The Leviticus:8 Project
He shall arrange them before the LORD regularly every sabbath day—it is a commitment for all time on the part of the Israelites. Leviticus 24:8
Is it all right to allow someone to live in benign ignorance if the result is somehow beneficial?
There is a story I have heard in many versions that illustrates my question. It likely originates about 250 years ago with a rabbi named Moses Hagiz, who claims to have heard it from a disciple of the sixteenth-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Scholars consider the claim unlikely…but the story is the story.
A Portuguese converso (a Jew forced to convert to Catholicism but still secretly practicing Judaism) made his way to Safed and sought to find his way back into Jewishness. He attended a synagogue where he heard the rabbi bemoan the loss of the devotional practice of the showbread – loaves left in the inner sanctum of the Temple for each shabbat. The man, believing he could reclaim his place in God’s eyes, instructed his wife to bake two loaves of challah each Friday, which he surreptitiously placed in the Ark of the synagogue where the Torah scrolls were kept. Each Friday afternoon, the synagogue’s gabbai (attendant), a poor man, would come to make certain the Torah scrolls were set for the week’s reading. Each week, he discovered the two loaves and, believing them to be a blessing, took them home. When the converso came to synagogue the next day and saw the loaves missing, he believed God had accepted his gift.
One week, the rabbi happened into the synagogue as the converso was delivering the loaves. After hearing the story, the rabbi berated the man for having such a foolish notion of God. Hearing the commotion, the gabbai entered and realized where the weekly gift originated. The rabbi berated him as well. Both men left humiliated.
As all of this transpired, an emissary from Rabbi Luria arrived and informed the rabbi that he would die the next day – his behavior had deprived God of the enjoyment unknown since the original showbread in the Temple.
I have always had two reactions to the story. Part of me finds it sweet and uplifting – a sort of “the Lord moves in mysterious ways” lesson in how good intentions can produce great results, even if they are not the results intended. Part of me finds it insulting – even if I excuse the converso’s naivete (or, perhaps, his confusion of the showbread with communion), you don’t have to be a genius to know that there is no such thing as magic bread.
But in both of my reactions, the rabbi is the biggest loser. His impatience with both characters deprives them both of what they need most. The converso needs to return to his identity and the gabbai needs to eat! But is it such a heinous sin that the rabbi needs to die for it? (And please note that the story attributes the death decree to God’s disappointment, not the humiliation of the two men.)
This story has been reworked in many different ways over the years. Like Grimms’ fairy tales, modern tellings remove all the nasty results and end in a group hug and extended family meals. I don’t like the happily-ever-after ending, either. I much prefer the tension between the mystical and the rational, and the way to preserve both. (It helps to know that Rabbi Hagiz spent much of his career promoting rabbinic authority in European and Holy Land Jewish communities.)
In some ways, this story reminds me of the tensions that are present in our discussions about immigration in this country. Inspired by the welcome that most of our ancestors received by America (if not by all Americans), some of us wish to repeat in contemporary circumstances what we imagine occurred back in the day. Looking for a better life, people show up at our border hoping against hope that their two loaves will be there to sustain them.
And, of course, there is an angry authority figure humiliating everyone for imagining a way to satisfy each other. The authority figure may be right – just as the rabbi was. But the rabbi, for all his rightness, is the biggest loser.
Maybe for the sake of the story, the rabbi had to die in the end for betraying the God he sought to defend. When a story ends, it ends. But when a real situation presents itself, there is a story beyond the story. If the converso and the gabbai were real, the former would be shattered spiritually and the latter would go hungry. Maybe the consequences would not have been fatal, but joy and sustenance would have given way to sadness and deprivation. And if the rabbi in fact did not die, then that suffering would have been on his hands.
Same thing today.
The Leviticus:8 Project
Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the LORD. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Leviticus 23:8
We seem to have fascination with work, we human beings. From the very beginning of the story we tell about ourselves in Western culture, we are first and foremost concerned about work. The first two words in the Hebrew Bible mean (depending on how you translate) either “In the beginning [God] created” or “When [God] began to create.” And before we get to the end of Chapter 1, God has made human beings in the divine image and told them to get about the business of creating something themselves.
The work wasn’t so hard in the Garden of Eden, but when those first earthlings were expelled, the punishments were hard work and hard [tellingly] labor.
God’s place in the world is defined by work, and our place in the world is defined by work. In fact, the act of worshiping God (or idols) is called by one name for work (avodah) and the activity that separates us from God on special days of communion is called by another name for work (melakha). And there is even a category that combines the two, implying that we serve our occupations during most ordinary days.
