Thursday, April 20, 2006

Shmini (Torah)

“On That Day”

This weeks section contains perhaps one of the strangest episodes in the entire Torah: the sudden deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, at the very height of the celebration of the dedication of the sanctuary in the desert and the revelation of God’s Glory to the entire people.

We need to backtrack a bit to understand the setting of this event. Chapter 8 (the second half of Parashat Tzav) describes the seven days of milu’im, of initiation of Aaron and his sons into their new task as priests. As there are not yet any “official” priests, Moshe functions during this period as priest. Each day they offer one of each of the kinds of sacrifice described in Parashat Vayikra: a bullock as a sin-offering (hatat), one goat as burnt-offering (olah), and the second goat as a peace-offering (eil ha-milu’im), and each day the high priest and the other priests don their special vestments, while Moshe anoints them and all the artifacts of the Sanctuary with anointing oil and with blood.

Scene One: It is only on the eighth day that the Sanctuary comes into its own. (We are told elsewhere that this coincides with Rosh Hodesh Nissan of the second year in the desert, while the people are still encamped opposite Mount Sinai. Interestingly, one of the portions describing this event—either Vayakhel-Pekudai in regular years or Shemini in leap years—is always read close to Rosh Hodesh Nissan. In similar fashion, the story of the Flood and of Noah is always read on the first Shabbat in Heshvan, close to the rainy season, while Bo, with the midwinter plagues of hail and of locusts, is read close to Rosh Hodesh Shevat.) On this day, Moses instructs Aaron to bring sacrifices both on their own behalf and on behalf of the people. But to this purely technical list of offerings, similar to so many which have come before it, there is appended the deceptively casual aside, “for today the Lord will appear to you” (9:4). The entire congregation gathers around Moses’ tent, and Moses states that “this is the thing which the Lord has commanded you to do, and the glory of the Lord will appear to you” (v. 6). Sacrificial ritual and divine epiphany are inextricably intertwined! The chapter continues to describe the execution of these instructions, with the appropriate dippings and sprinklings and burnings on the altar. At the end, Aaron lifts up his hands and blesses the people (the first priestly blessing in history); Moses and Aaron emerge from the Tent of Meeting, and together bless the people (in a free-form blessing); and a Divinely-sent fire comes and consumes all the burnt offerings and fat on the altar. “And all the people saw it, and they shouted and fell on their faces” (v. 24). The Divine Glory has indeed manifested itself from within then Sanctuary.

Scene Two: Nadav and Avihu, newly inducted priests, presumably overwhelmed with religious fervor and enthusiasm, take their censers, place incense in them, and offer “a strange fire before the Lord, which they had not been commanded” (10:1). Fire instantaneously comes forth from God and kills them. The classic question is: What was this “strange fire” (esh zarah)? What was their sin, and why did it merit such cruel and severe punishment, and at the hand of a compassionate and merciful God? All of the commentaries attempt to answer this question. Answers range from: they were drunk (hence the warning in 10:8-11 against the priests drinking wine or strong drink while performing Divine service); they “taught halakha before their master”— i.e., they did not respect Moses’ authority; they brought fire from outside, rather than trusting that, on this special day, God Himself would send the fire to consume the incense; or they violated the injunction against offering incense without being specifically commanded to do so (as implied in Exod 30:9, which uses the odd phrase, “strange incense,” ketoret zarah). Whatever the particulars, one of the lessons most often derived from this episode is the idea that Judaism is a religion of rules, and that Divine worship in particular is a matter of punctilious observance of a series of very precise rules, specified in the Torah and in the halakha. Hence, there is no room for spontaneous, free-flowing expression of religious feeling. (This interpretation is especially popular today as a central theme of Orthodox polemic: against innovation and “creativity,” stressing the need to accept the authority of the Torah, submission to Divine will being seen as the essence of all piety. One widespread variant of this theme is stridently anti-mystical, and opposed to the quest for “knowledge of God.” Thus the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, for example.)

Rav Kook presents an interesting and more nuanced variant of this theme. In his view, there is a delicate balance in the religious life between emotion and discipline: with only emotion, one has anarchy and chaos, and the grave dangers entailed in idolatry; with only discipline and rules, one has dead, mechanical performance of external acts, mitzvat anashim melumada. Nadav and Avihu moved the pendulum too far in the direction of excessive emotion, without any inner control or discipline. (Similarly, in prayer there is a tension between keva and tahanunim: prayer must have an element of fixity and regularity, coupled with inner feeling and a sense of “beseeching” God. Interestingly, and consistently with his view, Leibowitz emphasizes that Rabbi Shimon’s statement in Avot 2:18, “Do not make your prayer a fixed thing” was not accepted as halakha).

