Years ago, I was invited to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (fondly known as the G.A.) to co-teach a session on my choice of our tradition's most important biblical texts. I was paired with a Modern Orthodox educator. Without thinking I chose Leviticus, Chapter 19, the chapter that serves as the centerpiece of the entire Book of Leviticus. It includes the list of our most noble, ethical mitzvot, "commandments," soaring to the highest point of our religious tradition: "Love your fellow [neighbor] as yourself!" (Leviticus 19:18). My partner at the G.A. chose a different chapter, Genesis 22; the story of the binding of Isaac, where Abraham answers God's call and is willing to sacrifice his son. That session was a lovely and warm conversation between the "Reform" perspective and the "Orthodox" one. We discussed how and what we understand is the nature of "mitzvah." We probed the differences and similarities regarding our respective relationship to God. The ethical mitzvot between human beings in Leviticus 19 are more compelling for Reform Jews than the ideas of divine commandment and total obedience that some deduce from the reading on the binding of Isaac.
I start with this as we need a framework for our yearly study of Leviticus, the most challenging book of the Five Books of Moses to the modern person. The very first parashah, Vayikra, launches the book with an intricate discussion of burnt offerings to be brought to the priests for a variety of circumstances, from voluntary gifts to prayers for well-being to purgation to reparation, and more. This leads to what seem to be endless chapters of animal sacrifice, purification, and expiation rites; forbidden sexual relations; and rituals for the dead and diseased, all faithfully administered by the priestly class of men. And yet, at the heart there sits an almost insubordinate "runaway" chapter that echoes the beauty of our prophetic tradition and our most humanistic values. It's as if we are being asked to flip the entire book on its head to examine what it means to worship God.
The Reform Movement has been outright dismissive of this book. On Yom Kippur, the two traditional readings from Leviticus have been replaced by readings from the Book of Deuteronomy that better reflect our covenantal and moral relationship with God and humans. On our most solemn day, when the rest of our community reads about detailed sacrifices and abominations, we focus on what is far more compelling for our time. Having said that, it behooves us to understand what we have rejected, where it fits in the long history of the nature of worship, and what can and should be retained. For thousands of years, our ancestors needed this type of worship. Early apologists viewed our animal sacrifice (and the "happy end" of the story of the binding of Isaac) as our rejection of human sacrifice. But this does not fully explain the extent to which we served God throughout the centuries with sacrifices and purification rites, first in the wilderness and then at the Temple in Jerusalem.
In Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger's introduction to the Book of Leviticus, he analyzes the context of the ancient Near East and decodes the key word: korban! He states: "the English term 'sacrifice' comes from a Latin word meaning 'to make something holy.' "1Comparing the English "sacrifice" to the Hebrew korban, we immediately understand the difference. Korban comes from the root kuf-reish-bet, which means "to get close." Our rites and rituals are designated to get us closer to holiness and God, or on the altar near God.
Going back to the Abraham stories, had I been asked to choose a story from Genesis for my co-teaching, I would most certainly have selected the first chapter of Parashat Vayeira (Chapter 18) that is followed later by the binding of Isaac. This chapter has Abraham convalescing from his circumcision, but well enough to greet visiting messengers and fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming guests. This story is actually the paradigm for the kinds of mitzvot we find in Leviticus 19; acts of lovingkindness and compassion.
One Chasidic reading of this takes the word mitzvah and rereads it not as tzivui, "command," but rather tzavta, "togetherness," or acts that bring us closer to one another (see Rabbi Menchem Nachum of Chernobyl, Meor Einayim [The Eyes' Light]). It is in this spirit that I invite us to read this frustrating Book of Vayikra. We are on a journey to unlock the secrets of how and why our ancestors sought "togetherness" with the One God. Is this apologetics, perhaps?
Our not so distant ancestors knew that this book is not as exciting as the rest of the biblical narratives; it has no drama, no thunder and lighting, no splitting of the sea. So when children first began their Torah study, they began with Vayikra, but were given almonds and honey to sweeten their learning. This book is our manual for rites and rituals, and when one begins the study of Torah, we begin with the mitzvot. Leviticus is also known asTorat Kohanim, the Torah, "guide," for the kohanim, "priests," who descend from the tribe of Levi, hence the English translation: LEVIticus.
When we open this book, both in the scroll itself and in our text versions, we note a small letter alef at the end of the word "Vayikra." This has been a source of much midrashic, "interpretive," activity. Who is being made small here? Has God contracted God's self to make room for our deeds in this book of action and deeds?2 Is it Moses who must contract himself because the text uses the term vayikra, "calling," and not vay'dabeir, "talking," which is the verb more frequently used for God's communication with Moses?3 Either way one interprets this, the small alef reminds us to act humbly in our deeds or to view even the smallest deed, the smallest alef, as representing God in this world.
Our great Reform tradition, particularly the more classical form, was terribly uncomfortable with these notions of sacrifice and purity rites. Yet they were not at all uncomfortable with the idea of a God present in this world. They preferred a God of justice and compassion: the God of Leviticus 19 or of Genesis 18: the God who heals and comforts.
Our Torah gave us a legacy of both. Every year as we return to Parashat Vayikra, and the Book of Leviticus as a whole, we are challenged to understand these noble and difficult texts.
- The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 674
- A mystical reading from Rabbi Naamah Kelman
- A traditional rendering from Rabbi Naamah Kelman
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1976, helping to build a pluralistic, progressive, and egalitarian Jewish Israel.