The Central Message

THE PORTION

By David Curzon

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Every year at this time in the annual cycle of readings, we are confronted with seemingly endless descriptions of cultic practices, often involving the slaughter of animals, that are for most of us at worst abhorrent and at best — the presentation of bread and cake to God — absurd.

Let me try to put the problem as starkly as possible. Leviticus is the third and therefore the central book of the Torah. Our tradition insists that the Torah is perfect, that every phrase, every word, every detail of semantic construction is to be regarded as intended and capable of teaching us lessons of direct applicability to our lives. But if we are to be at all consistent, then we must expect to find in the central book of the Torah a message of fundamental importance, the central message of the Torah.

We have to find some way of transforming the cultic descriptions in Leviticus in accordance with rabbinic principles so that the descriptions yield a meaning consistent with rabbinic Judaism as it has developed in the 2,000 years since the Temple cult ceased. And this transformation must show us why Leviticus is central.

I will derive the principles of transformation from two proof texts. First, at the beginning of the haftara for this week’s portion, the text that the rabbinic tradition pairs with it to guide our understanding, Jeremiah speaks, and says:

Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: … I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: [Jeremiah, 7:21-22]

The second proof text is the one commentators assume Jeremiah is referring to, Exodus 19:5, in which, on Mount Sinai, God says to the Children of Israel through Moses:

…ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.

From these proof texts I deduce two editorial principles of transformation to be applied to the text: First, we must delete all references to animals and sacrifices and altars, since Jeremiah tells us they weren’t commanded at Sinai. Second, every time the word “priest” occurs, we must substitute the word “you” or some equivalent since all of us are to be priests, and so all of us are being addressed.

The first six verses of Tsav (Leviticus 6:1-6) concern the burnt offering, and form a literary unit, as we can see by noting that there is a refrain at the beginning, middle and end of the unit. Applying these editorial principles to the six verses, we are led to edit, for example, the sentence, “This is the law of the burnt offering” to read, “This is the law.” And we edit the sentence, “And the priest shall take up the ashes” to read, “You shall take up.” Here is the result:

And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Commandthe Children of Israel and their descendants, saying:

This is the law;

and the fire shall be kept burning thereby.

And you shall put on your garments;

you shall put them on your flesh;

and you shall take up [raise]

and you shall put down [lower].

And you shall take off your garments

and put on other garments,

and [you shall] carry forth.

And the fire shall be kept burning thereby;

it shall not go out;

and you shall lay [an object] down,

and you shall make [form; create].

The fire shall be kept burning continually;

it shall not go out.

That’s the transformed text. How are we to understand it? Its essentials turn out to be putting on clothes and taking them off, and picking up an object and putting it down, and moving an object from one place to another, and making or forming something.

The preoccupation is with basic human actions, and the attitude to them that we understand from the context is that they are to be regarded as part of a sacred ritual by which God is worshipped.

And so the transformed message of the central book of the Torah, repeated over and over again with slight variations in relation to sacrifices and offerings of one sort or another, is that, if we are to regard ourselves as a nation of priests, as the inheritors of the priestly tradition, as the inheritors of the sacrificial cult of the Temple, then we must consider the rudimentary human actions specified in descriptions of the Temple cult as part of a sacred ritual.

The message of Leviticus is that human action, not thought, is the central category of the biblical religious conception. Basic everyday human action, and not the grand sweep of our story of origins, is the essential thing. Not the Creation, or the Exodus, not even the story of the revelation on Sinai, but human action, is to be the center of our religious concerns.

And isn’t this, after all, the content of rabbinic Judaism? The mitzvat and the issues debated in the Talmud can be seen, perhaps with the assistance of a little wilful anachronism, as a vast elaboration of this fundamental religious conception. That is why Leviticus is the central book in the Torah.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.