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Reading Leviticus

Parashat Vayikra 5783

Delivered March 23, 2023


There is no better way to end a day than reading to kids before bed. There are few sweeter moments in the day than sitting with a young child and reading with them.


It is remarkable that children learn how to handle a book from a very early age. They have a familiarity with books before they even have an awareness of what they provide. In homes where parents and caregivers read to children since infancy, we imprint the importance of literacy on the children, teaching them what to do with a conventional children's book: turn the page, lift the flap, see pictures, hear a story, and be surprised by a good ending. More importantly, books communicate love and care, because reading is quality time with parents, grandparents, and caregivers.


We are taught the conventions of reading a folio book from our earliest years. And for those of us who are bibliophiles, that love is instilled early in our lives. We know all about books and how books work from a young age, and that deepens as our education continues, and our tastes as readers evolve. As Talmud scholar Barry Wimpfheimer writes, "Bright cover colors and cheap construction indicate a beach or plane read. Footnotes and endnotes announce scholarly work... Today's books classify themselves." We are taught not to judge a book by its cover, but when browsing in a bookstore, the cover tells me a lot about what I will find inside its pages.


Knowing what to expect when we pick up a book eases our way into its story. Conforming to expected reading conventions helps us understand the text. For those who love thrillers or spy novels, long chapters with little dialogue fight against the pacing that the sort of reader expects. Those who devour romance novels anticipate a happy ending, and a wedding is even better, since that is part of the genre's convention. Moving away from books, even the forms we fill out need to be predictable. While perhaps amusing, tax forms drafted in rhyming couplet would miss the point. Even a staple placed on the right side of a page instead of the left can throw us off.


I think about staples more often than I would like to admit. Straddling the difference between wanting to make material accessible to you, and wanting to conform to Jewish expectations, I think about whether I should staple papers on the right or the left. The left-hand side makes sense as English readers. Still, I want to present the Hebrew and Jewish material to you as it naturally comes, right-to-left. It matters because, as a teacher of Torah, wanting to aid in your embrace of our traditional texts, I want to ease your way into the study materials and maintain our traditions.


Staples. Who would have thought?


In achieving Jewish literacy, we make it hard on ourselves. As native English speakers, much of the Jewish bookshelf is absolutely unfamiliar. Cracking open a Hebrew book is intimidating, because it is foreign. Reading right to left, teaching out how to read with vowels and then taking those away, we make it so hard. The Reform movement used to print our prayerbooks from left to right to evidence our embrace of living in an Anglo society. Still, we returned to Hebrew conventions as our movement pushed back to an effort to build up Jewish literacy among our congregants. Then, we added two sets of page numbers to our prayerbooks, which does not make it simpler.


The barriers to obtaining Jewish literacy are so very high. It is unfair, and those who want it, must work for it. That being said, I am convinced that the effort yields spiritual fruit. Still, we have not done a good enough job over the decades of educating one another about what is actually on the Jewish bookshelf. For as much as we are a literate bunch, for as much as the Jews are known as the People of the Book, we make accessing and understanding our tradition so hard.


And that complication strikes me as especially important this week, as we begin the Book of Leviticus in our cycle of Torah reading.


Our relationship with Leviticus is complicated. Read through the first five chapters of this book, read this week's parashah, and that complication becomes apparent. It is all blood, guts, and goats, as we learn how to make particular offerings at the altar.


The problem is that its authors only meant Leviticus for some of us. The book is primarily a handbook for the biblical priests. Rabbi Bernard Bamberger puts it plainly: "Much of the book is devoted to matters completely remote from our present-day life--directions for sacrifice and rules of ritual defilement and purification. Nearly all these laws ceased to function when the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. They have no relevance to the conduct of even the most strictly Orthodox Jew, and they are omitted from such standard codes as the Shulkhan Aruch" (Plaut Torah Commentary, 643).


Leviticus gets graphic, describing taboo issues like tzora'at, a white scaly affliction mistranslated as leprosy. Leviticus is where we find the instructions for kashrut. And, included in the book are homophobic statues and other laws that do not bear on our modern lives. As modern people living their lives by a different ethic than the one described in this book of Torah, the least we can say is that we have a complicated relationship with this text.


Reform synagogues have wrestled with how to present Leviticus, especially to b'nai mitzvah students who have to chant its verses as they come of age. Publicly chanting Leviticus is a discordant ritual for b’nai mitzvah. Here are thirteen-year-olds chanting verses about dashing blood on the altar, keeping lepers out of the community, and measuring out choice flour for particular cake offerings, where when they finish, the community shouts mazel tov and toss jelly candies at them. What a strange way to welcome a young person into the fullness of their Jewish lives. That is why some Reform synagogues historically ignored Leviticus in the regular cycle of Torah reading. Instead, the rabbis assigned students to re-read Genesis and Exodus until the calendar delivered b'nai mitzvah students into the safer waters of the Book of Numbers.


