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Leviticus: Not Just
For Levites

Shabbat Emor, 5/7/2011
Joel Reisman

In the reading of the Torah, those passages that relate to the sacrificial ritual should not be omitted. The Torah reading is designed to help the worshiper relive, in imagination, the past experience of his People... In the prayer part of the service, we should, of course, eliminate all prayers for the restoration of sacrifices, since we do not wish to see them restored. [Mordecai M. Kaplan, Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers, pp. 242-3]

Leviticus presents the idealized or normative life of the Jewish people at one point in history. In an obvious way, the book addresses conceptions of holiness, how to achieve it, and what the society/religious community should be like. I will use analogy to try to see how the system of rituals, prohibitions, and lifestyle practices outlined had virtues that we can appreciate from our contemporary Reconstructionist mindset. Compared to what you might think, Leviticus is consistent with a view of personal autonomy, maybe even conscience; of individual empowerment & responsibility for the community; and of diverse ways of contributing to the religious community.

I’m rather pleased to think I can use the slim pickings of this parsha, Parshat Emor, to demonstrate my point. I’m even going to try to stick with the triennial third that we read today. However, I can’t resist talking about the incident of “stoning the blasphemer” that occurs at the end of the parsha. I’ll get to that later on. It’s notable for being one of only three narrative scenes in all of Leviticus.

Emor
- through Moses, the Lord speaks to various combinations of the Hebrews: to the priests the sons of Aaron [21.1]; just Aaron [21.17]; Aaron and his sons and all the children of Israel [21.24]; Aaron and his sons [22.2]. The messages are about what is and isn't acceptable, often expressed by enumerating specific cases, and they are mostly in the form of prohibitions.
- rules for domestic life of priests concerning (a) practices around honoring dead family members, (b) whom they can marry, (c) which family members can share in the food, (d) personal uncleanness either in own body or by contact
- prohibition of priests with blemishes from offering sacrifices
- just beyond this, in next triennial section, is similar prohibition about blemishes applied to the sacrificial animals that might be offered

Consequences of Breaking the Rules
- If we examine the content of this part of Emor, it is largely "thou shalt not's". These are specified in explicit detail. For example, there is a list of the sorts of women the High Priest can marry, indicating both appropriate and inappropriate classes. [Lev. XXI.13-14] Given this attention to detail, I find it surprising there is so little attention to what the penalty is for breaking the rule. In the case of marriage choices, what the Torah says is, "And he shall not profane his seed among his people; for I am the Lord who sanctify him." [v. 15]
- There is no stated penalty or even indication that the Priest should step down. So how does this rule have any effect? Why will people comply?
- I wonder if adherence to this and related rules becomes a matter of conscience. People, in this case priests, may be lead to comply because of their internal perception, unrelated to any expectation of tangible punishment.
- We really do see the penalty of death carried out earlier in Leviticus, as you may recall. G-d strikes down Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron who committed a priestly transgression in the Tabernacle. … I don't know ... I wonder whether that was meant as an object lesson, and sufficient warning to make subsequent destruction unnecessary. Probably the crime of Nadab and Abihu was a heathen practice that undermined the whole ritual system, hence far graver than the example we started with concerning whom a High Priest can marry.

Priests, Holiness and Profanity
- This section is the least worked out in my presentation. That points to how my thinking has evolved in the course of preparation. Maybe next time I'll have more to say about the idea of holiness. It's a hard one for me to define. For one thing, the holiness of G-d is of different kind from the holiness of people. At least, G-d's holiness is meant to be approached and felt by people. In contrast, the word "sacred" connotes something untouchable or that requires being left alone.
- G-d -- priests as intermediaries -- the people
- our experience of Judaism involves a mix of acts that have intellectual appeal and other acts that are matters of faith. Consider what you get out of coming to services. Some things make sense, others don't.
- can consider the regulations on priests as defining one giant fence around the Torah. I'm still trying to understand that concept. It's a kind of padding to ensure that inner, core commandments will definitely be fulfilled. I worry that formulating such a wrapper leads to distance from what's most important.
- these are matters of context, not essence
- to profane: refers to things in Sanctuary or practices; taking the holy into the everyday world; putting something that was "set apart" back in with everything else
- holy: see 20.26, "And ye shall be holy unto Me; for I the Lord am holy, and have SET YOU APART from the peoples, that ye should be Mine."
- challenges to notion of holiness: (a) why is it that actions of individuals, e.g. priests, can affect something that’s holy, i.e. something really potent; (b) sacrificial system was holy but didn’t endure (70 C.E.); (c) how is it that individuals can confer or perpetuate holiness?

