Thursday, May 04, 2006

Aharei Mot (Torah)

This week’s portion, Aharei Mot (Lev 16-18), deals with two issues that are particularly problematic to many contemporary people: Yom Kippur, and the related concepts of atonement, repentance, and accountability to a stern, judging God; and the entire area of sexuality and sex-related prohibitions.

Yom Kippur “and he shall atone for the holy place for the impurities of the children of Israel”

The opening chapter of this portion, Leviticus 16, describes the rite of atonement performed in the Temple on the Day of Atonement. It is also the last chapter in Sefer Vayikra that deals directly with the subject of sacrifices, and as such may perhaps be seen as the culmination or climax of that subject. (Interestingly, the fact that this ritual is performed only once a year, and specifically on the Day of Atonement, is only made clear to the reader towards the end of the chapter [v. 29 ff.]; the chapter begins with the statement that Aaron, or the high priest who follows him, should not enter into the holy place at all times, but only on special times, and that when he does so he should bring such-and-such sacrificial animals and perform such-and-such ceremonies.) Although the verbal recounting of this ritual plays a major role in the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy, both as the Torah reading for the day and in the Seder ha-Avodah, the central section of the Musaf service, the spirit that moves it is very different from the contemporary understanding of Yom Kippur (i.e., from the classic Rabbinic period onwards). This is true in two distinct ways.

Firstly, Yom Kippur in the Beit ha-Mikdash (Temple) served two distinct, parallel functions. The one, more familiar one, is to atone for the sins of the Jewish people, on which more momentarily. The other was to atone for the Temple itself, “that dwells among them in their impurity” (v. 16). Yom Kippur served to purify and cleanse the various Temple artifacts from contamination—presumably, as a result of the inevitable carelessness about matters of ritual impurity by one or another of the people who entered it during the course of the year. This purification, or purgation, was the function of the par kohen gadol and sa’ir la-olah: the bullock brought by the high priest, and that one of the two goats which was offered as a burnt-offering. The blood of both was sprinkled, separately and together, upon the curtain of the Holy Ark, on the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy place, and on the incense altar. The sense gained is of a tension between the ineffable Divine presence and the inevitable sinfulness and impurity of human beings. True, Rashi and other halakhic sources attempt to define this in delimited, technical terms, but the feeling gained is somehow of a deeper contradiction: that the very situation of the Divine presence dwelling among human beings per se, even within the Holy Temple in which behavior was circumscribed by numerous rules, inevitably led to a kind of insult to its holiness. Hence, the need for an annual atonement and purification of the altar, etc. (already anticipated in the description of the incense altar in Ex 30:10, and whose core idea is perhaps also assumed in Lev 15:31; see my comments on this in Metzora).

The second concept that is predominant in the Temple ceremony of Yom Kippur is that even the kapparah (atonement) received by human beings is different from that familiar to us from our Yom Kippur. For us, Yom Kippur is centered around the conceit of teshuvah, repentance (which, in a nutshell, entails some form of inner moral and spiritual change: regret of the particular sin and the firm resolve to abandon it in the future), and the repeated confession of sin which serves as its verbal expression. In the Temple, there was kaparah without teshuvah. This is clear both from the Biblical account, and from the classic halakhic sources (Mishnah Shevu’ot 1.6; Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 1.2-3; and cf. m. Yoma 8.6-7; b. Yoma 85b; it is interesting to contrast Rambam’s position there with that in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Aseh §73); the “scape goat” sent to “Azazel” in the desert affected atonement even without repentance—at least for all but the most serious sins. This is a strange concept, which at first blush appears to most of us almost magical, and contravenes the moral, ethical thrust upon which many of us feel our Judaism is built.

What underlies this idea? It seems to me, at root, to be based upon an acknowledgement of the propensity of human beings to inevitably fall short of the ideal as to how they ought to live, and as a result the impossibility of maintaining a strict, severe accounting with them. (This notion, while hardly identical with the Christian concept of original sin, perhaps contains certain parallel elements: that human beings cannot, by their nature, be wholly self-reliant, spiritually or morally, but at a certain point need to fall back upon Divine mercy.) Hence, the concept of atonement as gained, not only by moral self-perfection, but by a kind of symbolic, collective catharsis, which arouses Divine mercy. At the center is the image of a loving, compassionate God, who forgives freely. As I wrote on an earlier occasion (Ki Tisa), we find here the covenant of the cleft of the rock as against the covenant of Sinai; the “revelation“ of Yom Kippur as against that of Shavuot.

