When Theology Fails
There is a fearful symmetry to the three chapters that make up this week’s parashah; symmetry made all the more fearful because the harmonies of theme and structure in Sh’mini contrast so mightily with the awful events it describes. Add the fact that we read this account of Israelites killed because of their closeness to God only a few days before the day on which we remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, and Sh’mini becomes more frightful still; the questions it raises positively terrifying. Is this the eternal fate of Jews, as a Catholic priest once patiently tried to explain to me? “Through those that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified,” Moses reports God saying. Aaron is silent in the face of this explanation of the death of his sons. Should our reaction be the same?
Let’s begin by recounting the harmony that frames the parashah’s narrative of death. In chapter nine of Leviticus, we get one of the rare glimpses afforded us in the Torah of enacted sacred order. Aaron and his sons have performed the series of prescribed offerings in the Tabernacle ”as the Lord had commanded through Moses.” The high priest lifts up his hands at the ritual’s conclusion and blesses the people. Moses and Aaron then enter the Tent of Meeting and emerge to bless the people once more, at which point the Presence of the Lord appears to all the people. “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.”
Chapter ten opens with the report of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offering incense that God had not commanded. “And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” Translations that distinguish between this fire and the one that immediately preceded it only serve to miss and disguise the awful point; the Hebrew is exactly the same in both cases. Nor is the juxtaposition, in retrospect, all that surprising. The Torah had consistently used the same language for the “bringing near” of Aaron and his sons on the one hand, and their bringing near (“sacrifice”) of various offerings on the other (e.g., Exodus 40:12). Moses’s explanation of the disaster quotes a saying of the Lord that we do not actually encounter anywhere else in the Torah, but his words conform to all we know—and do not know—of Israel’s God. The kavod of God—translated above as glory, but called the Divine Presence when it appears to the people at the end of chapter nine—can apparently be brought near in terrifying form by illicit ritual performance in the Tabernacle, as it is brought near in benign form by prescribed ritual performance there.
Aaron and his two remaining sons are forbidden to leave the sanctuary in order to bury Nadav and Avihu during the period of dedication to the priesthood, or to mourn in any other way. When they decline to partake of the sin offering, and Moses expresses anger at yet another departure from the prescribed routine, Aaron explains that he could not eat the offering on a day when “such things have befallen me. Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?” Moses hears and does approve. Some deviance from routine, apparently, is not only permitted but laudatory.
Chapter eleven is concerned entirely with the creatures that Israelites may and may not eat. We return from the terrors of interrupted sacred order—sacrifices offered and consumed, sacrificers offering and consumed, and surviving priests who decline to consume the offerings they bear—to the pleasures of routine consumption. Israelites can slaughter and eat animals every day in accordance with God’s commandments, safely far from God’s consuming fires. The text positively shouts its symmetries at the reader: in chapter nine the subject is sacrifice; in chapter ten the subject is food and sacrifice; in chapter eleven it is food. The parashah concludes blandly, as if nothing has occurred to freight these regulations with any meaning beyond the ordinary: ”These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten, and the living things that may not be eaten.”
One strains after lessons to these three chapters so heavy with meaning (the Hebrew for glory and presence is cognate with the word for heavy). The text, like us, seems to strain after, and strain under, meanings that it cannot quite comprehend.
Let’s start with the “easy” part. Reflective students and practitioners of religion have always known that the attempt to domesticate God through ritual and symbols can never entirely work. The Israelites—after having disastrously tried to bring the unimaginable God near to serve their own needs by building an image of God as calf and then worshipping it—have been authorized by God to build a house so that God’s Presence will dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). The promise was never that God would dwell in the Tabernacle itself, but rather that God would dwell among (or in) the people. What could it possibly mean, in Leviticus’s terms or ours, for God to be present in a few cubic meters of space? The Tabernacle is to be repeatedly disassembled and reassembled. The holiest of holy cubic meters are ever on the move. How could one take the Power that created heaven and earth, that uttered primal energy into being, and confine even a tiny fraction of it to the space and time and purposes that suit us, God’s creatures? The Torah cannot fathom this; the matter is far too deep. Indeed, the text strains credibility enough when it witnesses to the cloud of Divine Presence that rests on, and occasionally fills, the Tabernacle—not in mystical trance or theological reflection but tangibly, before the eyes of all Israel. These are mysteries that the Torah reports but does not attempt to fathom.
So too the sanctification of God’s name through the death of Jews closely identified with God. Our people has known for centuries that those who seek to live in the Presence of the Lord are often killed as a result of that commitment. The theologian Emil Fackenheim once wrote that Jews who raise Jewish children should be aware that every three generations, on average, Jews have been subject to persecution. The twentieth century proved no exception to this rule. Year after year, the reading of Parashat Sh’mini falls near the day devoted to remembrance of the Holocaust, providing ample room for us to reflect on our own experiences of God’s Presence, as well as our experiences (no less palpable, and perhaps more frequent) of God’s absence. We bear with the latter thanks to the grace of the former. The rules and routine of sacred order make possible a life that is good enough, meaningful enough, beautiful enough, profound enough, heavy enough with meaning to contain the terrors of this life and of the unknown that follows it, just as Leviticus contains within its pages the awful story of Nadav and Avihu.
When he heard the lesson drawn by Moses from the event of his sons’ deaths, “Aaron was silent.” He got that right, I believe. Theology fails at such points of contact with the ultimate. All sense fails. Words fail. It’s far better to fall back on notions such as the “hiding of God’s countenance” than to construct “Holocaust theologies” that purport to explain why God carried out or condoned or allowed or could not stop the horrors. With all due respect to Fackenheim’s powerful notion of a “614th commandment”—not to grant Hitler posthumous victories by abandoning Jewishness or Judaism—nor do I find the Holocaust a reason for Jewish commitment in our day. It is rather an obstacle to faith that believers must get past if they are to sustain belief in a God of history, and that all thinking Jews must get past in order to retain identification with their people. Events like the death of six million Jews—or of one innocent child of any nation or faith—threaten to block our path to a life of Torah. One does not reason one’s way past such things, I believe. Rather, one lives on in spite of them, with the help of a sacred order like the one that Leviticus sets forth, the help of a community that sustains us along with that sacred order, and—incomprehensibly but amazingly—the help of God.
Here we are in the midst of life, all is going well, we are doing things right, the sentences of our days follow one another without interruption—and then tragedy strikes in a split second, and the world around us totters. We are thrown off balance. The order of things strangely continues as if nothing had happened—an insult to our pain that soon becomes a comfort. Even the unthinkable can be survived, it turns out. Sacred order returns and saves us. We eat permitted foods and avoid what is prohibited. We punctuate our weeks with Sabbaths and our years with holy days. We come near to God and each other bearing prescribed offerings of heartfelt thanksgiving. We study Torah and try to live well. We avoid speaking of that which mandates silence. Carefully, gratefully, at times joyfully, we go on.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.