The Book of Leviticus, with its chapters upon chapters of intricate laws and rituals, clearly lays out a code of the permitted and the forbidden. In this week’s dvar Torah to Parashat Vayikrah, Rabbi Naamah Kelman challenges us establish a similar code of ethics and morality, as relevant to our current day and age. How does our Holy Code for 2017 instruct us to live?
By Rabbi Naamah Kelman
The book of Leviticus/Vayikrah is often called the “Priestly Code” — over 27 chapters, the intricate and detailed laws and functions pertaining to the Priests’ duties are set out. Laws relating to the system of sacrifices brought to the Tabernacle in the wilderness and then the Temple in Jerusalem are described in chapter after chapter. Sacrifices, animal, foul, and grain, are brought for the entire spectrum of the human condition: Sacrifices for forgiveness, expiation, absolution, healing, thanksgiving, criminal offences, and ritual offences. No less detailed are the laws specifying rites of purification from diseases and other forms of impurity including menstruation, contact with the dead, and other bodily dysfunctions.
Leviticus contains laws of purity and purification for a myriad of afflictions and conditions. Laws pertaining to forbidden foods are part and parcel of these laws of sanctification. The priest serves as intermediary, vessel, bridge to God. The Hebrew word korban sacrifice, literally means “to get closer.” These rites are intended to bring the Children of Israel closer to God. Unlike other Near Eastern traditions, the Israelite priest worked among the people for all to see. Their duties were for the people and among the people. Yet despite this emphasis on ritual and rites, there is an undergirding of spiritual significance to these rites.
According to Professor Jacob Milgrom (Fortress press, 2004):
“Values is what the book of Leviticus is all about…The book of Leviticus and many of its sometimes contradictory laws can be understood as the various manifestations of the Ten Commandments or Decalogue. The kernel of the Decalogue is terse. Without penalties, it reads more like directions or principles than laws; Do not murder, Honor your mother and father. Do not steal. On the other hand the quotidian details about how life should be lived-like many laws that fill the book of Leviticus- are nowhere found in the commandments at Sinai. They must be derived from the broad principles of the Decalogue, but delicately, so that the core of the Ten Commandments is respected, even as new laws emerge.”
Holiness according to many traditional Jewish sources is concerned with ritual and sexual purity. Kadosh is often understood as separate. In traditional readings this is the separation of pure from impure, and indeed Jew from idolater, men from impure women. In our reading we focus on the idea of ethical purity and responsibility. As Milgrom says: “ethical prescriptions alongside ritual as determinants of holiness.” This is the underpinning of the commandments and regulations. Holiness, then in the Israelite tradition, is this fusion of ritual and ethics. In other words, we observe the Sabbath for its ritual implications as well as the ethical. We rest, we refrain from using fire (ritual) but we make sure our servants rest too (ethical).
We must ask ourselves today what ethical principles need to be reinforced through ritual. With racism and xenophobia rampant in our society, along with misogyny and homophobia, it is time to make the rites on our lives reflect our battle with these impurities, diseases and profanities in our midst. What sacrifice will we bring tomorrow to fight hatred, what offering to combat humiliation of the other? Our Holiness Code must be a daily reminder to act against today’s chilul ha’shem, the desecration of God’s presence in the world.
According to Vayikra Rabba 2:7: When a “man” (adam) presents an offering, may one be like the first Adam, even though everything “belonged” to him, Adam only offered what was his, what he toiled for and what he rightfully possesses. And the Midrash emphasizes what it means to be an “Adam”:
“Be a mensch a good person, meaning, as defined by care and unity and friendship. As God said to Ezekiel, be a ben-adam, a person amongst the righteous, those who act in ways of lovingkindness; be among those who humble themselves for God and the People Israel.
Our Holiness Code of 2017 is clear as always: Fight what degrades the other; what repossesses the other, what humiliates the other. Spread holiness, each person was created in God’s image, act to affirm and empower those who are hurt, marginalized and discriminated against; otherwise our offerings will be empty rites.
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and a descendent of ten generations of rabbis, becoming the first woman to be ordained by the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem in 1992, where she is currently the Dean.