Blemishes
- One of the laws governing priests is a list of physical qualities, referred to as blemishes (in Hebrew “mumim”) that disqualify a priest from making sacrificial offerings. The list consists mostly of congenital problems but also includes problems you might develop, such as eye disease. [XXI.16-23] Commentators suggest other traits, including baldness, might also apply. This law excludes people based on qualities that we don’t think should affect ability to be an effective priest. This strikes us as denying the more-or-less equal dignity of each of us, in the eyes of G-d. This also seems to deny equal religious opportunity.
- before we look askance at those old categories of exclusion, we might consider lingering categories we subscribe to. We're not free of thinking, based on circumstances, that limits our involvement with religious practices. Such views may operate at one time, but later be superseded. Here's a personal example. Until 3 years ago, my lack of knowing Hebrew, and fear of learning it, made me think I shouldn't attend services, because I couldn't do an adequate job.
- I think about the fact that any priest might develop a transitory condition that could disqualify him. The parsha also describes how he could become temporarily unclean by contact with something unclean. [XXII.3-7] This vulnerability suggests to me a limited view of the priesthood. Priests aren’t necessarily holy – but their office is, and they have an obligation to be as holy as they can. I think this plants a healthy skepticism about the priesthood in the eyes of the people.

Context of Emor
- Though the rules in this section are entirely about the priests, the section concludes with, “So Moses spoke unto Aaron, and to his sons, and unto all the children of Israel.” [XXI.24] Why does this differ from the way those rules are introduced, namely, "...unto the priests the sons of Aaron"? It suggests that the rules pertain to the priests, but the monitoring of them is everyone's responsibility.
- Further, the very specificity of these rules empowers the people. This is a handbook of the workings of the priesthood, that has been given to the people. Thus, priesthood becomes transparent. This reaffirms that priests are "public servants".
- This parsha emphasizes requirements that distinguish priests from lay people. In this sense, they are “set apart”, which is a quality of holiness. However, as I’ve argued above, this doesn’t make them better than anyone else.
- Priests are set apart by the obligations of their position. They don't choose their position, nor earn it based on merit - it is dictated by birth. Priests perform work that is holy, but are no more disposed to holy behavior than anyone else. Emor spells out the additional restrictions and obligations incumbent upon priests.
- These factors prevent mystification or glorification of the priesthood. Holiness is a state to strive for, not a quality you can possess.

How do these priestly laws fit in?
- Leviticus contains a mix of laws. There's procedural information and specifics of the sacrifices, which mainly pertain to Temple practices and would be of relevance to the priests, but also behavioral precepts that apply to everybody.
- While Emor is largely concerned with the priesthood, it is embedded in the segment of Leviticus called “The Holiness Code” written by the author referred to as H. [Lev. XVII-XXVI] Emor is flanked by sublime ethical principles. There are laws having to do with kindness, and which in fact advocate good behavior instead of proscribing bad behavior, and practices of justice and communal economy, like the sabbatical year and the jubilee
- We can relate to most of the behavioral precepts. In fact, as Jews we take pride to see such virtues written down as the basis of our religion. There are sublime words promoting virtues of justice, fair treatment, personal sanctity. These go beyond cut-and-dried proscriptions on bad behavior and direct people to being kind, charitable, considerate and compassionate.
- The whole sacrificial system is a part of the proper life, but only a part. Sacrifices are just one route for reaching holiness. Other routes are given by the other sorts of laws in Leviticus, both the things to avoid and the things you are encouraged to do.

Conclusion
- I’ve approached Emor as a text and have tried to find associations within the passage and in the context of the book of Leviticus. I’ve speculated about the impression that reading it would have had on the lay people of the time when sacrifices were in place. The very fact that “full disclosure” is provided about the priests serves to give people a stake in that aspect of religion.
- My main rhetorical argument is that Leviticus strikes most of us as legalistic, but that, if we look, we can find structure in it and things of spiritual relevance. I agree with Mordecai Kaplan that we don’t need the Temple sacrifices today. When sacrifices were in place, they were a valid route to helping people or the community to attain wholeness. And they were integrated into daily life.
- That brings me to a final observation. We, today, also are striving to be in touch with holiness. The legalism and materialism of the sacrifices doesn’t work. Yet for me, if not others, I'm aware of the sorts of things I want from religion: it's a combination of formality and spontaneity, of faith and skepticism, of expressing my opinions & faith and learning from other people's. We've talked about how the sacrificial system - as impressive and well-worked as it was - has not endured. Perhaps the wisdom found in the Torah and the act of interpreting it is what I still find as something to draw on.