A number of years ago, I taught first graders at an afternoon synagogue school in New York City. Our topic was the Creation stories of Genesis, and I began the lesson by asking the children to imagine how God might have created the world. "First God put down the sidewalks," one six-year-old replied. "He ground up rocks to make the streets and then made construction trucks to make the buildings." If ever there was proof that our experiences shape our religious imagination, there it was.
Reading Leviticus, it is clear that the reality of the people who generated the text is radically different from our own. It is a book that reads as ancient, obsolete, and irrelevant. In fact, one recent popular edition of the Bible left it out altogether. So what are we, regular readers of the Torah text and seekers of higher meaning gleaned from it, to do with the next three months of Levitical parashiyot?
We are not the first generations to experience difficulty in wresting meaning from the book. Maimonides, writing in his Guide for the Perplexed (part III, chapter 32), posits that God commanded animal sacrifice because that's what the people God was addressing at the time were used to. A fine insight—and remarkable for how close it comes, in the 12th century, to a modern sensibility of cultural relativism and historical change. But this interpretation leaves us reading Leviticus as ancient history, not as a text resplendent with meaning for our own day and age. So to rephrase the question: what spiritual meaning is there for us when we in the 21st century read the book of Leviticus? Can we find religious and moral inspiration amidst the bullocks and bloodstains of the sacrificial system?
The answer is yes. We find that inspiration by turning to the mega-values the Levitical system describes and bequeaths to us. First is the value that narratives are not enough: sometimes we need to be told what to do. The stories of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers are thought-provoking; they place us in an ongoing history, connect us to ancestors whose struggles were our own, and invite us to draw life lessons from them. But a religious life—at least a Jewishly religious life—is not just about the abstraction; it is about living with concrete religious acts that we perform out of a sense of obligation or commandedness. It is in Leviticus that we come to understand that stories can shape the heart, but ritual shapes our days.
What are the rituals in our day that fulfill this need to balance aggadah (the stories we tell about ourselves) and concrete religious expressions? Leviticus comes in the middle of the humash, as part of the narrative, as the frequent repetition of "And God spoke to Moses, saying" subtly reminds us. The rabbinic replacements for biblical avodah are Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2). We rely also on the most amoral of commandments, the hukkim, for which no higher ideal or rationale can be identified. As Nahmanides put it in the 13th century:
It has thus been made clear that the overt miracles which occurred during the departure from Egypt are evidence of Creation, of [God's] knowledge, and of His providence. Therefore we have been commanded to memorialize [those miraculous events in writing] . . . upon the doorposts at the exit and entrance of our homes, in the wearing of tefillin upon the head and arm, in the recital of the Shema' in the morning and evening, in dwelling in a booth during Sukkot, in observance of the laws of Passover, and other similar precepts . . . Through constant observance of these commandments by which man recognized and is thankful for the overt miracles [of our lives in God's created universe] one will inevitably accept the hidden miracles which occur regularly [but are taken for granted since they occur among the so-called "natural" ways of the world]. (The Law of the Eternal is Perfect, 40)
That these are also the most uniquely and identifiable Jewish customs of our modern-day practice is not surprising. After all, one of the essential functions of ritual is to define group boundaries. This is a second mega-value of Leviticus: we need to behave in certain ritualistic ways in order to maintain a set of Jewish behaviors necessary to our group identity. During Temple times, one's Jewishness was defined by one's participation in the Temple cult; so, too, one way to define Jews today is as the people who perform certain acts, deriving from their history and faith, including the posting of mezuzot, donning of tefillin, recital of a prayer known as the Shema', etc. Our need to be part of a group helps us to "choose in" to communities whose constituents behave the way we do; this is the essential foundation to fulfilling our basic human need for belonging and community.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan recounts in his diary an interesting revelation he had regarding seemingly arcane Jewish rituals, which arose out of a conversation he had with his daughter Judith about riding on Shabbat. His entry of December 29, 1924, records:
At first I was inclined to give her leeway, but as I proceeded in the discussion it occurred to me that if what I am after is to develop Jewish consciousness through such elements of Jewish nationality as are still possible in America, we ought to maintain a folkway of that kind which is effective for the average Jew who otherwise at present has but little opportunity of expressing his Jewishness.
Just as the sacrifices offered in the Temple provided a way for our ancestors to anchor their Jewishness in ritual, just as they needed to not only know the stories of the patriarchs but also perform some act attesting to their continued allegiance to the group descended from them, so too we need Jewish rituals. Whether it is choosing to refrain from travel on Shabbat (as Kaplan enjoined his daughter), or to attend minyan or join in the community's philanthropic activities, the need for concrete expressions of our Jewishness is ever present and is just as important now as it was in the days of animal sacrifice and attention to ritual purity.
My first grader was astounded to learn that there are no sidewalks, construction vehicles, or high-rise apartment buildings in the Torah. She will have to learn that the world has changed a lot since those stories were composed, and will have to learn to find meaning in the stories she has inherited and ways to make them speak to her in a world of sidewalks and skyscrapers. As we open Parashat Va-yikra and settle in for months of recounting laws that describe a world gone by, we can appreciate the ways Jewish life has developed since biblical times to give us a religious foundation that meets our human need for concrete expression of our religious impulses and a community identified by the rituals in which we engage.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.