Behar Bechukkotai: Patriarchy and Priesthood join forces to undervalue women’s work.

The very last chapter of the book of Leviticus has God giving Moses the scale of valuations to be used should anyone vow to offer God the value of a human being, a valuation that could be modified should the vower not have the requisite money. It goes on to value land according to its seed requirement and the time till the next Jubilee, and it ends with the rules of tithing. It’s a kind of aide memoire for the priests as their book, Sefer Cohanim, closes. But it has a much more longstanding effect than the valuation of vows, setting down, as it does, the difference in worth between the market value of a woman and a man. Consistently through the categories given, the woman’s marketable value is radically less than that assigned to her male peer.

“God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man shall clearly utter a vow of persons to God, according to your valuation,  then your valuation shall be for the male from twenty years old even to sixty years old, even your valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. And if it be a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels.

And if it be from five years old even to twenty years old, then your valuation shall be for the male twenty shekels, and for the female ten shekels.

And if it be from a month old even to five years old, then your valuation shall be for the male five shekels of silver, and for the female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver.

And if it be from sixty years old and upward: if it be a male, then your valuation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels.” Leviticus 27 1-7)

The text is a difficult one for the modern reader. Why does the valuation use the categories of gender and of age, rather than of skills and abilities, of strength, health or experience? All the things that we value in marketing ourselves today seem less important to the Levitical writer. Gender and age are clearly important to bosses: – today’s campaigns to make job applications and CV’s appear both gender and age neutral show that people are persuaded by them, often to the detriment of both parties. And here is bible endorsing the world view that men’s work is intrinsically more valuable than women’s. The smell of patriarchy is strong; the invisibility of the value of women’s work is powerfully embedded in the assumptions of this scale.

It is all the more galling because this chapter deals, unlike earlier ones, with debts to God. So even if the scale is based on how much a person might fetch in the slave market, (a dubious but prevalent explanation of this piece), it seems ridiculous that God too would value a person for their physical attributes as a worker. Each of us is intrinsically of absolute value, each of us is made in the image of God – this is a fundamental understanding of the book of Genesis and a principle of Judaism through the ages.

It seems to me that the scale is not looking at skills or experience, spirituality or intelligence, abilities or competence because these are not what is valuable to the writer. It is looking instead at the value of roles that happen in public life over the value of roles that happen more privately. It is ignoring the enormous and invisible work that is generally gendered female – caring, cleaning, cooking, child-rearing, nursing, shopping, making a home, and noticing only what happens in the public domain, and especially the religious public domain. Women, whose bodies and whose sexuality was seen as mysterious and polluting of the religious domain were removed and relegated, their participation in religious or communal activities seen as unacceptable.

While the rationale may have changed over the years, the economic position of women has not. “Women’s work” is still invisible, undervalued and if it is paid at all it is paid at a lower price than “men’s work”.

Recent estimates by the UK Office of National Statistics show that generally women still hold down two jobs – one outside the home and one inside it. Two thirds of women working fulltime outside the home still do most of the housework and “On average men do 16 hours a week of such unpaid work, which includes adult care and child care, laundry and cleaning, to the 26 hours of unpaid work done by women a week.” In 2014 the ONS figures show that this unwaged work contributes a value of £1.01tn, equivalent to approximately 56% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

And yet, because it is primarily done by women, this contribution is ignored. We know that women do more unpaid work than men in every age group, from the 25 and under age category to the 56 and over age category. At the same time, women’s average full time weekly earnings are about two thirds those of men.

Somehow the Levitical preoccupation with women and the public sphere has permeated society and impacted us to this day. Even this week our female prime minister discussed “girls’ jobs and boys’ jobs” in relation to her and her husband’s roles in the home. Feminism has a long way to go before we truly have equality in how we value contributions to society. There is one small consolation to be found in Talmud (BT Arachin 19a). When one compares the value assigned for the younger group (aged 20-60) against the older group (60 and older) we can see that the woman loses less value than the man.  The Gemara asks why a woman retains a third of her previous value whereas the man loses a much greater percentage and answers itself that “an old man in the house is a burden, while an old woman in the house is a treasure”

One might say plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose!

cartoon by the wonderful Jacky Fleming

If you would like to calculate the value of your own unpaid work, follow this link http://visual.ons.gov.uk/the-value-of-your-unpaid-work/

