Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 18 March 2016
When the Liberal Jew turns the page from the closing verses of Exodus to begin Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, a very great challenge lies ahead. The founders of Liberal Judaism, even if they studied the first half of the Book of Leviticus, in all likelihood, excluded it from the liturgical calendar of Torah readings every Shabbat. Its subject matter after all was obsolete: sacrifices, the ordination of the priests, the dietary laws, laws regarding the impurity of a woman after giving birth and the often considered distasteful laws required for diagnosing and purifying those with various types of physical afflictions. The ancient ritual associated with Yom Kippur – the sending of a goat into the wilderness ‘to Azazel’ and the Temple offerings – had mercifully been replaced with the ritual and liturgy of synagogue worship.
Even in Professor Marc Saperstein’s article ‘Jewish Preaching in Leviticus’ (European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Autumn 2008), pp. 102-111), the selection of choices of sermon material from the third book of the Torah is limited to the poignant deaths of two of the sons of Aaron in Leviticus 10, the Sabbatical Year – ‘providing a memory of Eden and a foretaste of the messianic age’, and the verse that occurs at the very centre of Leviticus, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (19:18).
Claude Montefiore, whose ideas and religious direction set Liberal Judaism on its course in the twentieth century, did not, however, eschew the powerful influence of law and tradition as expressed in Leviticus and in rabbinic literature in his own writings. For Montefiore, the law encompassed moral law and the shaping of human character – humility, righteousness, charity and love. In his Outlines of Liberal Judaism, Montefiore acknowledges that the law – the moral law that requires us to be holy and to reach for the ideals of righteousness, justice and compassion – is an expression of God’s will and we should note that it is couched in legal terms.
Nor did Montefiore reject the ceremonies of Jewish life which he saw as vehicles for true religious expression. Reason and conscience dictated whether such ceremonies should be observed – if they strengthened one’s interior, religious life, if they provided for the expression of religious experience, maintained a bond with the past and connected with Jews all over the world, they had merit and value.
Although he observed the dietary laws himself, for the sake of his mother’s wishes, Montefiore did not count them as among the religious observances that had value for the Liberal Jew – the law had become baroque and isolationist, he said; it had removed the purity and truth of Judaism’s moral teachings.
Shabbat, by contrast, was essential because it was in and of itself ‘good’ without being bound to the letter of the law; it provided freedom and a strengthening of the inner life of the individual.
Today, our Liberal congregations have reverted to reading each sedra in the Book of Leviticus and much has been written in the past fifty years or so that has encouraged us to re-examine these chapters from different academic and religious points of view – whether historical, anthropological, feminist or through the lens of other forms of cultural theory.
In her commentary to the closing verses of Chapter 5 in Leviticus – verses that indissolubly connect an offence against another human being with a trespass against God (5:20), Tamara Cohn Eskenazi says:
This parashah which lingers so long on rites in the sanctuary, concludes with a list of offenses against another person, what we might call ethical and social or economic violations. Each of these wrongs requires first and foremost a restitution of the damage done to the other person. This section introduces the deep concern in Leviticus for social justice and equity, a concern often overlooked as a result of the book’s detailed information about ritual (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 586).
Through sacrifice, the individual sought to offer up something of themselves to restore the brokenness of a relationship – whether between people or between the individual and God. The korban (’sacrifice’), from the Hebrew root karav, meaning ‘to draw near’ was an expression of humanity’s striving to draw near to God, to be, in Samson Raphael Hirsch’s words ‘more devoted and faithful to [our] sacred mission on earth.’
Leviticus – for all its challenges – calls us to re-consider how we give expression to gratitude and thanksgiving, how we deal with wrong-doing and guilt, sickness and health, birth and death, our stewardship of the earth and everything in it. This centrepiece of the Torah calls us to aspire to holiness – to see ourselves as striving to live lives of purity and truth and passionate pursuit of justice and compassion.
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