Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Shemini 05

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, deals with two things: First, the installation of the priests with the attendant deaths of the sons of Aaron, and second the laws of Kashrut.
The installation of the priests consisted of a series or ritual sacrifices, not in itself remarkable. But what is interesting is two instances of timing. First, when it was time to prepare the sacrifices, Aaron hesitated and had to be urged by Moses to step up to the altar and perform the ritual. The Rabbi’s tell us that the reason for Aaron’s hesitation was his doubts about his own worthiness, given his role, however minor, in the incident of the golden calf. The lesson they draw from this is that God does not expect or demand perfection of us, but rather repentance and learning from our mistakes.
After the sacrifices have been consumed by a fire of divine origin, Nadab and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, decide bring incense that they will burn into the sanctuary, and mix it with the divine fire. The result of this good idea is that they are killed, again by divine fire. The rabbis’ interpretation of this is twofold: first, they did not consult with Moses or Aaron about the idea, thus violating their father’s and uncle’s primacy in matters of religion, possibly because they were anxious for Moses and Aaron to die so that they themselves could take over as the priests, and second, because the account of their deaths is followed by God telling Aaron that the priests are not to come drunk to their duties, they may have been punished for lubricating the execution of their good idea with wine. So we have the contrast of Aaron’s humility and self-deprecation with his sons’ arrogance and placing themselves ahead of their station, not to mention their rather casual attitude toward the divine presence, which they first demonstrated at Sinai.
The second part of the portion deals with dietary laws – the laws of Kashrut. Here we find the rules on which animals and birds are permissible to eat and which are forbidden, and we find something very curious. The Torah says that the only mammals fit to eat are those that chew their cud and have a cloven hoof, and notes that there are many animals that chew a cud but do not have a cloven hoof, e.g., the camel, but only one animal, the pig, that has a cloven hoof and does not chew a cud. There have been many attempts to show that the Torah was not divinely given by proving that it was wrong about this – after all, how could the presumably human writers of the Torah know all of the animals on earth? Surely in Australia or New Zealand or South America scientists would find at least one other animal with cloven hooves that chewed its cud! But lo and behold, there is not. The pig is the only animal in the world that has this combination of traits.
Similarly, some time ago when a new species of fish was discovered, scientists were debating whether it was safe for people to eat. A rabbi, seeing that the new fish had scales and fins (i.e., it met the criteria for kashrut), volunteered to eat it and show that it was not poisonous, and it wasn’t.
The interpretation of the requirement of Kashrut under commandment Judaism is simple – God said what we can and cannot eat, and that’s the way it is. Liberal or progressive Jews look for the meaning in the commandments. Many people feel that the laws of kashrut are metaphorical or symbolic. The point is not that we are forbidden to eat certain creatures, but that God is telling us what is expected of us – what qualities we are not to incorporate in ourselves. Pigs, at least in biblical times, were dirty and ate garbage and we are to be clean. Birds of prey and predatory mammals such as hawks, eagles, bears and lions are fierce and aggressive and we are to be compassionate and peaceful. Crows and ravens eat carrion and filth. Fish were spared destruction in Noah’s flood and so are pure – fish with scales and fins tend to live in cleaner waters near the surface, while others and shellfish live near the bottom where it is not as clean.
Finally we have the Haftarah, which is the story of King David’s establishment of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish nation and his returning the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark is being transported on an ox-cart, which is insufficiently dignified and reverent given the holiness of the cargo, and when the oxen stumble Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark and is killed by God for this sacrilege. The Ark then proceeds in proper state, borne on the shoulders of Levites and is taken to Mount Zion where King David, dressed in the robes of a priest, dances and celebrates in the procession.
So in the Torah portion and the Haftarah we have three deaths all related to sacrilege – Nadab and Avihu are insufficiently reverent in God’s presence, and Uzzah is insufficiently respectful. Some would say that Uzzah was trying to prevent the greater sacrilege of the Ark falling to the ground and possibly breaking and spilling out the tablets of the law, but this would not have been necessary if the Ark was being properly transported in the first place. Then we have the teaching, though the metaphor of dietary laws, of what kind of people God wants us to be and the incidental lesson that “you are what you eat.” What are we, as 21st Century Jews, to make of all this?
I believe that the Torah is built around two fundamental messages: First, God is unity or said another way God is inclusive, not exclusive. Many Rabbis have asked if God is everything, why the creation of the world and of human beings, and have concluded that God created human beings in order to have something to which God could give. Others have said that human beings are not a separate creation from and by God, but that God and human beings arise together – that God cannot exist without humanity and humanity cannot exist without God; in that interpretation, the Shema takes on a whole other dimension of meaning, where “the Lord is One” means there can be nothing separate from God, and humans are simply an aspect of God.
The second underpinning of the Torah seems to me to be the injunction to “be holy as your God is holy,” i.e. to live in emulation of God, and the Torah can be seen as a set of instructions on how to do that. In this Torah portion, we find the instructions to be reverent and respectful, to be appropriate, and to have every aspect of our lives be mindful of our relationship to God and of how God expects us to be.

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