What is God?
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The book of Leviticus is the primary source of the common impression that the Bible is both ponderous and irrelevant. It’s not particularly long, but it seems to take forever. It lacks the famous narratives of Genesis and Exodus. It contains almost no miracle stories, nothing wild like the splitting of the Sea or amazing like the Burning Bush. It possesses nothing near the drama of the creation narrative. It has none of the timelessness of the Garden of Eden or the endless tragedy of Cain and Abel. It lacks the personal familiarity of Abraham wandering around the ancient Middle East struggling to discover his image of God. There are no good guys, like Noah or Moshe. There are no bad guys, like the snake or Pharaoh. There aren’t even guys in the middle like Lot. There are just a lot of laws and rituals.
The name Leviticus itself, which of course is Greek, means that the book has something to do with ‘priestly matters’. In fact, well over half of it has to do with these ‘priestly matters’ in one way or another. The first ten chapters are exclusively priestly while the next six are all peripherally related to priestly matters. Of the final eleven chapters almost half follow this pattern. There are a lot of priestly matters in this book. What the heck are priestly matters?
They deal with a whole slew of related rituals and laws, all of which have something to do with the Tabernacle, the priests who officiated at it, the sacrificial offerings that were brought, and the outside functions of the priests. These matters, as irrelevant as they may seem to us, take up well over half of this book, a sizable chunk of Exodus and smaller chunks out of Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The Tabernacle was a miniature version of the two temples that would become the center of the Israelite and Jewish societies for almost 900 years. It was a simple desert structure, devoid of most of the elaborate embellishments that dominated the temples. It was built to be totally portable, as it traveled around with the Israelites as they wandered the desert for 40 years. It consisted of a large courtyard (about 50 meters by 25 meters, approximately half the size of a football field) which housed the outer stations including an altar for offerings, and an inner tent which functioned as a place of communion between man and God. The tent was a rectangular cube with sides and roof made of animal skins. It housed a candelabrum, another altar for incense, a table for the bread offerings, and an inner sanctum to place the most important item, the Ark of the Covenant.
All of this is described in painstaking detail in the second half of Exodus. Even the garments of the priests are graphically described. The altars, the table, the candles, the beams, the curtains and the skins, are all laid out in great detail. But it all centered around the Ark, a small box (about 1 ¼ meter by ¾ meter by ¾ meter) made of wood and plated inside and out with gold. This in turn, housed the most important relic of the Israelites - the Tablets of the Covenant, hence its name. It had a surprisingly elaborate cover containing 3-dimensional statues of angelic figures. It was from this cover that the voice of God called to Moshe.
The priests (Kohanim, hence the common surname Cohen) were a specific family of Israelites, all directly descended by male line from none other than Aaron, the brother of Moshe. Only males could be priests, and only if they had no physical blemishes or defects that would render them unfit. The High Priest, a title given first to Aaron and then to whichever of his descendants was chosen to replace the former High Priest, would officiate at specific dedication ceremonies and on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
There was also a large group of associate temple attendants known as Levites (hence the surname Levi), from which comes the name of the book in Greek. They were really assistants to the Kohanim in various aspects of the Tabernacle and the temples. They all came from a specific tribe of Israelites that went by this name. All the Kohanim were a subset of this tribe, so the entire hierarchy of priestly service was determined by family lineage. Both the Kohanim and the Levites received specific gifts of food, clothing, and land (only in the case of Levites), to support them so that they could dedicate their lives to ritual service. It may seem a little unfair and rife for corruption, but this was the Biblical system of priesthood.
The primary ritual function of the Tabernacle and the temples was to bring sacrificial offerings to Hashem. The long list of these offerings takes up about the first third of the book. The variety of these offerings and the details involved with each one are both daunting and a little disconcerting. These people were extremely devoted to these rituals. Most modern people, who are not, almost invariably find themselves alienated by the entire process. Modern people simply do not relate to this whole thing. This is precisely what makes most of this book seem irrelevant. A few offerings might be a little offensive to the modern mind. A whole slew of them are just too much. There are burnt offerings, meat offerings eaten by the priests, meat offerings eaten by private owners, flour and bread offerings, wine and oil offerings, and incense offerings. It’s quite overwhelming.
