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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Vayikra: it's inoperative

This week’s reading begins the book of Leviticus; the name of its first portion, Vayikra, is also the Hebrew name for the entire book. The name Leviticus suggests that it has to do with Levites, but most of its text deals with the duties of the priests, the kohanim (all priests are Levites but not all Levites are priests).

Teaching texts from Leviticus presents a number of challenges. The first is that students, especially younger students, find some of the texts intrinsically repellent—especially those, like this parashah and the next, that deal with animal sacrifice.

Adults also object to some of the texts, but not always the same ones. For example, many adults are disgusted by the dual parashot Tazria and Metzora, while children occasionally find the description of skin disease “cool” and have little trouble drawing a persuasive moral lesson from it.

Another challenge is that much of Leviticus seems to have no application to modern life. It is possible to draw a contemporary drash from each parashah, but the details of the parashah, mostly pertaining to the operation of the mishkan and the duties of priests, are currently, in the language of the Watergate era, “inoperative.”

Nevertheless, one approach to teaching emphasizes mastery of these very details. For example, a lesson on Vayikra or Tzav might deal with the various kinds of sacrifices, the specifics of what may be brought as an offering for each kind and how the priest is to carry out the sacrifice, and so forth. In a sense this is an easy lesson to teach: it deals with facts that are indisputable. Furthermore, some students are intrigued by the wealth and complexity of detail and would be delighted to be tested on it.

Most of the time, however, we will want to find another approach, and that brings us up against a third challenge. It’s not unusual, even as some students are becoming enthusiastic about all the details of these passages, for other students to respond, “Who cares?”

It’s not just because the sacrificial system and other functions of the priests are now “inoperative.” There’s a deeper problem: individualism.

The most fundamental problem in studying or teaching Leviticus is that its orientation is collective rather than individual. Thus, while the opening parashot describe sacrifices that an individual might bring, their emphasis is on the system of daily sacrifices that had to be offered regardless of individual desires.

Similarly, the pervasive focus on purity and holiness isn’t primarily concerned with the needs of individuals, even though the Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a powerful moral lesson for individuals. Instead, the emphasis is on national purity and holiness, as exemplified by the mishkan.

This is most clear in chapter 16, which describes the preparation of the tabernacle for Yom Kippur. The underlying theory is that individual sins, including those resulting from mere error, have a cumulative effect that must be undone by purifying the altar with the “ritual detergent” of animal blood.

In other words, the sins of individuals also impair the relationship of the entire nation to God. The idea is that people relate to God both as individuals and as members of a group, and Leviticus deals mostly with features of the entire group’s relationship, which is mediated by the priests.

Thus, the greatest difficult in teaching Leviticus isn’t that the absence of a Temple with a functioning priesthood makes Leviticus “inoperative.” It’s that we no longer consider our group (ethnic, religious, or national) identity to be the predominant feature of our relationship with God. In ancient societies, the relationship with a deity was through a king or, as in Judaism, through priests. The idea that every person maintains an individual relationship with God is modern, and making sense of Leviticus demands that we suspend our modern belief.

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