Sacred Distinctions

Sacred Distinctions

Apr 28, 1998 By Diane Sharon | Commentary | Shemini

This week’s parashah is overflowing with mystery—first, in Leviticus 10, the sudden deaths of Aaron’s sons in the very midst of dedicating the Mishkan and the Aaronid priesthood to its service, and then, in chapter 11, the extensive categories of clean and unclean animals that may or may not be eaten. Both of these texts stand as a challenge to the notion of a rational religion, to the idea that God is reasonable, a divinity who may be predicted, and also to the idea that the way to worship God, the way to live a sacred life, is based on logical premises. In spite of these challenges, the history of interpretation of this parashah shows a striving for the rational. On the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Rashi cites rabbinic efforts to identify the sins that Nadab and Abihu must have committed that would warrant their incendiary punishment—these differ widely, emphasizing the elliptical nature of this text. And on the food prohibitions, Maimondies, known as Rambam, the twelth-century neo-classical philosopher who is known for his rational approach to Judaism, read into the food laws of Leviticus a logical underpinning based on sound hygiene.

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