Drash on Parashat Vayikra
Rabbi Miriam Wajnberg
United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore
“The Timeless Power of Leviticus: 3 Reasons an Ancient Cultic Tradition is Relevant in 5783”
We’ve arrived. On our Jewish people’s yearly journey through Torah, beginning at the juicy family drama of Genesis, through the stirring narrative that we’ll repeat in just a couple weeks at our seder tables, to our next destination, every b’nai mitzvah student’s worst nightmare: Leviticus. With its gory details, mind numbing specificity of which animals to sacrifice, and when, why, and how, this book of Torah can feel inaccessible, irrelevant, and, let’s be honest, especially for the vegetarians and vegans among us, a little nauseating. As Progressive Jews, we’ve taken the liberty to make changes to our practices and rituals, to deviate from centuries of tradition, when doing so brings deeper meaning and relevance to our lives and to our practice of Judaism. And yet, we haven’t thrown out the book of Leviticus.
We keep reading Leviticus, every year, even the tough parts (and some brave 13 year old has to make their way through Tazria-Metzora). The written record of the Israelites’ ancient cultic tradition offers us at least three reasons to remain relevant for liberal Jewish life in the 21st century.
- Self-accountability I’ve had the honour of studying this first parasha of Leviticus with a bar mitzvah student over the past few months. Noah was astounded by the role of self-accountability for wrongdoing in the sacrificial system. In Leviticus 4, we are introduced to the חטאת chatat offering, alternately translated as the “purgation offering,”1 “the purification offering,”2 and the “sin offering.”3 However you translate it, the חטאת chatat offering exists to “cancel out sin” and “restore order to the world as a whole,” following “any accidental…violation of certain ethical and ritual prohibitions.”4 This process of cancelling out sins begins with a crucial first step, as Noah noticed - the one who sinned, even though it was בשגגה, inadvertently, first needs to notice and acknowledge their own mistake. The process does not begin with a hurt party approaching the person who hurt them, but with the person who sinned taking the first step towards repair. In our society today, it is too easy to toss out words, tweets, and actions without concern for how they land and who they impact. Leviticus calls us to be our best selves, to be on the lookout for the ways in which we may inadvertently cause harm to another. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes:
Addressing harm is possibly only when we bravely face the gap between the story we tell about ourselves - the one in which we’re the hero, fighting the good fight, doing our best, behaving responsibly and appropriately in every context - and the reality of our actions. We need to summon the courage to cross the bridge over that cognitively dissonant gulf and face who we are, who we have been - even if it threatens our story of ourselves. It’s the only way we can even begin to undertake any possible repair of the harm we’ve done and become the kind of person who might do better next time.5
Leviticus offers us a ritual framework by which to do this repair work, and reminds us that we have the agency, the power, to do it.
- Accountability and Repair for Our Public Leaders Over the past few years, it’s become abundantly clear that it is all too easy for our public figures, both within our Jewish community and beyond its borders, to transgress our collective norms of appropriate ethical behaviour. The road to תשובה teshuvah is less easy and far less clear. Within our own global Jewish community, the Teshuvah Working Group of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion just released last week its recommendations for how the Reform seminary might establish a process for repentance and repair following the misconduct of administrators, faculty, and students under the aegis of HUC-JIR. Leviticus taught us this lesson even before we had a #MeToo movement, professional codes of ethics, and mea culpa press conferences. The purgation offerings described in Leviticus 4 do not begin with the ordinary individual, but with the priests, followed by the community leadership of Israel, the chieftains, and only then turn to “any person from among the populace.” The description of the חטאת chatat sacrifices acknowledges that a leader’s actions impact those whom they lead, and explicit instructions are needed for how to repair that damage. In the absence of such clear instructions today, we rely on ethics committees, working groups, and the court of public opinion to do the best we can to create space for repair and opportunities for healing. While a return to ritual sacrifice may not lead to the kind of healing that we seek, perhaps a clear set of guidelines might guide us in our תשובה teshuvah efforts.
- Order Amidst Chaos It is easy to write off the more difficult parts of Torah with a simple “know better, do better” approach. The sacrificial rites that attempt to corral impurity, to restore order to the world through a tightly controlled ritual system, are the province of an ancient people who did not know that disease was spread through germs and could be prevented (or at least minimized) with careful handwashing, rather than placating a Divine being with barbeque. But do we really know better than our ancestors? We are still terrified by the unknown, still aghast at the countless ways in which suffering pervades our world and the human experience. The ancient cultic rite, according to Mary Douglas, was a substitute for the demonology at the core of ancient Canaanite religion. When demons could no longer be blamed for infertility, failure, drought, there was a need for an alternate explanation, and a way to move forward. Douglas writes:
To take demons out of the religion would leave a huge gap. It is not just that the worshippers are wishing for fertility, but also that they are wanting to understand the innumerable losses and diseases which they are in the habit of ascribing to demons. If they are told not to fear demons any more, how are they to explain their misfortunes? Leviticus finds one solution for the two problems, replacing the demons and satisfying the need for explanations. Briefly, Leviticus separated the theory of impurity from belief in demons, and classified impurity as a form of lèse majesté, an attack on God’s honour as the covenanted lord of the people of Israel. The simple move, expressed in rules for controlling ritual contagion, teaches the people not to blame non-existent demons for misfortunes. The rules prescribe action to remove impurity….6
When our Jewish rituals changed after the destruction of the Second Temple to replace sacrifice with daily prayer, the theodicy, the explanation for why bad things happen seemingly randomly, at the heart of the sacrificial system, was left unreplaced.
Our struggle to find an answer for why humans hurt, why bad things happen, has only gotten harder through the horrors of the 20th century. While Leviticus cannot provide us with that answer, it reminds us of the question, and invites us into the struggle, into our full identity as Yisrael, the people who struggles with God.
1 The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, URJ Press: 2008.
2 Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Fortress Press: 2004.
3 JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society: 1999.
4 The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 579.
5 Danya Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, Beacon Press: 2022, 49.
6 Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, Oxford University Press: 1999, 10.