“Satyrs Will Dance There” (Isa 13:21)

Due to limitations of space, I will only touch briefly upon Chapter 17. This chapter presents various laws pertaining to the consumption of animal flesh—that, originally, any domesticated animals eaten were to be offered at the altar as peace-offerings (vv. 1-9; a rule that was already mitigated in Deut 12:20-28); that it is strictly forbidden to consume any blood (vv. 10-12); and that, when eating game animals and fowl, their blood is to be poured out upon the ground and covered (vv. 13-16). It should be mentioned that this chapter, like the one that follows, is strongly concerned with the struggle against pagan practices: animals were to be offered at the altar “that bring the sacrifices they offer in the field to the Lord… and that they no longer slaughter their sacrifice to the satyrs after whom they go astray” (vv. 5-7). The reference to satyrs (se’irim; lit., “goats”) clearly seems to allude to some pagan worship of demons or satyrs who were thought to live in the wilderness. This also seems to relate to the scape goat of Yom Kippur which was sent into the wilderness (see Ramban’s astonishing interpretation of this rite on 16:8).

Giluy Arayot - Sexuality in Contemporary Society

The area of sexuality has been one of the most problematic areas of human life since time immemorial: at once the source of the most intense pleasure; the vehicle through which new life is brought into the world, and through which man and woman share in some measure in the deity’s attribute as Creator; the “glue” that binds the nuclear family unit together; but also the source of our most unruly, chaotic, and potentially destructive impulses. As Maimonides puts it at the end of Hilkhot Issurei Biah (Laws of Prohibited Intercourse), 22.18-19: “There is no matter that is more difficult for the majority of the people… than arayot [i.e., incest and the other forbidden sexual acts contained in Lev 18] and [other] forbidden intercourse. Our sages said that, when Israel was commanded concerning this matter, they wept and accepted it with resentment and weeping… For man’s soul covets and desires theft and arayot, and there is no community, at any time, without some people who are not sexually promiscuous and licentious.” In brief, there is no area of Torah that is as troubling, and about which people feel, to a greater or lesser extent, sorely tempted, as that of arayot.

Before turning to our parshah, and offering some insights into Leviticus 18, which is known as parshat arayot, a few comments about the role of sexuality in modern culture. We live today in an age in which human beings, certainly in the Western world and in the “developed” world, are bombarded by sexual stimulation in a manner almost certainly unprecedented in human history. It is a truism to say that we live in an age of accelerated change generally, but in no area is this more true than in that of sexuality of the family. For better or worse, those of us who grew up in the early post-WW2 period have seen far-reaching changes in a gamut of areas related to sexuality: from the sharp rise in the divorce rate; through the emergence of feminism, which entailed not only a struggle for such rights as equal economic and educational opportunities and the abolition of sex-based discrimination in various areas, but also, in its more radical wing, the total redefinition of the meaning of gender; to the widespread acceptance of homosexuality; the acceptance of the norm of sexual freedom among unmarried people; etc. Moreover, it would not be too far wrong to say that, if “religion” is that which provides meaning to life, then sex and the worship of ones own sexuality, has become the de facto religion of many modern people. A critical viewing of almost any contemporary movie or TV program confirms the truth of this statement.

How did things come to such a pass? A thumbnail, partisan overview of the 20th century as “the century of sex” will no doubt begin with Sigmund Freud. But it would be a grave misreading of Freud to see him as the father of the modern “modern sexual revolution.” While he saw sexuality as pivotal in the human psyche, and the repression of the sexual instinct as at the root of many neuroses, he never advocated the unfettered, indiscriminate expression of sexuality. Rather, he tried to bring his patients to a healthier, more mature, aware balance between the instinctual impulses of the id, and the civilizing forces of the super-ego and the ego. A reading of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents makes clear his acceptance of the necessity of controls in any civilized society.

