Friday, March 23, 2012

Some love for Leviticus

This (hopefully brief) post is intended mainly for my rabbinic friends/colleagues, but I suppose that anyone might find interesting…

Many of you were with me at the CCAR conference, this past week. During that time, several teachers (many of whom are wildly more knowledgeable and more intelligent than I am, it has to be said) tripped over one of my pet peeves: they began talking about the book of Leviticus by insulting the book of Leviticus! They would, usually quickly, say something like, “Well, what could be better than teaching about this book, huh?” It drives me crazy, frankly.

First of all, and less importantly, it's just bad form, and possibly bad business, for a rabbi to insult the Torah.

But, that's not my main problem. My main problem is this: Leviticus is awesome. Or, maybe, Awesome. I'm not claiming that every verse is filled with deep meaning. But, there is so much in this book to explore and to learn from: the absolute centrality of sacrifice in religious life (even if our sacrifices are less literal than our ancestors were); the importance of “bringing our best;” trying to figure out why our ancestors believed that blood was life, and thus challenging ourselves to understand what we think life really is.

And, even if you don't find meaning in those themes, we have thousands of years of rabbis finding hidden meaning (even if, quite often, they were stretching the text pretty far, as rabbis are want to do) in this text. What's the “secret meaning” of the small alef in the first word of the book? Why does God only speak from one location from here on out? And, so much more.

Whenever someone begins their talk with, “The book of Leviticus is so hard for us to relate to,” they're undercutting themselves. Here's what they're really saying: “This book stinks. There's nothing in it worth knowing. But, if you squint, and if you let me pretend, I'll make up some meaning for you to find.”

Look, if you really think that the book of Leviticus is void of meaning for us, as moderns, then skip it. Talk about Passover, or Israel, or baseball for a couple of months, if you prefer. But don't trash the book, and then try and tell me what it “really” means. And, if you don't think that the book is void of meaning, then just tell me what it means.

Traditionally, this book is the first book which children learn when they begin to study the Torah. The midrash says that this is because children are pure, and the sacrifices were pure, too. I'm pretty sure there's something for us to learn there, and I can't wait to get to it.

Shabbat shalom!

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