Why Leviticus?

Vayikra By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 1, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

A couple of years ago, a commercial publisher put out a new popular, abridged edition of the Bible. Among the omissions was the entire book of Leviticus, whose preoccupation with arcane ritual allegedly holds no interest for the modern reader. I suspect that many of us would agree. We prefer prophets to priests, ethics to ritual and verbal prayer to animal sacrifices. Our egalitarian sensibility is likewise offended by hierarchical religion.

Alas, I must confess a fascination with Vayikra. I like literature that doesn’t yield up its meaning at a glance, that doesn’t resemble the contours of my mind but rather expands and alters them. Profound ideas can be articulated in different ways. Leviticus chooses to do so through the prosaic and concrete language of law and ritual, without benefit of much explanation. We need to slow down to fathom this teeming canvas, and when we do, we discover views and values that still address the conundrums of our own lives with refreshing power.

I want to give but one surprising example from this week’s parasha. Chapter four deals with the predicament of an unintended violation of one of God’s proscriptions. Four cases are stipulated – a transgression committed either by a priest, the entire community of Israel, a tribal chieftain or any common Israelite. In each case the individual or group act unwittingly and realize their offense only later. The point of the passage is to set forth the descending order of sacrifices required to undo the harm inflicted by a transgression – for the priest and community a bull, for the chieftain a male goat and for the ordinary Israelite, a female goat.

The Hebrew term for the offering is hattat, which tends to be translated as “sin offering” (see Leviticus 4:3, 14, 24, 29). Understanding the Hebrew word in this sense suggests that we are speaking of a sacrifice to atone for a violation of God’s will, even if done without intent. And the term hattat is certainly related to the Hebrew word for sin, het, which runs through the Yom Kippur service.

But Jacob Milgrom in his endlessly original Anchor Bible commentary to Leviticus (1991) firmly rejects this interpretation. He translates the term hattat as “purification offering,” a piel derivative from the qal form hata which has precisely the opposite force of “to sin,” namely, “to cleanse from sin.” This grammatical nicety opens the door to a bold reconceptualization of the entire chapter and of a sacrifice central to the theology of Leviticus. Priests don’t express their theology abstractly but through ritual.

A purification offering, rather than a sin offering, cleanses not the inadvertent sinner, but the damaging consequences of his act, the pollution of the sacred space of the Tabernacle. The great fear of the priests is to see the Tabernacle emptied of God’s presence. Though an accidental transgression is not liable for punishment, it does leave the community’s sacred space in a state of contamination, which must be quickly reversed. The transgressor undergoes no rite of purification; his remorse at the discovery of his act is enough. What needs to be purified is the space of the Tabernacle, and hence thehattat rite calls for sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice seven times “before the Lord in front of the curtain of the Shrine” and “on the horns of the altar of aromatic incense, which is in the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord (Leviticus 4:6-7).” In short, according to Milgrom, “the blood is the ritual detergent employed by the priest to purge the sanctuary of the impurities inflicted upon it by the offerer of the sacrifice (p. 256).”

The ultimate source of impurity for Leviticus (and the Torah) is man. He alone, and no demonic force independent of God, has the capacity to pollute the sanctuary, and, as we shall see later in Leviticus, the land itself. As impurity accumulates in the wake of human action, God vacates the Tabernacle and the land eventually evicts (“vomits out”) its inhabitants.

To my mind, Leviticus contains the core for a Jewish ecological ethic. Critical to its theology is the notion of sacred space – the Tabernacle, the land of Israel – and the awareness that human action, even if inadvertent, can render it uninhabitable for God and man. And, indeed, how much of our environmental crisis is but the end result of many unintended consequences. We have not polluted our blue planet—its atmosphere, land surface and bodies of water—willfully. But the absence of intent or malice does not spare us collectively from the consequences of what we have done individually. How much more culpable are we if we persist defiantly in the face of what we know to be the indisputable facts. The purification offering called for today is not a reckless dismantling of all federal environmental regulations, but rather a reaffirmation of the painful truth that what we have wrought individually can only be reversed collectively.

Our mobile and materialistic culture is not conducive to generating much reverence for sacred space. The Colombian anthropologist Martin van Hildebrand reports, “The Indians often tell me that the difference between a colonist [a non-Indian settler] and an Indian is that the colonist wants to leave money for his children and the Indians want to leave forests for their children.” Scavengers are bereft of a sense of place and permanence. To gaze at our planet from a NASA space ship should be enough to remind us just how beautiful, interconnected and fragile is the global habitat we have come to overrun. Our responsibility to care for it rises with our knowledge of its singularity and of our deleterious impact on it. The sacred space is the very space we inhabit—that is the applied message of the “outdated” book of Leviticus.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yikra are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.