How are we to understand the figures of Nadav and Avihu? What sort of people were they? Why did they do what they did? Were they simply gruber yung, “brash young men,” defying their elders, without proper respect for the dignity of the Holy Place? At times, I imagine them like some of the young ba’alei teshuvah, neophytes to Judaism, one sometimes encounters in certain shuls in Jerusalem and elsewhere—with soft, fuzzy, first-growth beards, dreamy eyes and a kind of inner smile, with a religious intensity that is somehow unfocused, unbalanced; filled with great enthusiasm, willingness to do extreme, radical things. Or at times I imagine them in the image of a certain mystical devotee who suddenly appeared from nowhere at one of the yeshivot in the late ‘60’s: tall, thin, with fiery red payot dangling down to his shoulders, long, bony, dramatic hands, who would pray for hours with intense mental concentration, barely moving; eating the bare minimum needed to keep body and soul together. It was rumored that he had been the leader of one of the groups of the Jewish counter-culture on the West Coast; that he used the mystical kavvanot of Rav Hayyim Vital in his prayers; and that he was trying to recreate in his own life the ascetic mystical ambience of the Kabbalists of Safed. Or perhaps, of the two brothers, one was the intensely focused, charasmatic mystic, while the other, dreamier one, was ready to follow him wherever he chose to go.

At times, in certain places and circles, it has seemed to me that religion may function as a kind of youth movement, with all the intense psychological dynamic implied: criticism of those who are older, more settled and calm, and seemingly cooler and less passionate in their devotion and actions. Some individuals may be driven by inner motives of which they are themselves unaware: a certain rejection of their own corporeality and earthbound humanity (not to speak of their carnality); or a kind of backwards ego, which may take an inverted pride in their very humility. (In a famous story told in gentle mockery of the Musar movement, a certain rabbi, in a moment of ecstasy near the end of Yom Kippur, threw himself to the floor and cried out in a loud voice, “I’m a nothing!” The ba’al tefilah, the prayer leader, a learned, pious and elderly Jew, followed suit. A simple Jew in the back of the synagogue, thinking this was a good and humble thing to do, did likewise, at which point the rabbi turned to the hazan and said, ”Look who’s a nothing now!”)

To return to our text: In the very next verse, Moses makes an enigmatic, almost delphic statement to Aaron: “This is what the Lord has said: “I will be sanctified by those who are close to me, and shall be honored before all the people” (v. 3). In what way is God “sanctified” by this bizarre death, and who are “those who are close to me”? Moreover, when and where did God say this? Is it meant to refer to some statement not cited when originally made, or a paraphrase of some earlier verse? Rashi and the midrash in Zevahim 115b take the latter course, interpreting this as a homiletical paraphrase of “venikdash bikhvodi” “I shall make myself known there to the children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory” (Exod 29:43), as if to say “and it shall be sanctified by those who are honored by me.” What kind of explanation is this? Are we meant to understand that Nadav and Avihu were somehow predestined to die for Kiddush Hashem, the Sanctification of the Name? Perhaps they were not sinners at all, but died because they so wanted to attach themselves to God, that their souls “forgot” to return to earth—a kind of mystical death “by the divine kiss”? (The Mesekh Hokhmah on Aharei Mot suggests something like this.) Indeed, the midrash states that Aaron and Moses spoke to one another about how someone from their family was liable to die as a part of the dedication of the Sanctuary. If so, what sort of strange consolation is this? Or did they indeed sin, and did the “sanctification” of God’s name lie in the fact that He is more exacting with those “who are close to him,” and hence on a higher, more demanding spiritual plane? And what is implied by Aaron’s silence: that he accepted Moses’ explanation, or that he was flabbergasted, uncomprehending, both by the event itself and by this statement?