Vayikra: when a Jew tries to come closer to God

Beginning the book of Leviticus we enter into a world which so far has been peripheral to the thrust of the narrative since Adam and Eve left the sheltered privacy of Eden and entered the real world. Even the long and cumbersome details of the building of the Mishkan,, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, which took up some sixteen chapters at the end of the book of Exodus hasn’t really prepared us for the focused detail of the sacrificial system, the almost obsessive choreography involving altars, animals, incense and blood

The book of Leviticus brings a whole new approach to religion. People and their actions are categorised and prescriptions given to make restitution for having broken God’s commands. For particular kinds of sin you would bring particular kinds of animal. You might bring an animal from your herd, and would lay your hand of the head of the offering, which would then be slaughtered, cut into sections, laid on the altar and burned. Five different sacrifices are detailed at the very beginning the book of Leviticus, each one with its own set of regulations.

We look today at the book, described in rabbinic literature as ‘torat cohanim’ the priests legal and practical manual, and it makes very little sense to us. Animals brought to the sanctuary, identified as being expiation for our wrongful behaviour, and killed. Some parts splashed, some parts burned, some parts made into a thick smoke and some parts even sometimes eaten. A fixed ritual for a category of behaviour. It seems miles away from our current spirituality which trends to be personal, private, sedentary, tailored to our particular experience – modern.

We experience the text as atavistic, regressive, somehow uncivilized, or else maybe we see it as a way for people who didn’t know better to try to relate to their God. We have moved on to using prayer, to building relationship on our own terms, to introspection. We no longer need to make a public sacrifice, to act out any external ritual, to follow the rote and regulation of offerings for knowing sins and unwitting misdeeds, for individual breaking of vows or the collective responsibility of communal wrongdoing.

So we read through the book of Leviticus with our minds neatly closed against the horror, the smells, the hierarchy, the blood – and the meaning behind them all.

The sacrificial cult is, it is fair to say, anachronistic. It is not of our time. But that does not mean that it has no lessons for us, or that we can’t draw out real spirituality from exploring the things our ancestors did, and were so anxious to make sure that we could know how to do so too.

Firstly for these Jews, what they were doing was ‘korban’ a word meaning to draw near to something, to come closer. The building of the tabernacle had been effected by freely given offerings, by taking the best of what they had to put to the service of God, but the whole purpose of the building and of the system which it was designed to service was not simply giving up wealth, of sacrificing something of value, but it was korban – drawing nearer to God. In terms of the purpose of worship, over all this time the foundational idea simply hasn’t changed – we still want to experience closeness with the divinity.

When people offered up an animal in the specific rituals laid down in Leviticus, one of the things they were doing was showing how they were not defined by what they owned – before approaching God they would let go of the materialism that distorts and distracts all human beings from can and Abel onwards. It is a problem we wrestle with to this day – coming from the outside world with all the pressures and problems, we walk into the synagogue still defined by the things which seem to own us, our problems and situations, as well as clinging as if for dear life to all the external validators and bolsterers of our identity. It’s hard to let go of the world and our preoccupation with it, to relax into the state of being a Jew at prayer, offering the service of the heart with full attention and intention. Without some sort of structure it is more than hard – it is practically impossible.

So still today we create a structure for our own korbanot, our own drawing closer to God. Maybe it isn’t so clearly recognisable a construction as the rituals described in the book of Leviticus, but it is a construction nevertheless.  Be it the habit of daily prayer, or simply the formal system at work in the siddur, we still today go on our spiritual journey clutching a map and a set of implicit directions which, if written out, would probably rival the words of Leviticus in their attention to detail and in their unfamiliarity.

The service prescribed in the siddur is built to take us somewhere. We follow it carefully, even if it sometimes happens that we know longer have a deep familiarity with the signposts. It has taken on some of the elements of magic that must also have been perceived by those who followed the ritual of the tent of meeting – which bits are important, which bits left over from another meaning are no longer distinguishable to us.  One of the most significant changes of the reform movement 200 years ago was to take out of the siddur whole swathes of repetitious texts, as well as texts devoted to the sacrificial cult, the Temple and the messiah. We edited the siddur and tried to bring it back to its core purpose – a means of bringing us closer to God. We kept in the concept of Avodah, of work and worship, we kept in the idea of korban, of approaching God, we kept in too the distancing of the material world, the shrugging off of the layers of worry and doubt and of making a living and striving to have ownership of things. We created, and continue to create, a siddur to be proud of, a siddur which can really lift us in prayer, elevating the holy in our thoughts. But there is something which continues to nag at me and which I miss – though we took out a lot of things that needed to be excised, the accretions of a long and complicated history of trying to come closer to the mysterious divine, we also took out the idea of being active in this search, of action that is so much an intrinsic part of the sacrificial system.