I am unaware of a congregation that still skips over Leviticus in their Torah reading. But our discomfort with this material is still visceral.


And I am left to believe that part of the problem is us, the readers. The conventions by which we pick up the book do not match the text, itself. We are as much a part of the problem as the problematic book.


We approach Leviticus earnestly, often stumbling into it using the same interpretive approach that works so well for Genesis and Exodus. Using what is often called PARDES, we examine the text's plain meaning, then move into the interpretive possibilities found in the stories, discuss what the words on the page bring up for each of us, and then move into the realm of personal meaning. We seek to transform the Torah into a mirror reflecting our spiritual selves. As we’ll say at the seder in a few weeks, our father was a wandering Aramean, and so we know the experience of the stranger among us. Studying Torah by this method then strikes spiritual sympathetic vibrations: our People's stories resonate with our own experiences.


Leviticus often confounds these conventions of reading, though. It is unfair to place Leviticus before you and ask you to make sense of them in the same way. Reading priestly laws and directions does not naturally speak to personal meaning. With Leviticus, we have inherited the priestly playbook. These chapters were their employee handbook and sacrifice user manual, which they needed to know before showing up to work for the day.


Part of the problem with Leviticus is our expectation of what Leviticus can give us. Asking for personal meaning from Levitical law is like requesting spiritual insight from your 1040. That is not what it is there for.


So, if the rules of engagement for Leviticus have to be different, why keep reading? I have a personal rule: if the book does not hold my attention by the first fifty pages, I have permission to put it down. Why not do that with Leviticus? Because by changing the typical questions we ask when we sit down to study can help.


Rather than ask what the meaning is for us, we need to wonder about the purpose the authors drew from their writing. And when we do, something interesting happens, we can unlock the sacred core of these laws. What was going on for the Levitical authors that they were so focused on the purity of the priesthood? Why are they so obsessed with spiritual defilement? So much of Leviticus deals with sin and impurity. And when ink costs so much, why spend so much time and resources to record the rules created around defilement?


As we get into our study of Leviticus, we will find that one of the major concerns of the authors is about who gets included, who is in, and who is out of the community. The Levitical authors are deeply concerned with this question. The impure person, at risk of contagion, cannot stay within the camp. When we read the verses concerning ritual defilement and moral impurity, we see the leper, the castaway, banished from others. And we typically read the text from the perspective of how horrid it must be to be caught under those circumstances. And yes, it would have been uncomfortable to be turned away from the community because of an affliction you seem to have. We know this too well now under the circumstances of the pandemic with masking and social distancing. But as Bible scholar Jeremy Klawans puts it, the priestly authors of Leviticus are less concerned with how to keep people out of the community, but how to bring them back in.


As a people who know the experience of the stranger, what it means to be excluded and exiled, our collective desire is fundamentally inclusive. The Bible's desire to count people in, to build up the community, is genuine in the Levitical mindset as much as it rings true in Exodus. One of the meta-narratives of our tradition is the tension between being at home and being exiled. When we reframe how we approach Leviticus, we find that the authors of that book were as concerned with that question as the authors of the other books of the Torah, and meaning from these difficult verses begins to emerge.


It has always struck me as strange that in traditional yeshivah learning, the curriculum begins not with Genesis but with Leviticus. There is a story about a young boy talking with a teacher at the beginning of his studies:


"What is your name, child?" the teacher asks.


The boy replies, "I am no longer a child, but a young man who has begun the study of Humash at this proper time in my life,"


"What is Humash?" asks the teacher.


"Humash is the Hebrew word for the number five."


Again the teacher asks, "What is five? Five cakes for a cent?"


"No, the five books of the Torah that God gave to Moses," replies the student.


"And what book will you study?"


"I will study Leviticus which deals with sacrifices."


"Why do you want to study about sacrifices?"


"Because sacrifices are clean and I am a clean slate. Let therefore the clean come and busy themselves with the clean."


As we begin a new book of Torah this week, we all get to be like the child starting his formal studies. We are all clean slates, if we come into the study of Leviticus with open minds and new questions to explore the text. At Shabbat morning services and Torah study over the next eight weeks, we will be studying the book of Leviticus. You'll be hearing about Leviticus from the bima on Friday nights. And I don't want to skim over the whole book or ignore the nasty little bits because this too is Torah. I hope you'll join Rabbi Gordon and me in our study of the book and approach it with an open mind to find new insights into our tradition. It is a foreign experience to try to insert ourselves into the text, but walking alongside the authors to understand their motivations better may give us enough insights so that we can find the sanctity within the words of this book of Torah.


It's not the same spiritual and devotional practice as studying Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, or other Jewish texts. But it is included within our sacred canon. I look forward to exploring this most challenging section with you, so that we might, in the end, see how we have wrestled blessings from this text.


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