Impenetrable, irrelevant, boring. These are some of the descriptions I’ve heard about the Book of Leviticus, which we begin reading this week during the annual Torah cycle. Even the great Israeli teacher Nehama Leibowitz called the laws of Leviticus a “closed book to us” — which did not prevent her from writing an entire volume of interpretation!
Yet, as the Rabbis of old used to say, “this too is Torah and I must learn it.” So what can we learn from the Book of Leviticus? Much of the book is concerned with details of the animal offerings that were the primary form of Israelite worship until the destruction of the Second Temple. Lest we think we are the first generation to reject the notion of slaughtering animals as a prayerful experience, we should consider Maimonides’ opinion toward the end of the 12th century. He explained that the practice of animal sacrifices was transitional; its purpose was to wean the ancient Israelites from the idolatry of Egypt and help them come to know and serve the one true deity, YHVH. Having accomplished this, the sacrifices can be a thing of the past.
So what replaces animal sacrifices as Jewish worship? Maimonides and the rabbinic tradition in general say it is prayer. Certainly this is true. Prayer is the foundation on which our siddur and synagogue are based.
I suggest the Book of Leviticus itself provides another answer. For those of us who look for a guide to elevate our lives in service of the Source of Life, we need look no further than the Holiness Code in the middle of Leviticus. Rather than talk about animal sacrifices, the Holiness Code directs our behavior, teaching us moral and ethical conduct with the intention that “you shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy.”
What, precisely, are we exhorted to do in the name of holiness? Here are some examples:
• Share your wealth with those less fortunate: “You shall not pick your vineyard bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”
• Don’t deceive or be underhanded with another: “You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another … You shall not defraud your fellow.”
• Don’t take advantage of another’s disability or lack of knowledge: “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.”
Here is a small detail, but a telling one: God introduces the Holiness Code by saying to Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy.’” Note that this is addressed to the whole community. Not the elite few, but all of us.
Leviticus is not just about arcane instructions regarding animal sacrifices. It contains timeless ideas about things that we — just as our ancient ancestors — can do everywhere, every day to fulfill the entire spirit of the Book of Leviticus, which is to bring holiness into our lives through our everyday acts of ethical and moral integrity.
Rabbi Helen T. Cohn is the spiritual leader of Congregation M’kor Hayim in Tucson.