We honed a beautiful liturgy and created a more coherent theology while doing so, but we have left it innocent of much ritual, and ritual, bizarre as it seems to the outsider, is part of worship too. Now I’m not advocating a regression to the sacrificial system, nor that we suddenly take up what is sometimes known as prayerobics, the shochelling of yeshiva bechurim while they chant their texts, but I do feel that a bit of action and taking part, together with a bit of unpredictability which must also have been a component of the sacrificial system, would be in order in our oh-so-orderly prayers. With all the senses awash with sensation, the sacrificial system would have overwhelmed the person who came to pray, brought them into a spiritually different place. Our more hygienic services can also be experienced as bland, neutral, less than spiritually satisfying, making it hard to let go and really sense the presence of God as we pray the beautiful words of our prayers. For all its directions and instructions for an ancient – and to our eyes cruel – practise, I sometimes wonder which generation really understood what is important to do when a Jews tries to reach God.

Behukkotai:rebukes that remind us we must work together

Sidra Behukotai ends the book of Leviticus, and while frequently read in conjunction with sidra Behar, it differs from it substantially in the tone of the narrative. It opens by describing the blessings and rewards that the Israelites will receive if they uphold the covenant with God and follow the mitzvot that are the conditions of that covenant, and ends  with a brief series of teachings about tithing, the sanctification of voluntary gifts to the Temple, and about vows. But the centre of this short sidra is the passage known as the rebukes – tochecha – when Torah lists the tragedies that will befall us should we abandon God’s covenant and our obligation to do mitzvot.

One particular verse stands out for me as being emblematic of the tochecha: In Leviticus 26:23-24 we read:

“Ve’im b’eileh lo tivasru li, v’halachtem imi keri, v’halachti af ani imachem b’keri,v’hikeiti etchem gam ani sheva al chatoteichem.” (And if after these [punishments] you are not disciplined/corrected but [instead] will walk ‘keri’ with me, then I will walk, even I, with you in ‘keri’, and I will smite you, yes me, seven times for your sins”)

This word, which is found right at the heart of this narrative of rebuke, appears nowhere else in Torah in this grammatical form, yet in this text we find it repeated seven times within twenty sentences (vv 21,23,24,27,28,40,41) forcing us to notice and explore it. Our behaviour clearly b’keri has terrible consequences. And yet it is not clear what the writer means by it.

Many classical commentators follow Rashi and Maimonides and understand the root of the word to be k.r.h – meaning something that happens by casual chance or by accident (mikreh), though it may also be translated as being in opposition or contrary, or indeed it may come from the root k.r.r meaning to be cold.  But we also know that when used in bible, the apparent casual chance of the text is not ever quite what it seems to be on the surface, but instead is a coded phrase used to let us know that something of significance is about to happen.  So it is that Ruth meets Boaz the language of k.r.h is used to alert us to the significance of her choosing his field to glean in.   There is something curious about a phrase used to describe a chance that is not exactly chance, a casual encounter of enormous significance, but that is how the word keri is used, and to find it so definitely  emphasised in the text of the tochecha means we need to look closely at just what God means when God says “If you walk ‘keri’ with me, then most definitely I will walk ‘keri’ with you.

The three most common teachings about this are: the classical idea expressed by Rashi and Maimonides that there is a lack of interest or intention in walking God’s way – a sort of going through the motions without really caring or understanding or being principled in doing God’s will; The extension of this mechanistic approach of indifference which is developed by R.Samson Raphael Hirsch of modern orthodoxy, and which overlays on the classical understanding the idea that when we do God’s will b’keri it is essentially not simply a casual coincidence but a phenomenon that happens when our will and God’s will coincide so that while it feels we are doing God’s will with intention, in reality we are following our own self-interest and priding ourselves on acting with more righteousness than should be claimed; and thirdly the position of the founder of the ethical mussar movement R.Israel Salanter who layers in the idea of coldness to the behaviour to suggest that when we walk with God b’keri it is that we follow God’s commandments not only mechanistically but also without any warmth or passion for it – there is no possibility of our doing the mitzvot changing us or developing our relationship with the creator.

