The Leviticus:8 Project
You shall faithfully observe My laws: I the LORD make you holy. Leviticus 20:8
I have lived in the Washington, DC area for over thirty years and traversed the four quarters of the city for that entire time. The city is divided by Capitol Street in three directions and Constitution Avenue in the fourth, and they are known, most uncreatively, as NW, NE, SW and SE. L’Enfant’s mathematical approach to naming the streets created the circumstance that the same intersection of, say, 9th Street north-south and G Street east-west can occur in four different places. Hence, every DC address (even the named diagonal streets) enjoys a suffix locating it in a quarter.
I have a regular meeting on Capitol Hill and I park in the same block each time. (I will not reveal its location because free street parking is a scarce commodity in that neighborhood.) On my way to that meeting, I always pass a classic Roman Catholic church. So when I received an invitation to attend the bipartisan interfaith worship service before the opening of the 116th Congress at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at C St. and 2nd St. SE, I knew exactly where it was. Doors opened at 8 for the 8:30 service. I was there at 7:55, walked in and took a seat near the back of the beautiful sanctuary. A handful of people in attire ranging from business dress to disheveled were in the pews. At exactly 8:00, two priests took their place and began conducting daily mass.
How nice, I thought. The regular mass before the public event. I listened to the prayers and settled in for a beautiful homily about the origins and sacredness of ritual (more on that in a moment). By 8:10, I was still the only not-a-Catholic in the place. I slid behind a pillar and pulled out my phone to see the email that invited me. It was then I realized that I was at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at C St. and 2nd St. NE.
I made the six-block walk in sufficient time to take my place in the right pew, feeling pretty foolish about the rookie mistake, but grateful that I had to endure only one set of comments about “that must be the rabbi.” The bipartisan interfaith service was wonderful. But I must admit I enjoyed the morning’s homily at the other place better.
The priest spoke about the evolution of exacting rituals he observed in conducting the mass. He offered an intentionally humorous illustration of the proper way to be positioned with the thumb and forefinger at exactly shoulder width, know delightfully as the “canonical digits.” He told us that even though the practices are nowhere to be found in Scripture or teachings of the early church fathers, nonetheless medieval authorities declared that a priest whose hands are positioned too narrowly or too widely has committed a mortal sin. He referred to the ruling with gentle deprecation as “Pharasaic.”
I wish I had the ability to access verses of the Bible from memory. If I had been able to pull this one up, it would have made my point to him much more effectively. (I didn’t stay to converse, but I did send him an email praising his message but introducing myself as a Pharisee. He was gracious and appreciative in response.) I am sure there are many ways to become holy, just as there are many expressions of holiness. But one of them, documented right here in the middle of the middle of the Torah, is to observe faithfully God’s laws. It stands to reason that the more diligent one is in behavior and intention (in Hebrew keva and kavvanah), the more one is centered in the realm of holiness. Scriptural or not, the daily mass was sanctifying because it conformed to necessary details, just as the Pharisees (my rabbinic ancestors) created the details of Jewish law, a map rather than an obsession.
So it made perfect sense to me that the canonical digits had to be held at the just the proper intersection of shoulder and arm. Let’s call that intersection, for the sake of argument, C St. and 2nd St. SE. If they drifted north or west of that location, they simply would be in the wrong place. As I was. But it did not mean that there was no worth to my accidental arrival in the wrong quarter.
It is not the first time I have heard a Christian clergy member use “Pharisaic” disparagingly. I get it – the title is all over Christian Scripture as the foil for the “superior” teachings of Jesus. (Ironically, he was likely a Pharisee himself.) It is a shorthand for the approach that the law itself is more important than its purpose. (The notion is debated extensively in the Talmud.) All these centuries later I think it is lazy not to understand how troubling that appropriation is, but it is hard to convince a city that still uses a racist name for its football team that it ought to reconsider Holy Scripture.
