This fall I am delighted to be taking a course on the book of Leviticus with Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi. You may be wondering, why Leviticus? It’s all about animal sacrifice and icky diseases and priestly hierarchy. How is this relevant to today? Well, I don’t know exactly. Not yet. But Dr. Eskenazi has promised us that we will come out of the course with a new appreciation for a difficult text, so I decided I will post some of what I am learning and thinking in case it happens to pique anyone’s interest.
Two important words anchor the beginning of my exploration of Leviticus. The first is the opening Hebrew word, Vayikra, which becomes the Jewish name for the book. Vayikra, “And He called,” refers to God calling to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, but if you take the word out of its context, you can read it as “And it called.” So I see this word as an invitation from the book itself, to engage it on its own terms and see beyond the difficulties to what lessons it may have to offer.
The second word is “korban”, which is usually translated as “sacrifice.” In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Dr. Eskenazi writes that “korban implies coming close to God (the root k-r-b that forms korban also means “to come near”) and is better translated as ‘near-offering.'” This series of posts will be my response to the call of Leviticus, and an examination of what it means to draw near to the book and its teachings.
So what is Leviticus all about? Eskenazi emphasizes the author’s view of the nature of the world.
Leviticus reflects the perception that God’s world is fundamentally harmonious, good, and orderly. To preserve God’s orderly world, where everything has an assigned place, Leviticus specifies what must be done whenever boundaries are wrongfully crossed, be they boundaries of the body, time, or space – such as between sacred and non-sacred, or between life and death. In this book’s worldview, anyone who breaks God’s ordained harmony can – and must – repair it.
Milgrom specifies the intent and use of ritual.
Values are what Leviticus is all about. They pervade every chapter and almost every verse. Many may be surprised to read this, since the dominant view of Leviticus is that it consists only of rituals, such as sacrifices and impurities. This, too, is true: Leviticus does discuss rituals. However, underlying the rituals, the careful reader will find an intricate web of values that purports to model how we should relate to God and to one another.
When rituals fail to concretize our theological commitment they become physical oddities, superstitions, or small idolatries. Ritual is the poetry of religion that leads us to a moment of transcendence. When a ritual fails because it either lacks content or is misleading, it loses its efficacy and its purpose. A ritual must signify something beyond itself, whose attainment enhances the meaning and value of life.
Milgrom’s statement that ritual is the poetry of religion strikes me as particularly beautiful. The overarching message these quotes find in Leviticus is that ritual’s role in the religious life is to define and enact relationships between people, their world, and God with the intent to repair any deficiencies in those relationships.