I like this idea that if we follow God’s commandments to the letter, but without any passion – without committing ourselves and our hopes and fears – that this is viewed by God as b’keri: casual indifferent and cold religion. It bespeaks irrelevance – the acting out of what is required but in no way coming from the commitment of the self.  It is act but not attitude. How do we bring God closer into the world if we do not ourselves make the effort to make the world a better place? How do we bring ourselves closer to God if we pay attention more to how things look than how things are?

The warning in the tochecha, of all the things that will go wrong if we act b’keri – is so powerful an imperative that we are told that not only will God mirror our indifference, God will go further and punish us seven fold – the designation of maximalist or absolute punishment, the other end of the spectrum from casual/chance/indifferent.  If anything is designed to catch our attention, it must be the severity of this response.

And after it all, the horror story painted so dramatically of famine and war and terror and starvation and expulsion and yearning and pain – there comes this: “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land….And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Eternal.”

God promises to remember – to actively recall the relationship of Covenant between God and the Jewish people which will never be broken no matter how badly behaved we might be. And God compounds this by naming the Avot, the three founding patriarchs of the Jewish people, and unusually lists them in reverse order, the only time this is found in bible.

This bringing in of the patriarchs leads to the concept of zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, which we can call upon to weight our case before the heavenly court. The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) explicates this, asking  “Why are the Avot listed backwards? To say: If the acts of Jacob are not worthy, then the acts of Isaac are worthy, and if the acts of Isaac are not worthy, then the acts of Abraham are worthy. The acts of each one is sufficiently worthy that the world can be saved for his sake.”

Rashi mitigates this a little, saying Why are they listed backwards? As if to say: Jacob, the youngest, is worthy of that; and if he is not worthy, behold, Isaac is with him, and if he is not worthy, behold, Abraham is with him and he is worthy.”

It is, I think, a little dig or reminder to the Jews of modernity – the greatest zechut/merit is that of Abraham, and as time goes on the merit is by its nature in decline. So we need to add the merit of our ancestors rather than assume any one is sufficient by itself. We, so much further away from biblical times are expected to have less merit than the founding patriarchs – so how much more do we need each other to fulfil our task. If we just do our tasks with indifference, or follow God’s will where it coincides with our self-interest, or do not attempt our holy task with all the passion and awareness we could bring to it, then we will fail. And to do our holy task well enough we must do it together, in community, with shared and common interest. We need not only the combined merit of our ancestors in tough times, we need the combined merit of our fellow human beings. Only in this way, by working together to make the world a better and holier place, by rebuking each other where necessary, by paying attention to what we do and its effect on others – only in this way will we create the blessing we yearn for.

Behar: to treat with respect is the essence of holiness

The bible is very clear – everything we have belongs to God and is at best ‘on loan’ to us. And we have to treat it properly and with respect. Even the land must be allowed to rest, rather than be worked to produce more and more. Besides giving the land a chance to return to a good condition, the sabbatical year also meant that all people, whether they were rich or poor, would find themselves dependant on what the land produced naturally, as all of them would have to collect and gather the food that was there, rather than the usual experience of the richer ones harvesting a good amount and leaving a proportion in the field for the poor to glean. This would have been a transformational experience in that the ones who always had food would become aware of the conditions the poor faced all the time, and one imagines that the bible hoped this learning would motivate them to help support the needy.

Leviticus is a book that is primarily about the ritual system and how holiness is created, and reading some of the narrative here we become aware of the agenda of social justice that is threaded through it, how the world cannot be made perfect if justice is not available for all. Even during the shemitta year, the year when the land is to rest and recuperate, the obligation for tzedakah for the poor continues – in other words just because you are tightening your belts, you don’t forget the needs of others who rely on the help they get from society in order to survive.

Everything we have belongs to God and is, at best, on loan to us. When we harvest the land we leave food for the poor. When we help a fellow human being who is in financial difficulties we give them their dignity and are not to charge interest on any loan we give. The laws remind us that even the money we have is not ours to use as we please. It is a conditional loan, to be partially used for the benefit of others.

As we look into an uncertain future where politically, socially, financially we know that times will be tough and we will almost certainly feel ourselves to have lost some of the security we felt in earlier times, the message that comes through this part of Leviticus could comfort us a little – and could teach us a lot. We must – even now -continue our obligation to a just society where the gap between rich and poor must be actively narrowed (if not removed) on a regular basis. We must – even now – continue our commitment to tzedakah, to the dignity of our fellow human beings, and to our land. And if we maintain our understanding that each of us has a part to play in bettering the world, and that sometimes that process requires us to start again in a different way, then even now when following news sites may leave us feeling impotent angry and depressed, we can stop, take stock, and get on with helping to create a healthier and holier world.