Scene Three: After the bodies of the two are removed from the Inner Sanctum (interestingly, by Mishael and Elzaphan—the non-priestly wing of the family), Moses and Aaron engage in a rather legalistic, formal conversation about how they are to continue with the dedication ritual: not to show any external sign of mourning, viz. dishevelment, to eat the various offerings as required, etc. (10:6-7, 12-20). Throughout this section, Moses sounds like a “pious nudnick,” constantly telling Aaron all the rules that he mustn’t forget: go here, go there, eat this, eat that—until finally, Aaron bursts out: “after such things have befallen me today, if I were to eat the sin offering would it be acceptable in God’s eyes?” (v. 19). True, Rashi reads this as a kind of prefiguring of the laws of mourning and aninut as understood by the halakha. But perhaps it may be read as a simple human statement: “Enough. Pas nisht. It’s inappropriate. Even a high priest has feelings, and cannot simply continue with ‘business as usual’ when he has just buried two of his sons.“ Aaron appears here in a certain sense as a more human, genuinely compassionate figure, with innate sympathy for other human beings; one may remember that Pirkei Avot 1.12 characterizes Aaron as “loving peace and pursuing peace; loving people, and bringing them close to Torah.” His shortcomings, too, are in the direction of compassion and leniency, as in the incident of the Golden Calf. Moses’ compassion and mercifulness, by contrast, is somehow that of one who lives on an entirely different spiritual plane: a learned, somehow cerebral love coming from seeing things almost with God’s eyes; a kind of transcendent apprehension of all that is happening. Hence, Moses is more easily angered when the people don’t live up to his high expectations for them. But in the end, Moses here accepts Aaron’s objection: “When Moses heard, it was good in his eyes” (v. 20; it is interesting to contrast Aaron’s reaction to Moses’ words in v. 3 and Moses’ reaction to Aaron’s words here).

In terms of making some overall sense of this whole incident, I find myself forced to a very simple conclusion, albeit based on a point generally overlooked in reading this parasha: the emphasis on the immediate Presence of God. The Glory of God is conceived of here (and elsewhere: e.g. in Ki Tisa, where the failure of God’s “Face” to go up with the people is a source of deep sadness and even mourning) as a tangible, concrete reality: a locus of power, of energy; compassionate and loving, but also dangerous. One is reminded of the story of Uzzah: the man who put out his hand to steady the ark of God because the oxen were stumbling, and was instantly smitten dead, having “kindled the anger of the Lord” (2 Samuel 6:1-8).

We moderns are so used, after two centuries or more of rationalism and Enlightenment, of moralistic apologias that speak of Judaism only in terms of “ethical monotheism,” that it is sometimes difficult for us to see the words that are in front of us. In a deep sense, there is an uncanny, dangerous aspect to the Divine; what Rudolph Otto called “the Wholly Other”; that aspect which the Hindus, lehavdil, saw embodied in the figure of Siva—the god of destruction. All this is, perhaps, not so different from what Kabbalah refers to as Midat ha-Din: the attribute of divine Judgment or Sternness, which is not merely a light slap on the wrist. The mistake of Nadav and Avihu was to not reckon, in their great enthusiasm, with the powerful nature of the divine presence.

I will conclude this section with a sidelight on the parasha from the Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, one of the earliest Hasidic books, written by R. Ephraim of Sudylkov, one of the grandsons of the Baal Shem Tov. The phrase darosh darash (10:16), translated “diligently inquired,” is the exact mid-point of the Torah: these two words are the middle words. The Degel sees this fact as alluding to the unity of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah (which is quintessentially a product of “expounding”: darosh darash). The Written Torah without the Oral Tradition is only “half a book.” I would add to this: the particular parasha in which this phrase is imbedded is a prime example of the way in which the Oral Tradition is rich in homiletic derash going far afield from the apparent peshat, or literal meaning. The midrashic tradition reads each detail of these half-dozen or so verses as stages in an intricate halakhic discourse between Moses and his brother Aaron, a kind of Beit Midrash symposium on laws of mourning and sacrificial offerings, in a way that goes totally unnoticed by the casual reader. (See Rashi on this section.)

Kashrut-“These are the Animals That You Shall Eat”

With Chapter 11, we leave the lengthy section describing the sanctuary and its functions that began with Exodus 25, and turn to a series of chapters dealing with various laws concerning purity and impurity. The first of these concerns itself with those living creatures which are fit and unfit to eat. In recent years it has become fashionable for certain intellectuals to analyze the Jewish laws of kashrut as a prime expression of the human propensity to structure and impose a cultural order upon the physical world. Some years ago that bastion of urban sophistication, The New York Review of Books, devoted a lengthy article to the anthropological meaning of kashrut, and its paradigmatic role in Jewish culture. One of the outstanding features of the Judaic picture of the world was seen as its orderly, structured nature, whether in terms of people—Israel and the nations; times—Sabbath, holidays, weekdays; or species—kosher and unkosher mammals, fish, fowl, and insects. One of the major rules of kashrut not mentioned in this chapter—the separation of milk and meat—is a further prominent example of that. The rules against mixing certain animal and vegetable fibers in clothing (woolsey-linsey or sha’atnez: Deut 22:11); not crossbreeding animals (Lev 19:19); not grafting or growing together cuttings of different species of grain or fruit (ibid.; Deut 22:9); or against using different species in agricultural labor (Deut 22:10), are further examples.