The “prophets” of the modern sexual revolution—the name Havelock Ellis comes to mind— were those who, based on a bowdlerization of Freud, saw “repression” per se as bad, and who naively saw the freeing of instinct per se as leading to human liberation and greater mental health. The research of such anthropologists as Margaret Mead, who studied the sexual norms of primitive societies of the Pacific islands, led to the revival of the Rousseauian myth of the “noble savage.” By mid-century, such admittedly eccentric figures as Wilhelm Reich and his “orgone box” were advocating the total orgasm as the panacea for all psychic ills; in the ‘60’s, Norman J. Brown, in Love’s Body, was heralding a new age of psycho-somatic liberation, in which unfettered sexuality would play a key role. The development of the birth control pill and other cheap, popular and safe methods of contraception wrought a far-reaching revolution in sexual mores in the Western countries; so much so, that at this point in time, the norm of premarital chastity remains the domain only of the seriously religiously committed, and first-date sex is by no means a rarity. The AIDS epidemic led people to exercise a certain prudence (i.e., gave a new lease on life to the moribund condom industry) when indulging in casual sex, but has hardly led to a fundamental change in mores.

That, then—just to keep in mind the dissonance between our world and that described by the Torah—is the social reality against which we read today’s portion.

The heart of Chapter 18 is a listing of forbidden sexual practices: thirteen verses (vv. 6-18, including the general heading) defining various kinds of unions as incestuous, including those originating in blood ties and marital connections; adultery; intercourse during menstruation; homosexual relations; bestiality; and, interestingly, in the same sequence of verses, one law totally unrelated to sexuality—the prohibition against “passing ones seed” through fire to Molech (This rule is presumably included here to reinforce the root of all these laws in the struggle against paganism). All of these laws are repeated in Chapter 20, not as prohibitions, but in the form of the sanctions given to those who violate them. A close reading of the two chapters reveals certain variations in wording and phrasing that are deserving of thought and reflection.

The list of prohibited relations is introduced by a prelude (vv.1-5) and followed by an epilogue (vv. 24-30) giving the rationale for these laws. Interestingly, the reason given is essentially related to the uniqueness of the people of Israel, and their separateness from the pagans among whom these practices thrived. “You shall not do as the acts of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, nor as the acts of the land of Canaan, where you are going” (v. 3); but rather, “you shall do my ordinances and keep my statutes, and walk in them” (v. 4). Two motifs stand out in the epilogue: one, the repeated use of the term to’evah (abomination), indicating the intense ethical repugnance of these acts; second, the observance of sexual chastity and the avoidance of licentiousness as the key test for the people’s successful settlement of the Land of Israel. The message is: those who came before you defiled the land, and the land spit them out because of it; make sure that you don’t repeat their mistake. (Ramban presents an elaborate mystical philosophy of the Land of Israel on verse 25).

In three separate places in this chapter (vv. 4, 5, 26), the Torah emphasizes that, rather than following the “ways” of Egypt and Canaan, “you shall follow my ordinances and statutes (hukim u-mishpatim).” Elsewhere in the Torah, as well as in the Rabbinic tradition, these two phrases are defined thus: hukim (ordinances) are those laws which are seen as arbitrary, i.e., whose reason is not comprehended by human beings, while mishpatim (“statutes”) are those which human reason would require even if they were not divinely commanded. It is interesting that the Torah does not spell out here to which category these laws belong. As far as I remember, those Jewish philosophers who deal with this problem classify arayot among the mishpatim, i.e., the so-called rational mitzvot. However, one may see that the sexual impulse, the “Evil Urge” or Yetzer ha-Ra with which it is identified by the Sages, is so powerful that people are easily confused regarding these matters, inventing rationalizations and justifications for all kinds of transgressions (just look at the twentieth century!). Thus, in effect the laws of sexual behavior most be accepted as hukim.

To avoid misunderstanding, I would like to conclude this discussion on sexuality by saying that, while I am deeply perturbed by the sexual mores of contemporary culture, and certainly see the living of a life of sexual modesty as a sine-qua-non of Jewish religiosity, the alternative put forward by the ultra-Orthodox community—i.e., social segregation of the sexes on most occasions, such as wedding celebrations, Torah lectures, cultural and intellectual events, etc.—does not seem to me the right way. The path of the Orthodoxy of two generations ago, of the founders of Kibbutz Hadati and of pre-’67 religious Zionism, of a “mixed but modest society,” is still one to strive for.


Post a Comment

<< Home