Except for some negligible periods of time, in my adult life I have always worked, even during college and seminary. And with a very few exceptions, in my adult life I have always taken a full day off of work at least once a week – at least work as it is defined by the long tradition of Jewish law. The weekly opportunity to refrain is Shabbat. And the annual opportunities to refrain include certain holidays distributed unevenly across the seasons.
Abandoning work for a day each week has been ridiculed by all sorts of people at every time in history. As far back as the Romans, we Jews were called a lazy people because we didn’t spend every day in pursuit of material prosperity. But aside from the respite that a weekly sabbatical brings, it also says something about work.
Whether a person loves their work enough to look forward to it each morning or sees their work as a necessary means to survival and nothing more, no matter the satisfaction or compensation, unrelenting work is enslavement. Whether a person lives to work or works to live, if a day off is a danger to living, then work is the master who is served.
We have lots of conversations in the United States these days about the dignity of work. A friend of mine who was involved in the reform of the public assistance program once suggested to me that the way people measure worth in this country is by productive labor. I am not sure that is a universal truth, but it is reasonably correct, at least for those with the ability to be employed. Here is what is correct: the person who brings home a paycheck to provide for themselves and their household has a sense of dignity and worth. But the measurement is not the size of the paycheck. Rather, it is capacity to master a set of skills – driving an Uber, navigating a spacecraft, teaching a child to read, maintaining a household, designing the circuitry for a computer – that makes a person better than their work.
And the only way to know that dignity is to be able to set it down with regularity and pick it up again when responsibility calls.
I suppose it is my responsibility to advocate for a traditional definition of Shabbat and Jewish holiday observance at this point. There are good arguments to be made for the formality of liberation that comes with relinquishing work in a community of like-minded people and in defining that liberation in a way that comes with the satisfaction of doing God’s will as best as it has been understood across the centuries. I have also listened to Jews make the case convincingly for a less formal approach to Shabbat and to Christians make the case for “sabbath-time,” a more personal withdrawal from the work week not tied to the community calendar. As a believer, I remain something of a traditionalist. But in looking at American society, I understand a truth that applies more broadly.
Enslavement is no more defined by its extreme expression than freedom from work is defined by a traditional Shabbat alone. Without meaningful work and a living wage, including vacation time and support through medical needs, a person is enslaved to maintaining sustenance by the unrelenting sweat of their brow. Too-low-paying jobs, consultant work with no benefits, a leave policy that is without compassion makes everyone – including the business owner focused entirely on the bottom line – a slave to work, seven days a week.
As a matter of faith, we were not created to live that way. And for those without such faith, the reasonableness of treating human beings as least as well as we think to treat the environment in which we live is probably unquestioned. That’s the wisdom of a weekly celebration of self-liberation.
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.
The Leviticus:8 Project
and you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the LORD who sanctify you am holy. Leviticus 21:8
I once met a man whose doctor had told him he could never eat anything sweet. I never bothered to check the diagnosis or confirm the treatment, but I can tell you he was diligent in following the advice. He was a sourpuss, in every sense of the word. Mind you, he was not mean or confrontational. But he didn’t laugh, and his resting expression resembled a person who had just sucked a lemon. The kids these days have a name for the phenomenon – RBF. Look it up.
I still wonder if he came by that sourpuss naturally or if the behavior imposed on him by his physician found its way into his personality. We sometimes attribute characteristics to people by the uniform they wear or the fashion choices they make. We have seen every President of the United States (except maybe Ronald Reagan) turn gray over the course of their terms, presumably from the stress of the office. And these days, a red golf cap with white letters immediately identifies someone as your political ally or opponent. Can your personality and persona be shaped by externals?
At least in this particular verse from the Bible, the answer seems to be yes. It refers to the priests, the direct descendants of Aaron. After about the third or fourth generation, even following all of the restrictions on marriage, those offspring would likely be as diverse in personality as any collection of third or fourth cousins – and how much the more so centuries later. Yet the presumption is that because they are engaged in acts of sanctified ritual, the people performing those acts should be perceived as holy themselves.
Do you think that every priest welcomes the expectation and designation of holiness? I am guessing not. It is a burden to live a life in the public eye; it is more of a burden to live that public life with expectations defined by others; it is more of a burden still if your private life does not always comport with the standard imposed upon you.