Indeed, this sense of the importance of drawing clear-cut distinctions is a basic element of the Jewish way of apprehending the world, perceiving this order as one of the manifestations of it being a divinely created universe. The Havdalah blessing recited at the conclusion of the Shabbat is essentially a praise of God for all of the numerous distinctions He created in the world: both those that are visibly inherent in the physical world, and those that are part of the spiritual structure described in the Torah. This appears particularly strongly in the longer version of the Havdalah composed by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (Pesahim 104a), which refers to all those places in the Torah where the verb le-havdil, to distinguish, is mentioned: between light and darkness, between the upper waters & the lower waters, between the sea and dry land; but also between sacred and mundane, between Israel and the nations, between priests, Levites and Israelites, between pure and impure, and between the Sabbath and weekday.

Indeed, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik sees the imposition of a priori categories upon the physical world, somewhat comparable to mathematics or the pure sciences, as one of the salient features of halakhic thinking (see his classic essay, Halakhic Man, esp. sect. VI, pp. 19-29 in L. Kaplan’s English rendering). On the other hand, this characteristic is doubtless one of the depth sources of conflict between Judaism and the “post-modern” culture in which we live, in which such ordering is seen as no more than an arbitrary imposition of human standards or conceptions upon an ultimately chaotic, meaningless world.

It is interesting that Maimonides, in both the headings and the text of Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Asurut (“Laws of Forbidden Foods”) in the Mishneh Torah, defines the mitzvot in this chapter as “to examine/know the signs of mammals / birds / fish / reptiles and to distinguish between clean and unclean.” Only thereafter does he list the prohibitions that are the obvious corollary of this knowledge: “not to eat unclean mammals, etc…”

As for the rationale of these laws: it is a commonplace that Yahadut seeks to control and civilize the more instinctive side of human nature, i.e., the fundamental physical drives of food and sex. Rambam, again, groups the laws of kashrut and of forbidden sexual relations under the single rubric of Sefer ha-Kedusha, the “Book of Holiness,” as if to say that holiness is attained by separation from and/or control of bodily drives (compare Ramban on Lev 19:1).

Some years ago, it occurred to me that this very general insight invites another question: What is the difference in the Torah’s treatment of these two areas? I decided to attempt a systematic comparison of the basic chapter on forbidden foods, Lev 11, and that on forbidden sexual relations, Lev 18, with the following results:

1. Rationale. Both groups of laws mention the function or purpose of these laws as relating, in a general way, to the sanctification of Israel: “I am the Lord… therefore consecrate yourselves…and do not defile yourselves with swarming things” (11:44-45). Between the two, we would expect the laws concerning sexual matters to express a more universal motif, seeing as we are accustomed to see this as an area of basic ethical concern (especially as the basic elements of the Judaic sex code have, at least until recently, been widely accepted or paralleled in many other societies); dietary laws, by contrast, are generally seem as more particularistic, serving the function of social separation and segregation from intermingling with other nations. Thus, the aversion toward the pig is seen as almost a symbol of Jewish particularism. Yet matters are exactly the opposite. Contrary to what we might expect, the emphasis on the function of these laws as separating or distinguishing Jews from other nations appears most clearly in the laws concerning sex. Lev 18 gives more emphasis to the separation between Israel and the nations—“Do not do as they do in the land of Egypt… nor as they do in the land of Canaan..” (vv. 2-3)—whereas the chapter on kashrut only speaks in a general way of “taking you out of Egypt to make you holy,” and “holiness.”

2. Chapter Headings. Leviticus 11 (like Lev 13 and Lev 15, which we shall discuss in coming weeks) begins with the phrase: “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying,” whereas Leviticus 18, the sex codex, begins with the more usual “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying.” A quick overview of these chapters reveals that most of those laws addressed to Moses and Aaron in tandem entail some ritual or priestly connotation: viz: the laws of “leprosy” and impurity resulting from bodily discharges in Chs. 13-15; the sanctification of the new moon (Ex 12, which is also this week’s special maftir); the red heifer purification ceremony (Num 19; see last week’s comments); etc. The priest, as we know also from the prophet Malachi (“For the lips of the priest shall guard knowledge, and they shall seek Torah from his mouth”: 2:7), also had a special teaching function, which seems to have been focused particularly on various complex and intricate matters involving the drawing of precise distinctions. In addition, there is a third group of laws, addressed to Moses, but intended, not for all of the children of Israel, but specifically to the priests (viz. Lev 21 and 22). The priests, so to speak, functioned as the teachers for all of Israel regarding matters such as purity and impurity, but had to take instruction regarding their own priestly functions from Moses. Matters concerning forbidden species of food, which involved specialized, technical knowledge of the sometimes subtle signs used to identify the different species, were consigned to the priests; forbidden sexual liaisons, while regarded as extremely serious sins, were far more straightforward in terms of knowing what is permitted and what is forbidden. (The one major exception to this, the law prohibiting relations with menstruant and post-partum women, is mentioned in passing in 18:19, but is really based on the “priestly” chapters of Lev 12; 15:19-33)