But if we are stuck with the name, then it is worth considering where it does not lead us to holiness. At this writing, the head of our government has used the law itself to subvert its purpose, and not just in shutting down the government for his own political purposes, but many times over to try to force the law to validate his prejudices. There are stories about people like that in Scripture, Jewish and Christian both. They aren’t Pharisees. And they don’t make anyone holy.
The Leviticus:8 Project
And he who eats of it shall bear his guilt, for he has profaned what is sacred to the LORD; that person shall be cut off from his kin. Leviticus 19:8
Looking from outside any practice of sacred ritual, what you can see inspires a certain skepticism. I have written before about conversations I have had about Roman Catholic ritual with devout priests. They believe what the Church teaches: the communion wafer becomes the body of Jesus and the wine becomes the blood of Jesus. It is called transubstantiation, and by Catholic orthodoxy, it is literal, not metaphorical and not symbolic.
There are two things nearly impossible for me to believe about the sacredness of this ritual. The first is its plain and literal representation: a wafer becomes flesh, wine becomes blood. The metaphor is deeply appealing to me – Jesus is the embodiment of God in Christianity, and communion allows the faithful to become one with God. However, the claim of actuality requires a faith I do not share. It is another example of the sacred mystery that infuses so much of Christian theology, accessible to the believer because of that belief.
And that’s the other thing that I cannot wrap my head around. My conversations with priests about this are possible because of the honesty and integrity we share in a warm relationship. (Rest assured that I do not walk up to random clerics and fact-check their faith.) That they subscribe to this article of faith provokes a sense of awe and even admiration in me. How they subscribe to it is the source of continuous surprise.
This much I know: without the belief of the faithful, communion would not exist. That’s not to say that denominations that indeed interpret the ritual metaphorically are false; it is to say that in order for the literal belief to exist it must be, um, believed.
That’s a long preamble to something, and I appreciate that you waded through it, I hope without concluding that I call into question the sincerity of people who believe differently than I.
To those who look at Jewish ritual from the outside, there is a similar sense of skepticism. Some of those rituals are practiced today – circumcision, tzitzit (fringes) and tefillin (prayer boxes), immersion in a mikvah (baptismal) as necessary to conversion or removal of ritual pollution, and many others. They are necessary and performed exactingly for the small-o orthodox Jewish believer. They would no sooner be observed symbolically than a child’s hand-drawn picture of a flag would fly above the Capitol.
I think that most Jews today look at our own Biblical ritual from that outside perspective. It has less to do with the ritual than it does with the Bible’s suggestion about the penalty that attends to its violation. This particular verse has to do with the unsanctioned consumption of meat from sacred sacrifices. Never mind the details – that’s not the purpose here. If they are violated, a profaning (de-holy-izing) of God’s sacred instruction takes place and the violator is to be cut off from family. Human actions make the meat holy; before that, like the wafer, it is just food.
I have the same trouble believing that a sacrificial rite transforms a piece of roasted meat into something that represents God’s will as I do believing in transubstantiation. However, I cannot wrap my head around the notion that an infraction of this instruction ought to result in the banishment for any length of time from the loving arms of family and community. Perhaps it is the only way to demonstrate the seriousness with which these instructions were taken, or perhaps it illustrates the cynical (and likely correct) understanding that without at least the threat of punishment, people will pretty much ignore any rule they find inconvenient.
But in these times when the standard of penalty must fall short of cruel and unusual, I wonder how it is that excommunication serves the purpose of preserving the sacred? What level of faith which I do not share and to which I do not aspire was or is necessary to affirm this consequence? I take some solace in the fact that the question has been academic at least since the Temple was destroyed almost 200 years ago. But cataclysmic consequences for violating sacred norms are not merely a thing of the past.
Within our own tradition, there are people who still mourn Jews who intermarry as if they were dead, a practice used to put the fear of God into kids of my generation as they approached their teen years. (It didn’t work.) I know people who lie to their ultra-orthodox families about various aspects of their Jewish life lest they be officially unwelcome at family gatherings. And even among the non-religious, the hazard of exclusion exists for calling into question certain formal public positions about social justice, pluralism or Israel. For sure, those who hold these values and practices sacred consider them essential to the integrity of Jewish life.
