Sacred Distinctions

Sacred Distinctions
Shemini By :  Diane Sharon Former visiting assistant professor of Bible Posted On Apr 28, 1998 / 5758 | Torah Commentary

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.

Rambam’s intuition of a rational basis for the food laws in Leviticus 11 has been challenged, affirmed and rechallenged over the centuries, emphasizing the difficulty in finding clear cut rational premises in the biblical classification of clean and unclean animals. Mary Douglas, a structural anthropologist and student of Claude Levi-Strauss, is well known to modern biblical scholarship for her 1966 work Purity and Danger, in which she examines the food prohibitions in Leviticus 10 and Deuteronomy 14 from an anthropological perspective.

Douglas sees the food categories as inhabiting spheres of action set by God during the six days of creation, and consisting of creatures whose primary domain is water, earth, or air. She concludes in this classic analysis that the distinctions between clean and unclean animals are based on the principle that clean animals stay well within the boundaries of their particular habitat, but unclean animals somehow cross boundaries from one habitat to another, and are thereby perceived as threatening. For example, the ideal inhabitant of water exhibits fins and scales. Creatures of the water that do not stay within this boundary, that do not exhibit fins and scales, are deemed unfit. Creatures that mainly inhabit the air must have feathers and wings. Winged creatures that can’t fly, or creatures of the air that do not have wings and feathers, blur the boundaries and are deemed unclean. Creatures that swarm on the earth are unclean. They must leap if they are insects (grasshoppers are okay), part the hoof and chew their cud if they are animals. The pig, camel, hyrax, hare and rock badger are missing one or the other quality, and, because they blur boundaries, are considered unfit.

Douglas’s categories rely largely but not exclusively on the means of locomotion appropriate to each sphere. The scheme she extrapolates from the food prohibitions yields a series of concentric circles, with each larger boundary reinforcing the inner one, and each inner one enclosing yet another. Everything that seems eligible to violate any of the boundaries is segregated and put into a category of defilement.

Douglas’s work was widely read by biblical scholars across the spectrum of belief, and hailed as a brilliant insight into the rational underpinning of the food laws in the Pentateuch. Less well known is a follow-up analysis by Douglas first published in 1975 that modifies and expands her analysis in Purity and Danger. In this essay, called “Self Evidence,” Douglas criticizes her assumptions in the earlier work as “a too facile solution.” She writes that her assumption was erroneous that there is a universal human tendency to classify, to value elements. Douglas had neglected the evidence of non-Israelite cultures that celebrate anomaly, revering it as holy. In this brilliant and complex essay, Douglas pushes herself to move beyond describing the categories of fit and unfit food found in a wide range of cultures—she takes the next step of trying to analyze the ways different systems of classification relate to the larger social systems of their respective cultures.

Although Douglas addresses other cultures in this essay, I found myself resonating to her analysis of the biblical system, to her analysis of how the food prohibitions fit into the historical and sociological realities of the Jews throughout their history. I would like to summarize these briefly, and to conclude by suggesting ways Douglas’s analysis is relevant in our thinking about our religious circumstances today.

In her analysis of the Israelite attitudes towards anomalies, viewing as unclean those elements that cross or blur boundaries, Douglas concludes that here is a people who prefer their boundaries to remain intact. Any attempt to cross them is seen as a hostile intrusion. When the Israelites think of their organization in spatial terms, they set their holiest place within several concentric boundaries that serve to keep out the profane. Leviticus 10:10 affirms the importance of maintaining these boundaries, when, following the fiery deaths of Nadab and Abihu, God warns the sons of Aaron to keep away from strong drink so they will be able to distinguish between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. For Israel, being holy means being set apart. The Israelites cherish their boundaries and want nothing better than to keep them strong and high. Creation in Genesis begins with distinctions between light and darkness, and concludes with the distinction between the six days of God’s work and the seventh of rest. At the end of Shabbat, during Havdalah (which means “to make distinctions”), Jews today still bless God who differentiates between the holy and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and other nations, between Shabbat and the rest of the week.

This preoccupation with distinguishing what is inside bounds from what is outside bounds is a reflection, according to Douglas, of Israelite history and sociology. Inside Israel’s frail boundaries is a small political unit surrounded by powerful and rapacious enemies. Throughout her history, Israel has been familiar with defections and infiltrations—its boundaries are never strong enough. A critical problem for Israel—and for Jews today—is to distinguish between Israelite and foreigner. This distinction is most difficult in the cases of people who claim some of the criteria of common descent, but not all. Whether the question is what one may eat or who is a Jew, we have a deep concern with elements that show some but not sufficient criteria for membership in a class.

For some, faith is strengthened when it is bound up in mystery, in the miraculous. For me, and, I suspect, for Rambam, faith is strengthened when we see the integration of all cultural elements—religious, social, political. If these connections between religion and culture hold, if religious systems serve and are shaped by social ends, then the unity of mind, heart, and might spoken of in the Shema are well served here. As Douglas suggests, if God wanted to choose a people, reveal to them a monotheistic vision, and give them a concept of holiness they would know in their very bones, God could not conceive a better plan.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Diane Sharon