A Love Story
I was young and inexperienced. (That should serve as an excuse if I need one). No one told me when I read Leviticus at 19-years-old that I shouldn't fall in love it. Yes, you read that correctly - Leviticus. The book of the Torah that discusses pus, rashes, menstruation, rotting skin diseases, and has enough blood spatter from temple sacrifices to keep the team from CSI busy for another hundred episodes. Yes, that Leviticus.
"I've got to talk to the rabbi," said a friend of mine studying for an adult Bat Mitzvah, "because I'm not reading anything from Leviticus." It's that kind of book, one that prompts strong reactions. Those who have a Leviticus reading for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah are said to have a "bad portion". On the biggest day of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah's young life, after the studying, planning the party, and relatives arriving from distance towns, in walks Leviticus, forcing some fresh faced youngster to stammer out the Hebrew words for 'unknown discharge from a bodily orifice' in front of friends and family.
Morbid curiosity maybe, but love? Really?
I was raised in an interfaith household - my father was a scientist and my mother was an accountant. One believed in the truth as revealed through the eye of an electron microscope and the other in the beauty of a perfectly balanced budget. There was, of course, overlap between the two belief systems: math was (sorry about this) the common denominator as well as a belief that science defines what is real and religion is (at best) something that sits on a shelf and is taken down for special occasions. The Torah is useful for a few verses during a funeral but then it's back up on the shelf until the next wedding or shiva call.
Perhaps even more than mere ickyness, Leviticus draws fire for being irrelevant to our modern lives and such criticism is not always confined to the Book of Leviticus; sometimes it extends to religion as a whole. What I had learned as a teen-ager was that the world was divided - science was the tool to gain understanding and spirituality a mere distraction from that understanding. As such, religion was simply corrosive to intellectual honesty.
This is where I was living, in this divided world, at the age of 19. Until I read Leviticus... which returns us to my love story.
I love Leviticus because it's gutsy - literally and figuratively. It faces the worst realities of life - communicable disease, death, a plethora of sins - and never blinks. There is very little in the way of elegance when discussing the washing out of intestines from a sacrificial animal but Leviticus is never a fraud about life's realities.
I love Leviticus because it knows that beauty does not always equate to meaningful and that the poetic and the holy are not exclusive to one another. Even as it plumbs the terror of mortality and the violence that time and sickness inflicts upon our bodies, it still dares to believe that the ugly otherwise constructed may be the extraordinary.
I love Leviticus because it ties each of life's little horrors to a mitzvah (commandment) recognizing the spiritual in the physical. We may study physics and religion in separate university classrooms but when tragedy occurs both are present at once. We understand perfectly how cancer eats away a human life but, as we stand by the bedside, no one has to encourage us to pray; it simply comes out of us. Cognitive dissonance is good intellectual challenge but experiential consonance of the physical and the metaphysical inhabits our lives.
In all these ways, Leviticus healed a rift for me between two ways of approaching meaning. Religion was never again a stumbling block for scientific understanding or science for spiritual resonance.
Leviticus is a book that grows with you and today I find new ways to experience its depth. Perhaps the most important commentary on Leviticus is how we react to it. We are so ready to concentrate on the gross instead of the verses that should trouble us - those that are blind to the humanity of homosexuals, the disabled, and women. It's Leviticus' final challenge. But even as Leviticus raises these issues it also supplies us with the attitude with which we should respond: whatever moral difficulties this book presents, do not turn away. Face it with compassion and with holiness never detaching yourself from the mess that is reality. If we do this, Leviticus will become not only a good portion, but the best portion for this and every age.
Valerie Jones is a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX.