The meaning of ritual
This week we begin the Book of Leviticus: “The Eternal called Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel.’”
This book is for the children of Israel. In the old country, primary education started with Leviticus, a text full of ritual precepts. The early commentary on Leviticus is called Sifra, “The Book,” and young Torah students traditionally entered the scriptures at this point.
There isn’t much narrative in Leviticus: It’s mostly ceremonial, including a lot of unappetizing ceremonies with animal sacrifice, bodily fluids and moldy houses — don’t ask. Leviticus is also shockingly punitive, a lot of harsh penalties for trivial infractions. It may seem surprising that this was our ancestors’ initial taste of the Bible. What can we make of this choice?
The lack of narrative in Leviticus is implicit in the book’s purpose. Essentially, it’s a manual for priests: Here’s how you perform sacrifice X, here’s how you celebrate transition Y, here’s how you observe holiday Z. The priestly rituals were a closely guarded secret in other ancient religions; Judaism was the first religion to make the sacred protocols public. There’s something to be proud of: declassification. The world is welcome to know what we’re up to in our shrines. The second half of Leviticus opens the door of holiness to the common folk as well as the priests, thus democratizing the religion.
Ritual itself is suspect in some people’s eyes. Who needs ritual? A lot of atavistic claptrap. But it seems to me that everyone needs ritual — ritual is part of life. I drink my coffee out of the same mug every morning. If I can’t find my favorite mug when it’s time for breakfast, my whole day is off on the wrong foot. That’s not Leviticus, but it’s ritual.
Admittedly, the particular rituals of Leviticus are very alien to our sensibilities. They seem to come from another galaxy. For example, our biblical counterparts marked a special occasion by killing an animal, skinning it, dismembering it, ritually burning certain parts of the carcass and ritually ingesting other parts. How primitive. We mark a special occasion by getting groceries at the supermarket, peeling the cling wrap off the steak, discarding the excess fat and gristle, throwing the meat on the grill and serving it on the fine china with the good silver. Completely different.
Leviticus is not founded on analytical thinking. It’s founded on metaphorical thinking. The Tabernacle as a metaphor of Mount Sinai. The animal’s body as a metaphor of the universe. The priest’s body as a metaphor of the universe. Other early and tribal cultures have similar beliefs, and we can catch a glimpse of them even in our modern civilization.
To return to my dinner party example, we set the holiday spread very carefully, with the fork on the left of the plate and the spoon on the right, with the cornucopia in the center and the host at the head of the table. You may not think of this meticulous arrangement as a metaphor of anything, but ask an anthropologist. This Torah of the dining room has all the hallmarks of an occult priestly metaphysics.
Leviticus has a ring structure, like folk songs such as “Old MacDonald.” The order of subjects is consecration, defilement, atonement, sex taboos, ethics, sex taboos, atonement, defilement, consecration — that is, the topics recur in reverse order. Ring structure is used because there isn’t much narrative. There’s no opportunity to organize the material around a biography, a journey or a quest. The middle of the ring is the beautiful Chapter 19, which commands us to be honest in our business dealings, to pay laborers promptly, to refrain from exploiting the disabled, and to embrace the stranger. The arrangement of the arbitrary taboos on either side of the justice material indicates the relative importance of the different passages. Ethics is central.
Chapter 25 is another impressive section. Tt specifies that the land needs to rest at regular intervals and slaves must be freed at regular intervals. This shows an early ecological awareness and a dawning theology of social revolution. The famous Liberty Bell text comes from Leviticus 25: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
This week’s parshah, the introductory chapters of Leviticus, deals entirely with sacrifices. It’s interesting that there’s a sliding scale of sacrifices: You bring cattle if you can afford it, otherwise a bird; on an even tighter budget, you’re allowed to bring grain. That’s called a fair share system, when it applies to modern synagogue dues. But some synagogues don’t have that flexibility; they ask everyone to pay the same. Our forebears knew that was an unreasonable expectation.
Leviticus isn’t the lightest of documents and it contains some very painful verbiage. But becoming a Jewish adult means engaging the difficult parts of our heritage as well as the easy parts. This volume is a challenge, but it’s worth the struggle. Lest we forget, Leviticus features one verse that sums up religion at its best: “You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudges … but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Rabbi Joe Hample is the rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.