3. Key Words. A key word used to describe forbidden sea creatures, birds, and creeping things is sheketz, “a thing that is repulsive or disgusting.” In the chapter on proscribed sexual practices, by contrast, the word used to convey value judgment of these acts is to’evah, usually translated “abomination” (Lev 18:22, 26, 27, 29, 30; 20:13). The former word seems to be used to suggest the feeling of repulsion aroused by certain objects; an emotional, almost aesthetic reaction, rather than one of moral condemnation. In this chapter, the word is most often used in conjunction with a possessive pronoun: “they are sheketz to you” (11:11, 12, 20, etc.); that is to say, they have no place on your table, and their consumption may even “make your souls disgusting,” but they are not inherently evil. Apart from its use here and elsewhere in connection with non-kosher creatures (Ezek 8:10; Isa 66:17), the word is used in the form shikutz to refer to pagan idols or gods. To’evah, by contrast, refers to an act that is itself an abomination, detestable, nefarious, horrible. Thus, it is used in Deuteronomy to refer to necromancy (18:12); the use of false weights and measures (25:16); various idolatrous practices (12:31; 27:15); transvestite dressing (22:5); etc. The word is also frequently used in the Book of Proverbs, where it is used to express the strongest condemnation of many kinds of immoral behavior or character traits: haughtiness, a lying tongue, shedding of innocent blood (6:16); unjust weights and balances (11:1; 20:10, 23); falsehood (12:22); hypocritical piety (15:8); arrogance (16:5); etc., etc.

Postscript on Kashrut: “Where the Buffalo Roam, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play”: To My Footloose Israeli Children

To date, three of my four children have or are currently visiting India and its environs. This produces, among other things, some interesting questions about the laws of kashrut, whose basic text we read this Shabbat. Thus, about two months ago, my middle daughter, then travelling in Kerela, sent me an urgent email: May she eat/drink buffalo milk?

My answer was a simple one: Yes. The water buffalo (i.e., the generic buffalo ubiquitous in India, with flattish, wide horns) is kosher. The halakhah stipulates that, in addition to the law that all flesh eaten must be from a kosher species, other foodstuffs derived from animals, such as eggs, milk, and milk products, must also come from those species. (The one seeming exception, honey, produced by a non-kosher insect, the bee, isn’t really an exception: the bees gather pollen from flowers or blossoms and process it, but it isn’t really produced within their bodies.)

The rule given in the Torah is that, to be considered kosher, a mammal must have a fully-split hoof (mafris parsa shtei perasot), and that it be a ruminant (ma’alei gera)—in other words, that it chew its cud, i.e., that it has several extra stomachs where food is shunted off for protracted digestion while it grazes. The buffalo meets these requirements. One can actually check this through observation, as the Talmud states that, with the single exception of pigs, every animal that has a split hoof also chews its cud. Hence, all a person needs to do (assuming one is in India) is to look at the feet of the nearest buffalo, and one can see that the part of the feet below the lowest joint is split into two parts.

Indeed, a gentleman from Pondicherry, a former Hindu in the process of conversion to Judaism, informed me that the Jews of Bombay, although they don’t eat buffalo meat because they don’t have a shohet qualified to slaughter larger animals, and perhaps also so as not to offend Hindu sensibilities, do make use of its milk products.

Actually, notwithstanding its unfamiliar appearance to Western eyes, the water buffalo actually belongs to the bovine (cow) family. In fact, the etymology of the word “buffalo” is “wild ox.” Incidentally, other foreign-seeming animals, such as the yak, whose butter is a staple in Nepal, are also no more than hairier versions of the humble cow. Similarly, it ensues that what Americans mistakenly refer to as the buffalo (i.e., the bison, the brownish long-haired creatures that used to roam the Great Plains, familiar from many Western movies, and which was decimated in the nineteenth century by the White settlers), is also kosher. In recent years a religious Jew in one of the sparsely populated states of the Midwest has set up a business slaughtering, packing, and marketing bison meat. Apparently it’s a healthier, less fatty meat than that of steer or cows.


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