Sunday, March 23, 2008

Shemini: Strange tale of strange fire

The third parashah in Leviticus includes the strange story of Nadav and Avihu and their “alien fire.” This episode follows a detailed description of the procedures used to consecrate the tabernacle, ending with the appearance of “the Presence of the Lord” to all the people (Lev. 9:22) and the spontaneous combustion of the offerings of the preceding parashah.

At the beginning of chapter 10, these two sons of Aaron take their fire pans, with fire and incense, and attempt to offer “alien fire, which [God] had not enjoined upon them” (10:1). Fire immediately shoots out and kills them.

This story has, understandably, troubled generations of readers. There is debate about what, if anything, Nadav and Avihu did wrong; about what exactly happened to them; and about what it should mean to later readers.

A conventional rabbinic explanation turns the story into nothing more than a cautionary tale against innovation. In short, it become a proof text for the claim that “everything new is forbidden by Torah.”

A reading influenced by other parts of the Bible might suggest that what was “alien” or “strange” about the fire was that Nadav and Avihu did not intend it for the God of Israel. This reading has little standing in Jewish tradition: the idea that two of Aaron’s sons might have sacrificed to another god is too disturbing.

An ordinary reading, one not particularly influenced by Jewish tradition, might conclude that their procedure was somehow faulty, that they had not mastered the technique. Such a reading makes it sound like the commonplace travail of lighting a barbecue grill.

Some midrashic interpretations take up the theme of “playing with fire”—in other words, that Nadav and Avihu’s intentions were basically good, but that they underestimated the seriousness of the enterprise. One contemporary treatment compares them to young people who take foolish risks in order to impress their friends.

Another line of interpretation, however, focuses on the juxtaposition of this episode with the injunction, in 10:8–11, against the priests’ drinking wine or any other intoxicant when they are officiating, “for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.”

Rabbi Bamberger points out, in his introduction to this section in the UAHC Torah Commentary, that a real connection between the two passages is unlikely. He also observes that the prohibition applied only when the priests were on duty; at other times they were free to enjoy wine, as were other Israelites.

Furthermore, he adds that, except in the special case of a nazirite, who has taken a vow that includes abstaining from wine (really from all grape products), Jewish tradition gives little support to abstaining from alcohol on principle. We make routine use of wine in ceremonies such as kiddush and havdallah.

Although there is some reason to believe that Jews who regularly practice these ceremonies with wine at home are less likely than the general population to drink to excess, it is no longer the case that alcoholism is very rare among Jews. In this respect we largely resemble the population in general, and it is likely that the rate of alcoholism (and other substance abuse) is the same for us as for Americans as a whole. To a great extent, the Jewish community remains in denial about this.

Jews who participate in 12-step programs, however, encounter a special problem. Many 12-step meetings are held in churches, and many of them have a distinctly Christian character that makes it hard for Jews to participate. Only in large cities are there likely to be 12-step programs in which Jews feel comfortable. Even if there is no reason to connect the injunction against intoxicants with the “strange fire” of Nadav and Avihu, this parashah should serve to sensitize us to a growing concern in our communities.

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