticus, the patterning of oppositions and inclusions is generally all the explaining that we are going to get. Instead of argument there is analogy. (p. 18)

For that matter, why have a sacrificial cult at all? For that, of course, you have to keep the Israelites in their own time and place — a vulnerable minority worshipping a strange and invisible deity. Without sacrifice, no one, least of all the Israelites themselves, would have taken the religion seriously.

It is all very well for the God of Genesis to tell his creatures to go forth with his blessing on their breeding, or to declare that he will give numerous descendants to Abraham and Isaac. There has to be something that these anxious worshippers can do in the here-and-now to bring their particular cases to his mind. There have to be offerings that they can make to direct his life-giving power to their own lives and to the vegetation and animals on which they depend …

Redirecting the postive cults that honoured Baal to the worship of the God of Israel is an easy accommodation to monothesim. But what to do about cults to aver the harm caused by demons? … To take demons out of the religion would leave a huge gap. It is not just that the worshippers are wishing for fertility, but also that they are wanting to understand the innumerable losses and diseases which they are in the habit of ascribing to demons. If they are told not to fear demons any more, how are they to explain their misfortunes? …

So instead of demons, we get a system of ritual purity, a relationship in which G-d’s favor depends on the people’s adherence to a divinely ordained instruction manual.

Leviticus separated the theory of impurity from belief in demons, and classified impurity as  … an attack on God’s honor as the covenanted lord of the people of Israel. The simple move, expressed in rules for controlling ritual contagion, teaches the people not to blame non-existent demons for misfortunes. The rules prescribe action to remove impurity, washing in the case of minor impurities, sacrifice in the case of bloodshed, genital discharges, and the set of skin afflictions called leprosy.

But ritual purity is really only the beginning. What we have in Douglas’s Leviticus is an entire system of cosmology, an understanding of an ordered universe created by G-d out of what Alter translates as ‘welter and waste’ (tohu wa-bohu, Genesis 1:2).

Looked at this way, the ritual laws of Leviticus must have been of tremendous help to a fragile, isolated culture, a way to remember and honor their deity and ensure divine favor by ordered action in ordered settings.

The actions which Leviticus describes for sacrifice unfold in spatial and temporal sequences, lessons are given by analogies between one physical object and another. Nothing can be justified in this universe except in terms of the proper position in the spatial/temporal order whose rightness is the only justification for anything.

Leviticus presents its philosophical doctrines in the form of rules of behaviour. Its paradigm lesson about God and existence is enacted on the body of a sacrificial animal, or on the altar, or on the body of a human person. There is no need to make the simple moral principles of reciprocity and fairness more explicit, since they are known already. As well as the gain in vividenss and power, the practical lessons on sacrifice afford rich intertextual references to the rest of the Torah. (p. 39)

The connection to the rest of Torah is very important, most especially to the complex analogies between the giving of the covenant between G-d and Israel at Mount Sinai and the building of the Tabernacle, the portable Temple in the desert in which G-d establishes a permanent presence (mishkan in Hebrew) among the people of Israel. The rules for butchering animals and sacrificing their specific body parts are the third leg of this analogical stool. Here’s how Douglas puts it together (p. 79):

Lowest Level
SINAI: Consecration of the mountain (Ex 19:23) –> TABERNACLE: Consecration  (Lev 16) –> ANIMAL: Consecration (Lev 1-7)

Next Level:
SINAI: Lower slopes of the mountain; open access –> TABERNACLE: Outer court and main altar  –> ANIMAL: Head and meat, food for the people and the priests

Next Level:
SINAI: The dense cloud around the summit of the mountain; access only by priests and elders –> TABERNACLE: The Sanctuary, clouds of incense –> ANIMAL: Burnt offerings from the midriff of the animal, dense fat covering, kidneys, lobe of the liver

Highest Level:
SINAI: The summit of the mountain, G-d’s phyiscal presence; Moses only –> TABERNACLE: Holy of Holies, Ark of the Covenant –> ANIMAL: Entrails, intestines, genital organs of the sacrificial animal

So as downright repellent as the Levitical code is to us, to our ancestors and especially to the priestly caste, it was an expression of G-d’s love that could be seen and heard and felt and smelled.

Every piece of the puzzle is sublime, suffused with meaning, as Alter puts it:

The chief instruments for protecting the separation of ontological spheres are fire, blood, oil, and water. These are all, of course, substances associated with the sacrificial cult that long antedate biblical monotheism, but one may follow Mary Douglas’s general line of thought in viewing them as reflections of an implicit symbolic order.

Fire … is associated with the deity… Blood, as Leviticus reminds us, is the very life (nefesh) of the living animal. As such, it categorically must not be consumed as food, but in ritual procedure it has a purgative virtue and is to be sprinkled, cast, or smeared in designated ways during the sanctuary right in oder to effect purgation.