A faith that exists without markers between right and wrong, just and unjust, inside and outside on its own terms will fail. In secular terms, a country that purports to hold to a standard of law that marks right from wrong, just from unjust, inside from outside without consequence will not thrive on its own terms. In both cases, it is worth considering what is gained by being so diligent about particular enforcement in cases that challenge higher values. From the inside it may look different than from the outside. For those who suffer the consequences – for example, families separated at a border -- it is not an academic question.
The Leviticus:8 Project
Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father. Leviticus 18:8
I know that I write frequently about my late father. Maybe it is because he was cheated out of the best years of harvest and fallowness by the cancer that consumed him. Plus, the Bible talks about fathers a lot, and he was mine.
It may very well be that the euphemisms used to describe sexual prohibitions are meant to imply a genteel approach to discussing such intimate matters. “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife” may or may not refer to an attempt at sexual assault, but it is undoubtedly prurient. “Your father’s wife” is not your mother; you are prohibited her nakedness in the preceding verse. The woman in question here is a different marriage for your father, and her most intimate physical self is an extension of your father’s intimacy.
(There is no set of similar prohibitions addressed to daughters. Let us simply acknowledge this presumed lack of agency for women in the Bible for the moment.)
I never uncovered any extension of my father’s intimacy during his life (and he was always married to my mother when I knew him). But I do have three distinct memories of uncovering his nakedness at three distinct points in time.
To be honest, this first one is not a clear memory, but I was told about it (by my mother) when I was driving, and I almost had to pull off the road. I still laugh whenever I think about it. My dad shaved each morning when he stepped out of the shower in the one bathroom of our family’s first apartment. As first-born, I was given pretty much the run of the place. My mom tried to persuade him to wrap a towel around his waist as he shaved, but he saw no cause to do so. That changed the day that I toddled in at age two, reached up, gave a yank and said, “ding ding.” (I am laughing now.)
I cannot remember seeing my father’s nakedness again until he invited me to play handball with him when I was in my twenties. He creamed me in match after match at the YMCA where he belonged, after which we retired to the locker room to clean up. It dawned on me as we showered that it was probably the first time I had seen him au natural since, well, “ding ding.” (Laughing again.)
The last time came close to the end of his life. He was bedridden, subjected to daily doses of chemicals combating the haywire cells in his brain, and physically comforted by painkillers that interfered with his ability to relieve himself. Weakened as he was, he could not exert the necessary effort to complete the process that most of us take for granted. I was alone with him on a visit when he asked me to put on a pair of latex gloves and assist him. It was a kindness many caregivers and close family had performed; this time was my first.
This verse in Leviticus does not imagine any of those scenarios. Abraham never shaved, Isaac never played handball and Jacob, though attended to his last breath, died of old age, not debilitating disease. It may resonate with those who remember Noah, sprawled in his tent after overindulging in wine and mocked by one his three sons, but only the innocent toddler saw anything to enjoy in my father’s nakedness.
Instead, the Bible considers what it means for a son to attempt to usurp his father’s rightful place in the family social order. I imagine that there is still such a concern among many people, but it has never been a worry of mine. He cleaned me up when I was little, I returned the favor when he needed it. He invited me to bond with him on the handball court and then, having trounced me, was completely at ease. That’s how things should be, I think.
These columns were interrupted for a number of weeks by my recovery from some minor surgery that nonetheless made thinking and typing difficult for a little while. My wife pointed out to me that it was the first time in more than forty years that I did mostly nothing for as long as I was convalescing. Nobody had to help me on the commode, but tending to my wound was her job because, for most of that time, I could not complete the effort myself. (I am okay now, thanks.)
I never doubt her love, but there was something especially sweet about being vulnerable as she took care of me. I am certain that’s not the nakedness the Bible is concerned about. It’s too bad that the inference of this verse and others like it scare us off from the tender comforts we might sometimes share.