Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Short Rant

Permit me, if you would, a short rant.

Last week, we began reading the book of Leviticus, and probably a dozen times during that week, I read a d'var torah about Leviticus that began, "this Torah portion stinks."

Well, none of them actually said that; they all used a lot more words to make it sound nicer. "The book of Leviticus, dealing with laws of the ancient Sacrificial System, makes little sense to us, in our modern world." "No one relishes giving a sermon about Leviticus." "How are we, in our day and age, supposed to make sense of these strange regulations about sacrifices, and blood, and offerings, and so on?" None of these are direct quotes (to protect the guilty), but they're all pretty close to something I read, and something I read every year. It's not only this portion; there are a few others, but never as consistently. Every teaching about the book of Leviticus begins by telling us how boring, irrelevant or otherwise strange this book is.

I hate this. It drives me crazy. Let me explain why:
  • Don't insult the Torah. I know it sounds trite, but I just don't think that, in the long run, we're going to find meaning and inspiration in a book which we deride. This book, all of it, has been the source of our people's strength and connection with God for thousands of years. Maybe we should start with the assumption that it has something to teach us.

  • Don't be too impressed with yourself. All of these teachings that begin as anti-Leviticus screeds go on to find some insight in the text. Some way to reinterpret or filter this "obscure" text so that it does, in fact, have meaning. And, inherently, this means that the text isn't so great, but the interpreter sure knows his/her stuff! It's like a magician: "look, there is no meaning in this book, but I, the great Karnak, will make meaning appear!"

  • Don't degrade the teaching. This one is the real kicker for me. Very often, after we get through all of the "Leviticus is junk" stuff, we find ourselves with a really great teaching. But, the teacher has just told us that it's not really found in the book. The book is, after all, meaningless. But, we can pretend that the teaching is there. Some Willing Suspension of Disbelief, and we're all better people.

    Hey - if the teaching is found in the book (or, if you think it is), then teach it. If it isn't, then don't. But, if it is, then guess what? The book - it isn't so bad. You (and we) just learned something from it!
In the ancient world, our ancestors knew that, in order to get close to God, they had to take their best, and offer it up. They were, mostly, farmers and herdsmen, so their best came from their flocks. So, that's what they offered. Nothing, really, has changed. If we want to get close to God (and keep in mind that the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, really means "a drawing near") then we need to offer our best. What that best is, and how it's offered, has changed radically. But, the basic, religious impulse at the heart of Leviticus is shockingly unchanged in the thousands of years during which time we've been reading it. It has plenty to teach us.


Rabbi Chuck Briskin said...

Once you scratch the surface and closely examine the text, especially in parshiyot Tazria/Metzora, you discover wonderful textures and colors to this wonderfully intriguing text.

Joui Hessel said...

I love your rant! And I actually really adore Leviticus! Although I hate bloody movies (Pulp Fiction was a bit over the top for me), I still get a kick out of Leviticus.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Good rant and well said. Your Conservative rabbinic colleagues ordained in the past decade-and-a-half will tell you that our teacher Rabbi Bill Lebeau instructed us to never say "this is a difficult parsha to find something to drash about." He also told us to never say Leviticus was boring or only contained the legal minutiae. There's wonderful chomer lidrosh in Vayikra, you just have to work at it and make good use of the commentaries and midrashim.

Personally, I love Sefer Vayikra. In the first few verses we learn from the words "adam ki yakriv" (an individual can bring a sacrifice) and then we have the word "takvrivu" (plural). This teaches us that individuals as well as groups of individuals could bring korbanot (sacrifices) to God. Today, without the Temple and sacrifices, we can daven alone to God and we can also engage in group t'fillah (prayer). Both are valued in God's eyes. I've always loved that teaching.

Chag Kasher v'Sameach!

Jerry Nepon-Sixt said...

Leviticus is so misused as a source of Biblical authority by some that I think some of the commentary you describe is in reaction, if only subconsciously. First you get the isolated quote supporting some (typically) oppressive viewpoint, then you get the counter-quote ("oh, yeah, so do you support stoning, then") and finally it descends into a pissing match on the relevance of the Bible in modern law and practice. I think an awful lot of discounting of Leviticus goes on to avoid the problems taking it on as literal truth, or worse, a how-to book for the modern world.

Andy Cohen said...

I'm confused. What's Leviticus?