 

 

After Death, Speak Holiness

“Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor” the sequence of these three sidrot in the book of Leviticus are used as a moral teaching in their own right – “After death, holiness speak”

I don’t know where this ethical teaching originates in the Rabbinic sources- it seems to have a folkloric life of its own. But I do know that while it sounds like a Hebrew version of Chilon of Sparta’s 6th Century BCE epigram “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” “Of the dead, nothing unless good” it is in reality quite a different formulation and comes from a very different understanding of the world.

“Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor” does not mean, as some would like to have us believe, that we cannot ever speak ill of the dead and only say good things about them. Nor does it mean that we should rework the historical truth, so that after a death one has to suddenly say that the deceased was holy. The aphorism does not instruct us to speak only about sacred things rather than about the ordinary realities of life, once a death has occurred. Nor does it imagine that holiness is a state to be achieved only after a life has been lived, something that is not possible in the mundane ordinary world of our life.

In fact, the three central sidrot in Leviticus whose names make up this epithet, all deal with the laws of Kedushah, of holiness, which are precisely not about a heavenly ethereal righteousness – they are about practical ordinary detailed and everyday goodness. So when we say that after death one should speak holiness (kedushah) we are talking not the sacral and not the saintly, but the real meaning of kedushah – the dynamic, practical, societally cohesive and caring activities that imitate God’s being and that we try to emulate.

Kedushah/Holiness in Leviticus is far from the saintly spirituality it has sometimes come to mean to us. Look at the commandments in these three sidrot and you will see all of our lives come into their purview.  There are commandments about giving a fair and living wage on time for the worker to be able to support themselves. There are commandments about respect for others, about the fairness of weights in trade, about not trying to gain advantage through another’s weakness or vulnerability. There are commandments about sexual behaviour and about limitations of power. About what we choose to eat and about how we kill the animals we consume. Commandments about caring for the poor and ensuring there is food, shelter, clothing, respect for all in society. There are commandments about using time and about mandated rest for us, for those who work on our behalf, for the land and the animals we have in our control.  Holiness becomes an organising principle of Judaism, and if one had to boil it down to one sentence it would be something like “do not hurt others with your behaviour” or “love your neighbour as yourself” – itself of course, a phrase found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, later quoted by Mark in the New Testament, and which for me is summed up in the idea that I have never put a limit on how much I care for myself, never decided that I have received all I deserve, never seen myself as ‘other’, and this self awareness should critically inform my thinking about the ‘other’ and what they deserve or need.

We are about to start reading this trio of sidrot, and all week we have been reading about and listening to the reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher, and this has set me thinking. I have been caught by the level of vitriolic personal attack on a woman not yet in her grave;  the venomous rhetoric, the anger stirred up and directed towards a woman who is a quarter of a century out of being in political power, and who has died. I hold no candle for Margaret Thatcher nor for many of her policies, but I wonder a little if, instead of feeling it taboo to speak ill of the dead, or else feeling the need to break that taboo and speak very ill indeed, we followed the Hebrew dictum we might find ourselves in a different place. For if after death we spoke Kedushah – not kind or unkind or hurtful but truthful and healing, this might be a better response. The laws of Kedushah are designed for everyone in society to have an obligation to behave well towards each other and towards those over whom they have power – be it land, workers, livestock, vulnerable people, students…. There is in Leviticus what has been called a democratisation of holiness, in that it is something all of us must participate in, all of us are obliged to do, not something we pass up the hierarchy to rabbis or priests, politicians or other leaders. If both before and after death we use the organising principle of kedushah – of each individual and each family and each company doing their best not to inflict hurt upon others for their own gain then maybe the biblical ideal of a world where everyone tries to care for their neighbour would be reached. Before death there is always the imperative of the code in Leviticus which teaches us and requires from us ordinary active unhurtful behaviour in everything we do – that is a given and one we either choose to live by or not. But after death there is both a greater vulnerability of the powerless, and a greater power of the living to damage and hurt the deceased and those who are close to them. And so it is the greater imperative to do this, as it is so easy to ignore. Acharei Mot, Kedoshim Emor – After a death, when there is nothing the dead can do or say to help themselves, it is all the more important that we promote a healing in the breaches made or left by that person, rather than rent the fabric of our society even further.