In addition, the priests determined which animals were kosher (fit or eating) and which weren’t. The criteria were a combination of the species of animal, its age and birth status, its state of health, the method of slaughtering, and the way it was cooked. Only certain mammals, birds, fish, and insects could be eaten. Only ruminants (cud-chewers) with cloven hooves among the mammals, specific birds that weren’t birds of prey, fish with fins and scales, and insects with jumping legs that were higher than the body, were kosher. Everything else was tamei (impure) as opposed to the kosher animals which were tahor (pure). Variations of these two words come up all over the place in this book. Mammals could not be cooked in kosher mammal milk and blood had to be removed before cooking. Kosher birds and kosher fish eggs could be eaten with no restriction. The kosher insects, contrary to popular belief and common Jewish taste, could be eaten raw, cooked, with milk or meat, even live. It’s not bagels and lox.
Against this, we have, right in the middle of the book, ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am Hashem’ (19:18). We have a verse in the book of Deuteronomy asking, ‘And now Israel, what does Hashem, your God ask of you, except to fear Hashem, your God, to walk in all of His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul; to keep the commandments of Hashem, and His statutes that I command you today, for your good’ (10:12-13). We have countless verses in the Prophets questioning the Israelites if they truly believe that Hashem actually cares two hoots about their offerings and their fasting and all the rest. These preachers constantly remind the Israelites that Hashem only seeks a good heart and sincere intentions. We find this theme of ritual versus ethical echoing across the Jewish timeline from the second temple period all the way into modern times. To a great degree, it is the spiritual conflict in Judaism.
We will see in this book the primary source for the ritual side of this ancient religion. In many ways, one gets the impression that the religion described in Leviticus has nothing to do with Judaism. Because of this, the Bible critics have classified almost the entire book as the work of ‘P’, the Priestly document. The names are the same, and many of the laws are familiar, but it just feels like some ancient cult with all the offerings, the blood sprinkling on the altar, the priestly caste, and the Biblical God overseeing it all with stern warnings and the perpetual need to be appeased. Could this be the religion that brought us ethical monotheism, Talmudic wisdom, the spontaneous joy of Hasidut, and the intellectual rigor of everyone from Maimonides to Albert Einstein?
Throughout this book we will be looking for Leviticus-oriented images of God. Of course, they will be founded on the same image of Hashem that we are already so familiar with from Genesis and Exodus. But they will have faces that we haven’t seen - Leviticus faces. There will be the almost incongruous image of Hashem enjoying the smell of the burnt offerings. How are we supposed to relate to this image? Are we honestly expected to believe that Hashem likes the smell of barbecued meat? This is one of the great challenges of accepting this book as a source of Jewish spirituality.
Another image will be the glory of Hashem emanating from the Tabernacle. It is another difficult image for the ethical/cerebral/emotional Jewish mind of the 21st century. The Tabernacle was just a structure made of skin, hair, wood, and metal. Even the Ark, the source of the glory, was just a box made of wood and metal. It is nearly impossible to see how such a structure could be the focal point of God’s presence on earth. This is another great challenge.
Then we have the complex laws of tumah (spiritual impurity) and taharah (spiritual purity). These, we shall see, are the source of the mysterious quality of ‘holiness’. It is a good bet that today almost nobody would associate holiness with not touching the carcass of a dead lizard or refraining from eating oysters. But there is an image of God that revolves around such ritually-generated holiness. What are we to make of this?
Next we will encounter a beyond-mysterious offering of sorts that is not directed to Hashem but to some other thing/entity that seems to reside in the wilderness. It is called Azazel, a word of appropriately mysterious origin and meaning. This offering, we shall see, is brought on the Day of Atonement and seems to have something to do with casting away sins. Where is God in all this?
Finally, we will read about the threatening warnings if the Israelites abandon the path of the Torah. We will find that Hashem abandons us if we abandon Hashem. This is not a God of mere rituals. It is a God who demands absolute devotion and cuts almost no slack for backsliders. This God hardly resembles the forgiving Father who always waits for our repentance, no matter how long it takes, or the hidden oneness that permeates all of creation. This is a thoroughly Leviticus image.
These will be difficult images. Many people may want no part of them. They will bring up distant recollections of a God they never believed in and never wanted to believe in. They reveal more about the Israelite mind of 3,000-odd years ago than about the mind of Jews for the past 2,000 years. Many Jews would just as soon exorcise these images from Judaism. It is likely that most traditional Jews simply go all along with the annual ritual reading of the text and wait until something more interesting comes along. We have no such luxury.
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