By Rabbi Joshua Waxman
Every year around this time we complete our reading of the Book of Exodus and roll over into Leviticus.
Suddenly, our Torah reading is all sacrifices and blood, skin diseases and emissions. For casual modern readers, the contents of this book can feel far from edifying. It can feel irrelevant, confusing and even offensive. What gives?
The key to Leviticus, which we begin reading this week, is recognizing that the ancient Israelites were a community that asked and grappled with important questions about how we are supposed to function as a society.
What does it mean to create a society where God can truly dwell in our midst? What happens when members of that society misbehave — how does it threaten society at large and what responsibilities do we have, individually and communally, to respond? How do we articulate certain collective ideals and values while still making room for people who don’t conform to them? Who can remain part of our society and when is someone beyond the pale? How much do the intentions behind our actions matter?
These questions, which form the living heart of Leviticus, are ones for which we are still urgently attempting to figure out answers in our time. In an increasingly polarized society, how can we — should we be? — in relationship with someone whose opinions and beliefs are inimical to our own?
In a time of growing awareness about behavior that we now recognize as unacceptable but was often excused in the past — perhaps making advances on a subordinate, or wearing blackface to a party — when can someone who has done something wrong be rehabilitated and when does that wrongdoing keep them beyond the bounds of society? How do racist or xenophobic views held by some impact society as a whole, and what steps do we need to take to purge the damage they cause to our moral fabric?
None of these questions has easy answers, then or now. But the genius of Leviticus is that it took these abstract, conceptual questions that are at the heart of how we try to build an ethical and righteous society and made them concrete, practical and actionable.
The sacrifices, according to many Biblical scholars, were a system that wiped clean the moral contamination that resulted from individual and communal misdeeds, allowing the society to view these wrongs as expiated. The distinction between tahor and tamei — ritually pure and impure allowed the ancient Israelites to know what circumstances put someone beyond the bounds of the camp, literally as well as figuratively, and provided a prescribed procedure for bringing someone back in.
Similarly, the institution of the Day of Atonement, described in chapter 16 of this book, provided the community with a means to atone, to expiate the offenses they had committed before God and one another in a cathartic celebration that allowed them to move forward with reassurance and hope.
All of these rituals, and so many others described throughout the course of the book, are intended to uphold and promote holiness. As God instructs, “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2) The Israelites were aspiring to build a society that placed holiness at the center, that recognized that whatever actions take place between people are not merely personal and private, but involve and implicate God as well.
With this awareness, we are called on to assume the extra responsibility of realizing just how significant our behavior is, not only on an interpersonal scale but on a cosmic one as well. When we fall short, we must make amends not only to the person we have harmed but to God as well, and we are given the gift of a specific path that tells us how.
Imagine if we held to this standard today! Imagine if we took seriously the command, “You shall not wrong one another but shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God. Rather you shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security.” (Lev. 25:17-18)
Imagine if instead of trying to evade responsibility for our shortcomings — to vehemently deny them until caught, then practice damage control by “apologizing to anyone who might have been offended” — we acknowledged and accepted them, realizing that our society can only become better by recognizing our shared responsibility for building an ethical and loving world and the critical role that all of us play in increasing or diminishing holiness.
The ritualized answers Leviticus provides were attempts to grapple with the questions we ask as a society, and the harm that occurs when they are left unresolved. They paint the picture of a society built around a mission and purpose — of realizing holiness through our everyday behavior and actions.
Although the specific answers and remedies Leviticus provides may not speak to us in our own time, as we read through Leviticus in the months ahead we should appreciate — and learn from — the society that had the courage to ask these questions and the audacity to seek ways to confront them head on.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman is the spiritual leader of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation and serves as president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The board is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.