Revering the Ancient Text, But...

May 17th: Emor
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

While there are portion of Leviticus intended for the general population, much of it seems to be a handbook for the Kohanim, the priests whose modern day descendants no longer function in the ancient ritual roles. There are some Jews who still pray every day for the restorations of the Temple and the sacrificial cult, but most modern Jews view this whole priestly/sacrificial system as a thing of the past. Sometimes, we can draw metaphorical or allegorical lessons from the rules, but sometimes, the ancient sensibilities are most troubling to consider.

 A particularly problematic passage comes in Leviticus 21.16-23:
“The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes…He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them.”

 What are we to do with such a passage? Etz Hayim, the Torah with Commentary we use in our sanctuary, usually endeavors to put a positive spin on whatever ancient ideas our ancestors recorded in the Torah. However, it pretty much throws up its hands on this one:
“The reader may be troubled by these rules disqualifying physically handicapped kohanim from officiating in public. Perhaps their disfigurements would distract the worshippers from concentrating on the ritual and, like the offering of the blemished animal, would compromise the sanctuary’s image as a place of perfection reflecting God’s perfection (cf. Lev. 22:21-25, where similar language is used for the animals brought to the altar.) In later texts, in the Psalms and the prophets, the Bible emphasizes that the broken in body and spirit, because they have been cured of the sin of arrogance, are specially welcome before God. ‘True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.’ (Psalm 51.19)

 Today we might well consider the religious institution that is willing to admit its own imperfections and is willing to engage physically handicapped spiritual leaders as being better able to welcome worshippers who are painfully aware of their own physical or emotional imperfections. Many congregations have made special efforts to provide access for the handicapped.”

As a Conservative commentary, it just cannot seem to bring itself to reject this attitude as prejudiced baggage from our ancient past. And, yes, there is this notion of bringing only the best before the Lord: perfect lambs and calves and even doves, the best flour, the best oil, the best wine. To offer anything less would be to lessen one’s respect for God, and, if one believes in God and God’s power, such a strategy is not to be encouraged. However, do we extend this sense of perfection to people?

I would address this in two ways. First, we are fortunate not to have to deal with this perfection mentality of the ancient Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial cult was no longer functioning, Rabbinic Judaism was relieved of some of the Biblical sensibilities and was able to craft a prayer system that was more focused on sincerity and piety than strict adherence to public performance details. One can see an interesting dynamic in the development of Rabbinic Judaism as it follows a dual path: praising and rarifying the ancient priestly system, while crafting a very different kind of heart and head oriented Jewish religion.

Second, we must realize that our ancient ancestors shared many of the prejudices and misunderstandings that have plagued humanity for millennia. While they experienced moments of spiritual grandeur and profound wisdom, they were people of their times and places, and only some of the things they recorded and taught are of the highest level. Others are mired in the lack of understanding out of which humanity is still trying to grow. Let us not forget, we who are habituated to the idea of giving equal respect and granting equal access to persons with disabilities, that it has taken a long, long, long time for society to look at less than perfect bodies and see the image of God inside. The Americans with Disabilities Act was only passed in 1990, and there are still many areas of contention or adjustment. It seems to me that we can accept the real wisdom of our ancestors while disagreeing with their prejudices or misunderstandings. We can revere our ancient texts without accepting everything.  


Speaking of the development of Judaism—from Biblical to Rabbinic and to modern, there is a very curious passage in Leviticus 22. In the continuing discussion of priestly purification, we have the introduction of a word commonly used in Kashrut conversations: trayfah or trafe. In modern Jewish discussions, trafe means anything that is not kosher, but, in the Torah, it specifically means something that was not slaughtered in a kosher manner. In verse 8, we read: “He shall not eat anything that died (n’velah) on its own or was torn by beasts (t’rayfah), thereby becoming impure.” The context is clearly a discussion of priestly purity for priests—for priests and not for regular Israelites. It is theorized that this as well as all the other Biblical kashrut laws were intended only for the priests as a part of their special status—and not applicable to regular people. Indeed, as one plots the development of Rabbinic Judaism from its origins in the Bible, there seems to be a pattern of adapting priestly practices for non-priests. The Rabbis did not want to supplant the priesthood—which was still in existence and operating for some 150 years of Rabbinic Judaism ((200 BCE-70 CE), but they sought to give regular Jews a sense of holiness and closeness to God. Hence, regular Jews have sacral clothing, special “priestly” rules for food, and even daily prayers that coincide (coincided) with the sacrifices offered in the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.

In so many ways, Rabbinic Judaism improved on the religion of the Bible, keeping much of what was profound and innovating new and better ways of accessing God.