As I began to formulate this column, I thought I might take yet another swipe at the current occupant of the Oval Office. The presidency comes with certain norms and expectations, and he has defied them all. But it turns out that another example presented itself suddenly and shockingly between the first paragraph and the fifth, and that is Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia.
A picture of a person in blackface standing next to a person in the costume of the Ku Klux Klan was on the yearbook page with his name and photos from his senior year of medical school – he was 25 and it was 1984. It is irrelevant if he was in the picture, and equally irrelevant if he was aware that the picture was on his page. What might have been an embarrassment to him in his pediatric neurology practice takes on a different tone when he is charged with the sanctified tasks of governing the Commonwealth.
The external circumstances of his life – serving as governor of a state fraught with a history of contentious race relations, its capital the previous capital of the Confederacy, its jewel of a university town famous for race riots in recent memory – require him to be holy. As a citizen he could excuse being tone-deaf to the costume party or minstrel show (even in 1984), and maybe even to putting shoe polish on his face to dance like Michael Jackson. But he never spoke up then, and he only spoke up now because he got caught. Blackface was incidental to the man who championed removing statues of Confederate generals from the streets of Richmond.
As it happens, I know Gov. Northam. I know him to be a gentle man and a gentleman with genuine concern for people – residents of rural Virginia, Virginians who do not earn enough or learn enough, even my own grandchildren. But though he was not born into his title, as the priests were, it is not enough to express his personal regret that as an adult (in 1984) he had not yet come to understand the requirements of holiness that come with high office – or even basic human decency.
Ralph Northam was undoubtedly influenced by the externals of his time. He grew up in a Virginia that allowed him to absorb a genteel neglect of the dignity of others – today we call that privilege. The high ethical standards expected of public servants and presumed of physicians, however, did not seem to permeate his values and exorcise the legacy he was charged to overcome.
I like to think that if my acquaintance with the sourpuss would have, once in a while, had a cookie or a Frango mint, it would have awakened him to the pleasure of a smile. I like to think that a few true friends of color in 1984 might have awakened Dr. Northam to his racial insensitivity.
But I know that people who perform holy functions will be treated as holy and carry the expectations of holiness in the minds of the people they serve. And if they cannot live up to that expectation, then they are neither priests nor civic leaders.
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.
The Leviticus:8 Project
Say to them further: If anyone of the house of Israel or of the strangers who reside among them offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice, Leviticus 17:8
I was reading an article about how turkeys became the traditional main dish for Thanksgiving. It turns out that food historians (it’s actually a thing) believe that some kind of water fowl or pigeons were part of the original Thanksgiving meal. Turkeys were introduced as “official” when Thanksgiving was first proclaimed as a national holiday by President Lincoln, a couple of centuries later. The bird proved so popular that demand created “turkey drives” (think cattle drives for gobblers) to get fresh birds to market before modern refrigeration. In turn, at least one town in Texas created an annual festival and parade, presided over by a locally-chosen sultan and sultana, based on the idea that there was some connection between the birds and the Ottoman Empire of the same (English) name. (By the way, it persisted well into the 20th century before someone figured out it was both ignorant AND racist.)
We have a lot of customs at our Thanksgiving table. Some of them are obvious rituals – until last year, my father-in-law, who presided, insisted that each person declaim what he or she was thankful for. (His family grew from five to an eventual sixteen, not including guests, provoking the eventual rebellion – especially since everyone was grateful for family, country and health.) But there are also less obvious rituals, ranging from who brings the wine to which pies get baked to a post-prandial walk by those still awake to a cousins’ excursion after the lethargy wears off. The rituals, which began as convenience or habit, eventually acquire and bestow authority and legitimacy.
Some years ago, I discovered a seder for Thanksgiving, complete with a Haggadah. I never tried to introduce it at our table (after all, I didn’t preside), but it did find its way to an interfaith service shared with local churches. (You can find its latest iterations here.) Ritual begat ritual begat ritual.
The fact is, rituals are invented and imbued with meaning by the people who perform them. There is no such thing as a ritual performed for the first time; only meaning and continuity through repetition makes for ritual. But the longer a ritual is performed, the less flexible it becomes. It acquires an existential momentum that is mostly reassuring for its performers, and any variation or compromise is threatening. After all, we’ve always done it that way!
