What can we do when we feel anxious about what is happening around us, when we have no clear sense of why or how things may have come to this point, and we are faced with the limits of our own power to understand, or feel ourselves to be only partially in control of our existence?
This isn’t a novel or even an especially contemporary anxiety. The subjects of the bible narrative knew it well.
All religions dedicate themselves to working with the unknowable in some way, try to find ways – rituals and words – which will help their adherents to at least survive the vicissitudes of a potentially hostile universe, and at best to learn and grow and be able to operate with a degree of confidence as they go through life. The great innovation of Judaism was the unification of the deity, the belief that the universe was neither random nor hostile, and that it and we were not at the mercy of some conflicting or haphazard forces, but that there is One God who cares for us, who listens to our fears and who responds to our frailty.
With this one insight Judaism transformed the human experience. We no longer see ourselves as flotsam and jetsam that floats in an uncaring universe, subject to random disruption and indiscriminate forces; or as the objects of the whims of higher beings, whose pain and whose lived experience make no difference in the scheme of things. Instead we know ourselves as the children of a caring Creator, whose very being we reflect as we live our lives. God may not necessarily give us what we want or even protect us from suffering, but God does give us a context in which we can live lives of value, tries to teach us and to nurture us, and is with us in the pain and in the happiness. Because of the One God, we have meaning. And how we live our lives has significance. And we matter.
The book of Leviticus is also known as Sefer Cohanim – the book of the priests. It is the manual, so to speak, of the group whose job it was to provide a link between the One God, unknowable and impenetrable, and the people who strive to be more godly, who follow the imperative to be holy without being quite sure what that might mean.
It is a book that we can find quite troubling, or at the very least barely relevant, as the description of the system of animal sacrifice carried out by an hereditary priesthood with arcane ritual and shadowy setting. We can respond to it in a number of ways – as being of only historical interest, as describing a stage in a process in which we are much further down the religious line, as holding deep secrets of ethical and spiritual significance which we must study and meditate upon in order to glimpse the esoteric meaning beneath.
But however we choose to view the sacrificial system, the burning fat and incense, the sweet savour rising up into the heavens, the sprinkling of blood upon the altar – what we must accept is that this ritual, like many rituals, was designed to create something different in the world – it was a way of being able to take on the randomness of lived experience and create something far from arbitrary. It was a recipe for creating a conscious and purposeful existence, for dealing with the existential angst of the human condition. It gives us a role and a world view in which we are not simply unknowing and impotent pawns in a bigger game – usually warfare – between two or more powerful figures, but people who matter, who are able to impact upon their environment, who by doing specific things are potentially able to change outcomes, who begin to bring forth our own realities.
Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah – a guide for every-Jew on Judaism, talked about some of the laws – the chukkim- as being unknowable. He follows one strand of rabbinic tradition which tells us that some mitzvot exist whose reason is not known and for which no rational purpose can be constructed. We simply do them because God told us to. They might hold no meaning for us except that of submission to the will of God, even when – especially when – we don’t see any validation or underlying principle.
But in the Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical work that was not written for the ordinary Jew, he has a slightly different take on the subject. Instead he sees such mitzvot as having an educational purpose quite different from one of blind obedience. The chukkim in this work are, so to speak, the gateways to the ethical and spiritual dimension – if we begin to understand them in their context then we will derive from them great lessons of principle and deep moral values. Taking the sacrifices enumerated in the book of Leviticus, Maimonides uses the principle that it is impossible to ask people to take on too much at once, unfeasible to expect religious – or any – change to go from one extreme to the other. And so he explains that the ritual sacrifice of animals and of other produce was a tradition the people saw all around them, a deeply powerful ritual that, although pagan and idolatrous in origin, was able to connect the people to their spirituality. So Torah did not abolish the sacrificial system, it harnessed it for Divine Service, and it began to neuter it. It did this, says Maimonides, by legislating a number of boundaries and limitations around the practise. They could only be brought in one place, for example, only by the hereditary priests, only in ways that were specified in detail. The laws of purity also limited access to the Temple, and so limited people’s ability to participate in the sacrifice of animals. This becomes yet more powerful when we realise that sacrifice is the only form of worship that Torah limits for us, and when we read the prophets who remind us continually that God does not want our sacrifices but our prayers and our good deeds.
If one reads Leviticus – and the notion of laws that seem to have no real purpose or use – in the way the Rambam reads them in the Guide, a number of ideas begin to emerge for us.
One is that God is understood to be not only the Creator who provides for us a structure and a meaning that did not exist in the human world before, but that God is able to be compassionate towards us even when we are attached to behaviours that are not the most helpful. God will help us change in stages, as we are ready to take on the next step and not before.
Another idea to emerge is that God listens to us – even bends God’s will to what we are able to do and to give. If God truly didn’t want sacrifices yet allowed us to practise them – albeit in a limited way – then we have some ability to change how God is towards us, or at least one might say that God is willing to adapt to and to accommodate our needs.
These are radical perceptions, and I find them helpful. They tell us that there is space, theologically defined and protected space, to feel insecurity and doubt. There is opportunity to try out ways of being until we find one that provides what we need to be able to say. We don’t have to be certain, we don’t have to know, we don’t have to face a hostile universe that doesn’t care about our state of mind, or about the very fact of our lives. We can take our time to think, to cling to what we know, to explore innovative perceptions, to challenge and to be confronted in our long held perceptions.