ASK THE RABBI
June/July 2018 QUESTION:
I noticed recently during Shabbat services that you do not enjoy reading the Book of Leviticus, and I have to say, I agree; all the chapters about animal sacrifices are far from uplifting. So, why do we have to continue reading them?
June/July 2018 ANSWER:
In a word: Tradition!
Deuteronomy 4:2 tells us neither to add nor take away anything to the “statutes and ordinances “ that Adonai gives us. That alone makes it impossible to simply omit Leviticus from our practice of reading Torah. Why? Because Leviticus is not the only source of uncomfortable texts in the Torah, and once we begin to edit, where do we stop? Moreover, we may not agree on what should go, what should stay. How will we decide this issue?
For example, if we operate on the grounds of relevance, we might want to delete all the references to animal sacrifice, to the building of the portable sanctuary, to the priesthood (who they were, what they wore, how they were inaugurated, what they ate, who they could marry, etc), all the lists of names, all the prohibitions of sexual relations, of foods we should not eat, or clothing we should not wear. Since we no longer live in an agrarian society, we probably don’t need all the references to agriculture, or dealing with a neighbour’s ox. What about the repetitions? Why do we need different versions of the calendar (which don’t quite match, anyway!)?
What about eliminating stories that reflect badly on our founding generations? Abraham tried to kill his son, for example, and he passed his wife off as his sister to save his own skin. Sarah gave her handmaid Hagar to Abraham to produce an heir, and then, out of jealousy when the plan worked, she threw her out of the house. Isaac wasn’t smart enough to try the wife/sister gambit successfully. Rebecca coached her favourite son to steal the other son’s blessing. Jacob conned his brother out of his birthright and then blatantly stole his brother’s blessing. The sons of Jacob killed all the occupants of a town because their leader had raped (seduced? wooed?) their sister without the family’s blessings. Moses killed an Egyptian task master. The spies were cowardly. And on and on and on…
Our sages had a better approach. They taught us to find meaning in everything in Torah, even the texts we don’t find admirable. They did not remove texts they thought problematic, but turned them around, over and over, till some useful lesson could be derived from them. If all we do is note that our ideas have changed (about how to worship God, for example) or that our heroes were not perfect (and we are not expected to be, either), we can read the texts as we have received them, and honour our tradition even as we move away from it sometimes. We can continue to plumb the depths of Torah for life lessons, one of which is that sometimes you have to make do with what you have.
Besides, reading all the things we don’t love in Torah should make all the things we do love in it even more precious. And there’s plenty to love and learn from in Torah.