The Leviticus 8 Project
He shall not eat anything that died or was torn by beasts, thereby becoming unclean: I am the LORD. Leviticus 22:8
One of the necessary appliances for a kosher-observant family of carnivores like mine is a big freezer. I have never had the luxury of a local kosher butcher, so trips to kosher purveyors almost always result in provisions to last a month or more.
When we lived in Danbury, Connecticut, we were fortunate to have the services of Broadway Kosher. As the name implies, it used to be on Broadway in New York City, but the store followed its customers to New Rochelle. Sol the Butcher delivered chicken, beef and anecdotes about once a month. I remember him telling us that his doctor told him to cut back on his own consumption of meat, so he gave up his daily pastrami sandwich for lunch. And then there was the time he asked one of our friends about her holidays, and then asked after her husband, Mr. Ginsburg. “Why are you asking me about Mr. Ginsburg?” she replied. “I’m Mrs. Reichman.” “Oh, Mrs. Reichman, I thought you were Mrs. Ginsburg!” he said, and continued, “So tell me – how were YOUR holidays?”
One day, I was approached by a member of the congregation, a local police officer. There had been an accident the night before involving a car and a deer. Unfortunately, there was loss of life on both parts. The remains of the driver were attended to by the local funeral home. A local (non-kosher) butcher attended to the deer. There was a shortage of space in the butcher’s freezer, and my congregant asked if we might be willing to put the heavily-wrapped roadkill in our freezer until it was solid and could be delivered to a soup kitchen that fed the hungry.
It was the second time the officer asked me for an unusual favor. A young man spending the night in a local motel on his way to a more distant destination had accepted the invitation of a couple of locals to join them for some marijuana behind the bar. Once there, he was robbed and raped. Feeling dirtied, he went back to his room and climbed into the shower where he tried to wash away his sense of uncleanliness over the course of many hours. Other guests complained about the continuous noise of the water, which led to the discovery of the crime. The young man was Jewish, and after he was released from the hospital the next evening, my congregant-cop asked if he could spend the night at my home. We had a baby; the young man was a stranger. But he stayed. When he left with his parents the next morning, the police officer said to me, “You saved this young man’s life. He would not have survived the night alone.”
So, when I was asked to freeze the decidedly unkosher meat (deer is kosher, but roadkill is not), I did it. It didn’t take more than a day for it to freeze through, and a squad car stopped by the house to pick it up that evening for delivery to the soup kitchen. It was the second time I had been able to save life by taking “uncleanliness” into my home.
I am not a descendant of the priests, so the verse above does not apply to me directly, but I recognize the exquisite concern that this section of Leviticus expresses about keeping the religious functionaries in a state of ritual preparedness. I was the modern equivalent of the priest in those circumstances, but as it happened, it was only by accommodating one person’s perception of his own uncleanliness and welcoming the uncleanliness of the securely wrapped meat in my freezer that I actually could do my job.
Was the young victim really unclean by any standard other than his own embarrassment and humiliation? Of course not. And were the people sustained by the non-kosher meat doing anything prohibited by this code of Jewish observance? Also, of course not.
Maybe you will take from these stories that I dismiss the ancient ritual requirements as being irrelevant or as obstacles to compassion. You get one more “of course not.” These peculiar rituals, some of which can be explained and others of which seem like mere superstition, are the roots from which the Jewish life I live have grown. Turning away from a brother in need is prohibited with the same vehemence as committing the assault and violation that created his need. Eating only meat that was prepared with the pious skill of various Sol-the-Butchers is a luxury of my own fortunate circumstances, but not a standard I am supposed to impose on those without the wherewithal to predict where their next meal will come from.
There is a discipline that comes from holding close to the letter of the law. It has allowed me confidence in the “protection” of its observance. I have come to understand what it is designed to cultivate: not so much a rigidity as a flexibility.