ואהבת לרעךך כמוך אני יי

 

 

Tazria Metzorah – bringing back the outcast

As we work our way through the scroll, reading a section a week till we have completed the yearly cycle, there are some sections which cry out in their relevance to the moment, and others with which we struggle to connect with at all.  Tazria-Metzorah is one of the latter.

The book of Leviticus brings us into a world we no longer understand.  Yet we still read about it, and it is important that we do, because it reminds us how ancient our tradition really is, and it brings us into the religious and spiritual world of our early ancestors.  We may find the detailed description of the ritual sacrifice of animals and of wine, oil and flour incomprehensible and off-putting, and the clear concern for the community to create a state of ritual purity in its encounters with God perplexing, but it such texts hold the memory and history of our people and must reveal to us something of what they meant in their time. 

The double portion Tazria-Metzorah is concerned with skin disease.  In particular we learn about the condition ‘tzara’at’ – a collection of skin diseases whose causes were unknown, whose duration was also unknown, but which we know were seen to be contagious and dangerously damaging to the community. 

The impurity brought about by tzara’at had serious consequences.  The sufferer was required to remove themselves from the sanctuary, stay on the periphery of the community and announce to all that they were in a state of ritual impurity. They were to tear their clothes, and to keep their distance from anyone else in the community. They were outcasts.

 While we are given a great deal of quasi medical information about tzara’at – all the signs and symptoms are elucidated in the text with a rather grisly fascination – the Torah is not in fact interested in its medical significance, but instead it cares about the ritual significance of the condition. The people who are to monitor and assess the cases are not the healers but the Cohanim, the priests, who are instructed about recognising the disorder, about declaring the individual ritually impure, and they are also trained how to restore the individual to ritual purity after the disorder has run its course.  This is a matter not of medicine, but of ritual. The priests don’t in any way treat the condition nor do they act as safe guarders against infection for health reasons. Their job is to patrol the borders of ritual purity and impurity, and, most importantly, to create the way back into the community for the one who had been afflicted and marginalised.

The priest conducted an elaborate ritual in order to bring back the sufferer into the community once the skin disease had run its course. This ritual was, as is all good ritual, transformational. The­­­­­­­­­­ rejected person was brought back into the people, their status cleaned up and made as if new. It was as if the priest, by power of the ritual, could conquer the fear of tzara’at embodied by the sufferer, and bring forth a new reality for them.

What is happening right throughout the purity/impurity issues which make up the bulk of the book of Leviticus is not some ancient superstitious magic, nor a primitive acting out of an even more simplistic understanding about God that we are long past.  What is being enshrined in ritual and social structures is a way of dealing with, and including, the frightening randomness of life, the sudden illness or ill fortune, the terrifying closeness of death to life, the way our bodies sometimes seem to be following a plan we know nothing about and would not willingly agree to if we did.  The role of the priests is to mediate in some way, and always to bring the person closer to God, even if there has to be a temporary alienation in order to demonstrate the return. 

The Book of Leviticus sometimes seems to be one of a world no longer relevant – altars and sacrifices, blood and smoke, white spots and red skin, magic and superstition.  But reading it carefully it reveals itself as something else, rather like an optical illusion, another perception makes itself known.  The Book of Leviticus isn’t primarily about the rituals and the spices, the prescriptions and the descriptions of priestly activity – it is first and foremost about what a priest should be, how a leader should behave.  Empowered by their role as leaders of the worshipping community the priests  use that power to create a society where everyone has access to God, everyone is able to be brought into the community.  Because the priest declares a thing to be, so it becomes.  Their job description is to effect ‘korban’ – translated often as ‘sacrifice’ but actually meaning  something about “to draw more closely together.” 

In Leviticus, the priest is the leader who holds the ability to create the community through the ritual system.  Nowadays this is not something we can expect from an hereditary priesthood. So where do we look and who can take on the role to make sure that everyone is included, everyone can overcome disability and disaffection in order to be part of the whole people, to be a valued member of community? We no longer have a prescribed ritual system but we still have the imperative to find ways to bring people from the margins back into our society. The Book of Leviticus still calls to us to find a way to do this holy work – it calls to us. So the question for us now has to be “How will we choose to respond?”

 

Parashat Tzav

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.