The reputation of the Book of Leviticus, which we begin to read this Shabbat, has suffered from ups and downs in the public eye. In traditional Judaism it was considered so important that the education of little children began with the study of Leviticus. “Let those who are pure come and study the laws of purity” was the common saying. In the nineteenth century, however, Leviticus was severely criticized by non-Jewish Biblical critics, who considered it to be a primitive book, concerned only with dry ritual, far from the high ideals of the prophets.
Fortunately the reputation of Leviticus has recently been restored by the work of two outstanding individuals: Rabbi Jacob Milgrom and the late Prof. Mary Douglas.. Rabbi Milgrom has written a magnificent commentary that has revealed the religious concepts that underlie the book. Prof. Douglas, a devout English Christian anthropologist, viewed the book from a unique perspective. In Leviticus As Literatureshe explained the purpose of Leviticus as follows:
Read in the perspective of anthropology the food laws of Moses are not expressions of squeamishness about dirty animals and invasive insects. The purity rules for sex and leprosy are not examples of priestly prurience. The religion of Leviticus turns out to be not very different from that of the prophets which demanded humble and contrite hearts, or from the psalmists’ love of God’¦.The more closely the text is studied, the more clearly Leviticus reveals itself as a modern religion, legislating for justice between persons and persons, between God and His people, and between people and animals. (Pages 1-2)
Today’s portion concentrates solely on sacrifices –korbanot– outlining different types of sacrifices and the reasons for bringing them. It is amazing that there are no prescriptions of words to be uttered during the sacrificial ceremonies, no formulas, not even prayers. It is as if the entire ritual was to be conducted in silence. We can only understand this as a rejection of the magical elements that were part of pagan ritual, the incantations which were thought to have an automatic effect upon the gods. The God of Israel is not subject to magic and the sacrifices must therefore be divorced from that completely, to the extreme of uttering no words at all during these ceremonies.
As the Book of Leviticus proceeds we shall see the moral considerations of the book emphasized clearly. Yet even in today’s portion, which is so completely devoted to the ritual of sacrifices, a careful reading indicates that in ancient Israel as in modern Judaism, ritual was not to be divorced from morality. On the contrary, it expresses the basic moral concepts of Judaism and provides a way in which human beings can express their feelings and bring themselves closer to the Divine. The Torah does not provide us with a way of either bribing God or forcing God’s will. It does tell us how we may come closer to God and asserts the value of all life.
Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former rabbi of New London Synagogue