So it is no surprise at all that the verse that provokes this column posits the innovation of a non-priest or non-Israelite of a ritual sacrifice. People try to change ritual all the time. (It took years of protest before the half-hour of “I am thankful for my family…” eventually gave way.) These days, except in circles that value continuity over creativity, lots of ritual is under challenge. In fact, in Jewish life, the hundred year war over re-forming or conserving religious life (dismissed entirely by the orthodox), more recently engaged by those looking to reconstruct or renew, insists on using language or continuity to give authority to change. Biblical literalists dismiss most of it, while scholars of Jewish law admit ironically that custom (which emerges from the people) has more staying power than law (which emerges from a book).
My favorite story about the invention of ritual comes from a story told to me by a Buddhist. A master owned a cat that would distract students during their meditation. To avoid the problem, he would put out a pillow and a particular shallow bowl of milk before meditation. When the cat heard the bell chime, it came to know that a meal and soft place to doze awaited. Eventually, the master died. Shortly thereafter, the bowl broke. An exact replica was commissioned. The pillow frayed. An exact copy was stitched and stuffed. And then the cat died. So the disciples got a new cat.
Were the students foolish? I am guessing a wealth of stories emerged about the original master and his original cat, all of them true but none of them accurate. But the students felt connected to something larger than the prescribed practice because of the cat and the pillow and the bowl. If it led them to a more meaningful and compassionate life, who is to say it is any less authentic than the original insights of the Buddha?
This recent Thanksgiving was the first without my father-in-law. It fell to those of us who survive him to innovate a practice that will become, with time, a new family ritual. Yesterday’s children are now parents and grandparents. Yesterday’s babies are now parents, aunts and uncles. Today’s babies will complain in not so many years about the predictability of the Thanksgiving table. And maybe someone who has never been at the table before – some stranger, like I was forty-plus years ago – will be the source of our new ritual, made up for our collective benefit.
No more turkey drive, no more going around the table, never a cat. But meaningful? Every time.
PLEASE NOTE: Travel and some planned brief incapacity may delay this column during the next six weeks. Apologies! Enjoy the break!
The Leviticus:8 Project
and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the LORD and the other marked for Azazel.
The term “scapegoat” is famously misunderstood in its colloquial usage. It is employed to describe a person or people falsely accused of responsibility for something that is not at all the fault of the accused. In fact, as any reader of the Bible knows, the scapegoat is the animal chosen by lot from a matched pair upon whom the acknowledged sins of the people are symbolically placed. Adorned with a crimson thread, the goat is pushed into the wilderness of Azazel to escape into a sort of netherworld and carry away the sins. Once the (e)scape(d)goat wanders beyond its ability to return, the sins of the people are considered to be carried away.
The other goat – the one fortunate enough not to carry everyone’s sins – is actually unluckier. That goat is offered as a sin offering on the altar of the Temple. Before the scapegoat is released to Azazel, the sin offering has been slaughtered, its blood poured away and its fat burned as a sort of smoky incense.
I was listening to an interview with Bari Weiss, one of the opinion editors for The New York Times, as she discussed the murder of innocent Jews in her hometown synagogue in Pittsburgh. The interviewer, who is famously anti-religion, asked her the question everyone asks when confronting anti-semitism: Why do some people hate the Jews so much?
Ms. Weiss skipped the answer I prefer to start with – don’t ask me, ask the people who hate Jews – but she went right for the less sarcastic one: How much time do we have? While it is true that the term “anti-semitism” dates back only to the late 19th century, Jew-hatred (and before that Israelite-hatred) goes back at least to ancient Egypt. It may be possible to start the clock with Pharaoh or with Antiochus or with Pontius Pilate or with John Chrysostom, but even if the reasons and rhetoric changed lanes, they travel the same highway.
Ms. Weiss made the most salient point that must be at the center of every conversation about anti-semitism. The Jews are simultaneously considered pathetically weak and dangerously strong, dissolute and moralizing, victims and puppetmasters. There is no remedy for someone who is simultaneously flawed in eternal existential paradox. It is the essence of the Jew that is hated – not a set of behaviors or beliefs.
At some points in history, the Jewish stain on the soul could be cleansed, according to the haters. At one point in history – Hitler’s Germany – bigotry laid claim to science and insisted that corruption was inherent. Only extermination of the body could purify the irredeemable soul.
And that, as Bari Weiss pointed out, was what animated the angry and deluded gunman who stormed into the synagogue that had, a week before, celebrated the role of the United States in welcoming refugees. Jews would not replace him with some inferior version of themselves – a brown-skinned man who was at once lazy and bent on taking his job.
