JTS Torah Commentary
Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26
March 24, 2007/5 Nisan 5767
This week's commentary was written by Professor Arnold M. Eisen, Chancellor-elect, JTS
Twenty years or so ago, Leviticus was my least–favorite book of the Torah. All that sacrificial blood and priestly hierarchy! All those arcane regulations governing places and ceremonies that no longer exist! How could Leviticus compare to the wonderful family saga recounted in Genesis, to the high drama of the Exodus and Sinai, to the perils and rebellions of the wilderness, or to the stately summations of Deuteronomy? It took middle age to bring me to appreciation of Leviticus — that, and the work of biblical scholars like Jacob Milgrom and anthropologists like Mary Douglas. Now I approach the book each year truly grateful that it exists to confront me again with aspects of life and death I might otherwise have missed or avoided. Leviticus, I now believe, teaches us a great deal about what it takes to navigate life's wilderness — not just at moments of peak experience but every day.
The first step back to appreciation of the book is perhaps to recognize that the word "sacrifice" is a misnomer. What the Hebrew has in mind is drawing near. Giving things of value to God is part of that effort, and so is giving up things of value to us. Both are instruments of drawing near, overcoming distance, making right what had been wronged. We do this in our human relationships. We bring flowers as a way of saying we are sorry, give presents to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries, and offer charity as a way of expressing thanks for blessings received or evils averted.
Symbolic actions of this sort come naturally. The symbols are never "just symbols." The rituals of daily life are never "mere rituals." Why else would people get angry when they are forgotten? Douglas has made it clear that a lot of what bothers us in accounts such as Leviticus is ritual per se, a prejudice that we have inherited from the Enlightenment, which in turn took over the Protestant–versus–Catholicism polemic. We still use the word "ritualistic" as a synonym for action that is pro forma or unthinking. But try living life for even one day without ritual, as the examples I gave above illustrate. You will soon realize how impoverished a life bereft of ritual would be. It is a pleasure, the first time around, to write the birthday card oneself, or construct the words of sincere apology, one by one. It is a far greater pleasure, the hundredth time around, to find that gestures recognizable to both parties work just as well, or even better; it's a gift that we do not have to search for the words but can find them ready–made and fill them with our personal intention.
Leviticus' logic of "drawing near" makes perfect sense when seen this way. Once the distance opened up by transgression is overcome, relation to God or human fellows can be renewed. The flowers (or animals) we give in penance for wrongdoing are not the substance of that relationship. Of course not. But they play an important part in making the relationship possible.
Milgrom, drawing on both Jewish exegetes and on a range of modern scholarship, has brilliantly explicated Leviticus' symbolic strategy for helping us draw near to the Most Holy. Once inside the book's sense of things, even the death of animals in "sacrifice" may no longer seem so disturbing. Most of us are not vegetarians, after all — and the bulk of Israelite offerings got eaten eventually. There is beauty and depth, we find, in the elaborate system of "pure" and "impure" that Leviticus imposes on experience, particularly when we understand that it does so in order to help us with the distinctions between right and wrong. The latter are at time far harder to draw, let alone to carry out.
That is the other feature of ritual I have appreciated more and more with age. It is perhaps hard to grasp until one has lived long enough to fail more than once at something truly important — and to fail in ways not easily made right. I refer to the immense advantage that rituals have over life: if we work hard enough, we can get them right. Master the technique of that Bach invention on the piano, learn the lines of that Ibsen play, fill their performance with genuine and proper emotion, and you have a chance of getting them right, really right, in a way rarely achieved in the ethical realms of parenting or friendship or the professions. Focus on Kiddush for the sixty seconds it takes to recite the blessing Friday night, pay attention to the meaning of what you are about, and the sense of rightness is yours.
Ritual has made it so. It has helped us to draw near to holiness. Schooled in the discipline of getting things right, we do a better job of carrying it over into the ethical realm, where getting things right is so much harder. And, after years of living happily amid the nitty–gritty details of daily life, knowing that the glory lies not in moments of peak experience or high drama but in sending the kids off to school dressed and fed, paying off the mortgage, and recalling what made the gray hairs worthwhile — after all that, one is grateful for Leviticus' immersion in the detail of ritual. For anything less would be inadequate to life, which as we know is always lived in the details. That is where the devil is, as the saying goes. Unless God is too, unless our ritual is, there is no chance for us to attain holiness in this life.
Life. This is the final reason Leviticus should, as it were, be labeled a book for "adults only." I refer to its graphic discussions of the deepest stuff of life (and therapy): sex and death. The book's intent is the same in both cases. It does not seek to repress but to sanctify. Its thrust is not at all ascetic. Leviticus did not need Freud to know that sex is the master passion, supreme temptation, the means through which adults regularly hurt those dearest to us — as well as a fundamental way to express our love. Leviticus has no interest in curbing sex. It simply wants to direct it, to have it serve as a means of raising rather than lowering us. Death, too, cannot be avoided in this life, and so Leviticus does not try to avoid it. Quite the opposite. It works to contain death, as it were, as it tries to contain sex: not by denying its power but by surrounding it with an order of meaning and beauty so rich that we can bear all we need to bear, celebrate life, hold our anger at it in check, and so raise ourselves and our world to holiness.
As if that were not enough, the "holiness" section of the book then insists that the ritual sphere instruct not only our personal relationships and inner lives but all of society as well. The land, too, deserves its Sabbaths, and sabbatical years must bring forgiveness of debts. Leviticus' transitions from "ritual" to "ethical" to "societal" are seamless. What a book! And to think we might not have opened or appreciated it, because of all that blood and gore. Adulthood has its privileges, thank goodness. Scholarship on Torah has its gifts. So does middle age. Just ask Leviticus. It tells us how things are and gets us to listen and to learn.
Arnold M. Eisen