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.