Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein – 15 March 2019
A few years back I was invited by a local church bible study group to tell them “How a rabbi looks at the Bible”. They were very keen and aimed to study one book of the Bible in depth every year. That year it was the Book of Leviticus. I shocked them by opening my talk by saying “but why are you spending all this time on Leviticus; I would never do so.” When I said that there was basically only two chapters in the book worth studying, at first they looked dismayed, but then one by one they began to say… indeed why are we trying to understand chapter after chapter about the minutiae of animal sacrifice?
As Liberal Jews we surely have a problem when the cycle of Torah readings comes round to Leviticus. So much of it is surely of little interest to us, indeed the laws of sacrifices lost their significance once the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. Since we do not pray or hope for its restoration, unlike the official line in Orthodox Judaism, we can surely have little interest in hearing as our Torah reading details of the sacrificial ritual or the duty of the priests. When I was growing up in Birmingham Liberal Synagogue our minister, Bernard Hooker refrained from reading such stuff. Instead we did take out a Torah scroll, but never opened it, instead Rev. Hooker read an alternative passage from biblical or post-biblical literature he felt of more relevance to our contemporary religious lives.
Fortunately this year there are two other traditional readings for this Shabbat. The Haftarah (Isaiah 43:21 -44:23) contains a number of memorable sentences. It is addressed to the exiles living in Babylon where it was no longer possible to make sacrifices as there was no substitute for the destroyed (first) Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed it opens with God saying… I no longer weary you by having to purchase animals to sacrifice… all I demand is loyalty to me and that you maintain your Jewish identity:“One shall say “I am for Adonai and take the name of Jacob. / Another shall write for Adonai on his hand and be known as Israel.” (Isaiah 44:5). And then there is a wonderful humorous debunking of those who made and worshipped idols. Ending with the promise that if the exiles remained loyal, “I have swept away your transgression like a cloud… for I will redeem you.” (44:22)
And there is yet another possible reading for this Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, when it is tradition to also read Deuteronomy 25: 17-19:“Remember what Amalek did to you…” I true Liberal Jew might question the sentiment – “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek – do not forget.” But at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, we must learn lessons from the past and do all we can to ensure that this scourge does not threaten us as it has so often in our history.
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