Oil (it is specifically olive oil) has, by contrast, an association with the quotidian and with the social and political realms in ancient culture … oil is the substance of dedication, poured on the head, for kings as well as for priests. It is chiefly the dedicatory function of oil that is carried over into its various stipulated uses here in the cult … olive oil is a product of agriculture, of the land, which sets it over against water, a manifestation of nature without human intervention. (p. 544)

So there it is, a complete system for your average working Israelite to relate to G-d that takes everyday materials, everyday livestock, and projects upon them the most profound statements of divine order, understanding, and love.

How sublime, how wonderful it must have seemed to them.

To Close, A Take from the House of Angela

When I first started studying Torah, I went at it as if I were back in graduate school. I intellectualized. I did research. And I would have kept on doing that way had it not been for Angela, one of my Torah study partners.

Angela is a large, laughing, big-hearted mother of three who, like me, found her way to Judaism as an adult. I think we were somewhere in Exodus one day, trying to understand how the plagues in the liberation story might have related to actual events. I think we were talking about ancient Egyptian historiography or something, and we were getting quite carried away with ourselves.

Then Angela chimed in with this.

“Look,” she said. “I’m a single mother. I got three kids and bills to pay. I need to know how this is going to help me now!

Angela brought us back down to earth, and now I try to bring Beit Angela, the school of thought she opened up that day, to all my wrestling matches with the text.

Our ancient ancestors figured out what they needed to keep G-d’s presence clear in their minds, in their daily lives, to hold on to their identity as a people in a transformative relationship with the divine. They weren’t shy about working with what they had in front of them, opening up and reconfiguring ancient traditions in radical ways. Not breaking with the past entirely, but not holding on to it for dear life either.

Leviticus was their road map to doing just that. If nothing else, doesn’t it ask us what our roadmap should be? How we map our relationship with G-d onto the things around us?

I think this text, this detailed technical manual for ritual slaughter and purity, is screaming at us, “EVERYTHING MATTERS!”

In a world awash in stuff, drowning in distractions and details, maybe Leviticus is telling us, in the only way it knows how, that we need to pare down, simplify, reduce the number of things in our lives so that we can give each of them our full attention, as if the very structure of the universe depended on how we deal with them.

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8 Responses to Learning to Love Leviticus: Parashat Vayikra

  1. westwood says:

    Okay that was super long. But super interesting.

  2. I finally read this post, and wish I’d done so sooner. Leviticus makes so much more sense to me now–and, although full of dead animals(!), seems so much more alive. Thanks for writing this. I shared it out to my Google Reader peeps.

  3. Laura says:

    Now this post is even older, which means I finally read it.
    First, G-dcast is amazing, and I’m glad I found it when I first started learning Torah and not later—it made everything make sense! I was in the midst of Numbers, and one of their videos, on a rather uneventful parsha outlining the exact details of the mishkan, said something that kind of turned my whole world upside down: something along the lines of “Like a married couple who are first buying things for their new home, wouldn’t you want to detail every last thing—doesn’t every detail just really seem important?” And I thought, “Oh! NOW I get it!”

    As soon as I could, I fell into the sweet embrace of a Bible-free grown-up life. I bought prime stock in the belief that the scriptures, especially those dreadful first five books, were not something a thinking person would ever want to engage with.

    My draw to Judaism was at first an intellectual one — its commitment to ethics, to social justice, to learning, and the way Jewish observance seemed to help people live mindfully. I wanted that. I figured I didn’t really have to deal with the G-d part, or the Bible part, since there is no real credal test in Judaism.

    You could have been describing me here. When I was a big giant atheist not too long ago, probably my favorite book to attack was Leviticus. But now, for some reason, it’s really not giving me a hard time; maybe I just don’t read it enough or something. Of course I’m also reading this Orthodox feminist commentary on the Torah, which was written with the primary aim to show that the Torah isn’t inherently sexist etc. (Good book by the way.)

    Leviticus separated the theory of impurity from belief in demons, and classified impurity as … an attack on God’s honor as the covenanted lord of the people of Israel. The simple move, expressed in rules for controlling ritual contagion, teaches the people not to blame non-existent demons for misfortunes.

    This is interesting, because I always thought of the Temple sacrifices as ‘weaning away the Israelites from idolatry’, but I never thought of the laws of purity doing so as well. I’ve heard those laws, particularly niddah, described (by Neusner, I believe…) as being perpetuated (maybe even created) by a lingering belief in demons and other frightening things, when really they could have been just the opposite; to show that demons aren’t the cause of it. Hm!

  4. rachel bar says:

    So you managed to surprise me, as I was assuming that it will be a treatise on Leviticus 18.

    This is a fascinating post and Douglas research is amazing (never heard of her before). I guess our emotional, mental and spiritual development requires some “here and now” objects. The more underdeveloped the more tangible. Moreover, even now we are drawn to symbols and rituals, and feel remiss when we neglect them. Isn’t that the reason why we have holidays and special occasions and superstitions?

    Some have changed. The rest is the same.

  5. rachel bar says:

    BTW, your need to analyze, parse, interpret and engage in “Pilpul” makes you more Jewish than any conversion:)
    That’s a compliment.

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