Bridging the Particular and the Universal
With the opening of the book of Leviticus and its keen focus on sacrifices this coming Shabbat, many laypeople and clergy alike begin an exegetical struggle for connection and relevance. JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen describes the annual crisis well, commenting that
Leviticus is not terribly popular among American Jews . . . Take on the task of assigning members of a prayer or study group to lead discussions on upcoming portions of Torah, and you will have no difficulty finding volunteers for most sections of Genesis or Exodus. Turn the pages of the calendar to the winter months, however, arrive at the blood and gore of sacrifice and the details upon details of purity and pollution, and you will find that interest in the weekly portion has withered. (Taking Hold of Torah, 71)
Though the chancellor acknowledges this difficulty, he rightly encourages us to dig deeper in the text and in ourselves as “Leviticus aims to heighten and sanctify ordinary experience” (ibid., 71). Where may we find a vivid example in Parashat Va-yikra that opens this cryptic text to “sanctifying ordinary experience” in the modern world?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch latches on to Leviticus 1:2, “Speak to the Israelite people [b’nai Yisrael] and say to them, ‘When any of you [adam] presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he will choose an offering from the herd or from the flock’.” Here, we immediately notice a tension between the particular reference to the Israelites and the universal adam or humans. Hirsch writes,
the subject of the Children of Israel is extended by adam, humans, and thereby, at the very portal of the laws given for the Jewish Temple, an inscription is made which opens this Temple to all men—not exclusively to Jews. Every human being can bring his offering here . . . Rashi, too, takes the word adam here in its most general sense including non-Jews (Hulin 5a). Accordingly, it is not just “the progress of Solomon’s advanced illuminating theories” which first extended “the narrow Mosaic ideas of God and the Temple” to that cosmopolitan outlook. The very first word gives the Temple the most universal mission, and with this one word expressed that which came to be a prophetic proclamation through the mouth of Isaiah: “I will bring them to the Mount of My Sanctuary, I will make them rejoice in My House of Prayer, their elevation offerings and their meal offerings will find favor on My Altar, for My House will be called a House of Payer for all the nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) [Commentary on Leviticus, 5]
Hirsch’s explanation is sensitive and insightful. Just as we arrive at a book of Torah that seems to underscore Israelite particularity, a closer, more careful reading yields the opposite observation. Korbanot, sacrifices (or more literally, “that which brings one closer to God”), are an institution open to Jews and non-Jews alike. Torah legislates to the Jewish community, but also opens itself to inclusiveness and universality. That is the beauty of our sacred tradition. May each of us aspire to rooting ourselves in our Jewish particularity while at the same time building bridges to other religious communities.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.