Of course, there is no answer to “why.” Some scholars, interested in defending the Jewish endeavor, promote the notion that others are jealous of our relationship with God, or our civilization, or our stubborn instinct for survival. Some scholars, interested in excusing the legacy of hatred, promote the notion that the ills of society are projected on the perpetual outsiders, invaders to be plundered for their sullied gifts lest their shortcomings infect the host majorities.
It is a little ironic that we look to the Bible and see this model of the goat that is at once the passive sacrifice for our sins and the active carrier of our transgressions. I doubt that anyone in Biblical times or when the Temple stood ever had pity on either goat. After all, it was God’s will and it returned us all to that state of ritual purity that allowed each of us a fresh start.
But having the long view of a Judaism without sacrifices and a skeptic’s view of whether there is any animal that can acquire the consequences of my own faults, I look at those two long-ago goats with pity. The pure one dies by the sword. The guilty one dies by neglect. Same outcome for the benefit of people who are looking to assign their sins somewhere other than themselves.
Either way, you’re the goat.
The Leviticus:8 Project
If one with a discharge spits on one who is clean, the latter shall wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening. Leviticus 15:8
Social scientists will tell you that every culture has its standards of personal space, that comfort zone around the body into which uninvited intrusions are unwelcome. You can search online for what any given society holds as its standard, but you yourself know how close someone should not come.
Of course, it also depends on who the someone is and what the circumstances are. The person with whom you are vehemently disagreeing has a wider zone than the one you hope to kiss. If you are late for a meeting on the 25th floor, you’ll accept closer proximity rather than waiting for the next elevator. And standing in line to get into a restaurant on a pleasant day is a more expansive activity than it is on a cold and rainy day.
My tenth-grade French teacher – a woman of sometimes peculiar qualities – would often read the auras in the classroom and use them to convey information. One day she asked us to translate an obscure phrase, cocked an eye at my friend Wendy and called her by name. Wendy, whose French skills were no different than the rest of the blank-staring students in the room, gave the correct answer. Mme. Morris said, “I sent you that answer.” (Cue out-tro music from “The Twilight Zone.”) After that, none of us got too close to her.
But whether the proximity you prefer is intimate or vast, no one wants to be the recipient of a spray of saliva from another party. Call it gross or call it awkward, a drop of spittle is akin to an assault in the feelings it provokes in the recipient. Though likely harmless (unless it lands in some portal to your insides and the offender is sick), we nevertheless recoil at the very notion of foreign spit – even from someone we have kissed, perhaps moments earlier!
Perhaps it has to do with the unusual nature of bodily fluids. (Don’t worry – nothing too disgusting is ahead.) When they are contained within, we appreciate them. Not just saliva, but blood and other liquids and semi-liquids are considered natural and even sustaining. But the moment that they escape from the confines of the containers we call our bodies, they are considered polluted in some way.
A professor of mine in grad school explained the phenomenon as a function of our inherent desire to categorize everything. When something is neither here or there, in or out, it makes us feel uneasy. He did an experiment with us to illustrate – he handed us each a brand-new disposable plastic cup, shot-glass size. He then invited us to spit into the cup and drink it back down. Among those who were willing to spit, few were willing to drink. Even after making the point that it was our own saliva which we would have swallowed without a thought had we not spit into the cup, most students still would not drink.
There was no question that had the spittle come into contact with anything of questionable cleanliness we would have categorically considered it polluted. (The five-second rule does not apply to things that are wet.) But even crossing the boundary between inside and outside seemed to create an irreconcilable problem.
I imagine just reading this column – assuming you got this far – is making you a little uncomfortable. But in the words of the incomparable Elle Woods, I have a point, I promise.
Anything that finds itself in that strange realm that we imagine as our personal space makes us a little hinky. Sometimes we learn to deal well with it; sometimes we get upset; much of the time we get confused until we can decide what is comfortable and what is not. Religion famously sets those boundaries, but not just religion. Race, ethnicity, sexuality, presenting gender, class, appearance, and maybe dozens of other characteristics can produce as sense of too-closeness, depending on how comfortable we have allowed ourselves to become with proximity to the other. Even traits held deeply inside can upset us when they emerge and are held up to examination.
Those differences are mostly in our heads, which is to say they have no objective objectionable qualities. I am still not interested in getting shpritzed by a partner in conversation, but all these other differences – and all these pieces of myself unexamined – are opportunities to overcome the things that divide us from each other and from ourselves.