A popular belief is that Leviticus is the monster book of the Torah. It bores us to death with rules about sacrificial offerings. It grosses us out with details about skin eruptions and genital discharges. It annoys us by dictating whom we may and may not have sex with. It leaves us wondering why these strange topics need to be in the Torah and what this book is really about. In short, Leviticus scares us. And that is because, more than any other book of the Torah, Leviticus needs a secret decoder ring. Secret decoder rings—toys offered in cereal and snack boxes from the 1930s on—were used to decode radio show-delivered hidden messages aimed at children. The term is still current, meaning "a device that will make what is cryptic comprehensible." My secret decoder ring for Leviticus consists largely of two streams of research that I can focus on this mysterious book: (1) symbolic anthropology, such as that of Professor Mary Douglas ( Leviticus as Literature [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press], 1999), and (2) comparative data from other ancient Near Eastern societies.
A decoder ring can illuminate what previously made no sense at all. Take the work of historian of religion Mircea Eliade. He explains that a temple in the ancient world was a representation of the cosmos (Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard Trask [New York: Harcourt, 1968], chap. 1). No wonder Exodus and Leviticus describe the dimensions, architecture, and furnishings of the sacred place at such length! If they symbolically represent the universe, every detail is crucial.
In Leviticus, this representation has already been built—the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. But what can we understand about it? Douglas suggests that the Mishkan parallels Mount Sinai, but is horizontal rather than vertical ( Leviticus as Literature, p. 79). At the Revelation, Sinai is divided into three parts: (1) the mountain's cloudy summit, where God meets Moses and delivers the Ten Commandments, the short form of the covenant; (2) a zone of dense cloud restricted to Aaron, his sons, and the seventy elders; and (3) the lower slopes, where the people stand. Similarly, the Mishkan is divided into three parts: (1) the innermost area, the Holy of Holies, where the High Priest enters on Yom Kippur in a cloud provided by his incense pan and where the tablets of the covenant are kept; (2) the sanctuary, where only the priests may go and where an incense altar produces thick smoke; and (3) the outer court, where the people offer their sacrifices. From these parallels we learn that "up" and "in" are both metaphors of access to God. And at the very top or the very heart of the cosmos is God's covenant with the people Israel.
What do you do with (or in) a model of the cosmos, Leviticus asks, and how do you live out a covenant? How do you reach out to God properly? How do you make the "body politic" holy? How do you make the individual body holy? How do you make holiness in relationships with other people? All these questions are covered in Leviticus, and some of the answers require a decoder ring.
The first Torah portion in Leviticus is an ABC of animal sacrifices. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root kuf-reish-bet, meaning "to come near." One comes close to God by giving back some of the life with which God has gifted us. These consecrated animal bodies, Douglas argues, are viewed as tripartite, like the consecrated mountain and the consecrated Tabernacle. First come the intestines, along with the entrails, which, she explains, the ancient Hebrews believed were the seat of thought and emotion. Hence, the entrails constitute a hidden core, covered as they are by cloudlike hard fat. They are always placed at the top of the sacrificial pile along with, in Douglas's translation, not the legs, but the genital parts, the source of semen, and hence of the great blessing of fertility. In a Jewish male body, these would bear the mark of the covenant. Next come the midriff parts, including the solid, opaque fat covering the kidneys and liver; the kidneys themselves; the protuberance on the liver; and, finally, the head and meat sections that, except in an olah, a "burnt offering," are for human consumption, human access to God.
In all animal sacrifices, the blood is splashed on the sides of the altar. Blood must be treated with extraordinary reverence, "for the life of the flesh is in the blood" (Leviticus 17:11). Because the blood is the nefesh ("breath" or "spirit"), the very life of a being, the Torah teaches repeatedly, it is never permissible to eat blood. Leviticus 17:11 continues, "I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation." The medieval commentator Rashi observes, "The life of every creature depends upon its blood, and therefore I [God] have assigned it to the altar to make expiation for the life of the human being—let life come and expiate for life." In the logic of ritual, the life of the sacrifice effects atonement for the life of its donor.
The blood on the altar does not atone for all sins. The chatat, "purgation" or "sin-offering," purifies an offender of inadvertently violating the law. The asham, "reparation offering," is a guilt offering specifically to God for using the divine name dishonestly, either by mistakenly misappropriating sanctuary property or swearing a false oath by God's name about the property of others. Baruch A. Levine notes that the sacrifice does not excuse the offender from making full restitution, and paying a fine as well, to those to whom he or she has caused loss ( The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], xiii).
Sacrifice is a touchy topic for Reform Jews. But Israelite religion had no Rubashkin-style mechanized massacre of animals. Ancient Israelites killed proportionally fewer animals than we do. Many scholars argue that Leviticus describes a world where domestic animals were eaten only if they had been sacrificed. That means that animals were not eaten casually. Offered as a gift to God, they were eaten rarely and with reverence. If only we were as reverent of the animal lives we consume. If only we, too, honored the God-given blood and lives of all creatures.
Professor Rachel Adler is professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. She was one of the first theologians to integrate feminist perspectives and concerns into the interpretation of Jewish texts and the renewal of Jewish law and ethics. She is the author of Engendering Judaism, which won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought, and many articles.