Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Boundaries of Purity and Pollution

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This week’s Torah portion, Tsav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) is a continuation of last week’s focus on the cult of sacrifice in ancient Israelite religion. Last week, we were given the basic rundown of the sacrificial cult, the bare-bones outline of the form of worship. This week, some of the nitty-gritty is laid out. There is quite a bit of repetition of the sacrifice ritual itself, but this sets apart the new information in stark contrast. Ultimately, the new focus is on what is actually done with the offerings.

In my experience, most people just assume that sacrifices are something that has to be painful; a practice of depriving one’s self for some sort of repentance or greater good. Some of the sacrificial ritual described here is certainly this, but it also has a much greater function.

According to Mary Douglas, having a structure of culturally delimited pollutants and methods of purifying one’s self once polluted helps to maintain boundaries that aid in general social cohesion. To set up boundaries for social cohesion means to provide maintenance for a national or social identity, and to therefore define an in-group or out-group. This fits closely with the actual meaning of the Hebrew word that is often translated at “sacrifice.” The Hebrew word korban (קרבן) is related not necessarily to the idea of sacrifice as we have it in Western culture, but more to drawing close, or being in the midst of something. The qualities of pollution and purity found in relation to sacrifice here are really about whether one is fit to draw close to God or not, and if one draws close without being fit, the legislation is crystal clear: this individual is exiled. If one is fitly purified, one may actually come close enough to share a meal with God, as is found in Lev. 7:12-21. It is easily noted by any human being that sharing food is one of our primary ways of showing camaraderie, and delimiting who is inside of a group and who is outside.

So here we see the meaning of ancient Israelite sacrifice – camaraderie with God, and maintenance of cultural boundaries of pollution and purity as the method of maintaining social cohesion. Regardless of any suspicion one may hold of the priesthood (and there is a lot of suspicion to be held!) let us skip over that question, and view them as maintainers of social cohesion via these rituals. Assuming the best intentions of the Priesthood, the rituals can then be read as having twofold meaning.

One, this document is a method of maintaining social cohesion and social boundaries for a self-determining culture. According to this, the establishment of the Priestly cult would be a way of keeping the people together as one. Secondly, this ritual form was a way for people to draw close to God.

Although the priesthood and the power structure at the Temple in Jerusalem went through many upheavals, it is safe to assume that the structure of sacrifice held the same role throughout the Second Temple period. Many breakaway sects of Judaism who concluded that the Priesthood was indeed corrupt called this into question late in the game, though. The Pharisees were the most notable of these groups.

The Pharisees’ reaction to the Priesthood of their time was not just a simple dismissal – it was instead an adoption of the laws of purity that the Priesthood held to. Rather than doing away with the system and ideas of pollution and purity altogether, the Pharisees decided that all Jews should live lives of utmost purity, being a nation of Priests according to Exodus 19:6, and draw close to God in their own way, which was focused on study, practice of the religious laws now termed halacha, and prayer. This non-sacrifice centered approach (they still offered sacrifices at the Temple when it stood, though) allowed them to survive as a practicing group well after the destruction of the Temple.

This reaction to the need for in-group boundary maintenance, along with methods of drawing close to God, was established close to 2000 years ago. In the intervening period, mainstream Jewish approaches to God have changed very little. Reform Judaism changed it a bit in its own way, by focusing on the ethical commandments, doing away with the ritual commandments, and centralizing prayer as something done communally in the vernacular. This shift is often looked at as a specifically Modernist attempt to move away from the primitiveness of symbolic garb and action. But let us take a step back and look at it from a different direction.

As I wrote about last week, Isaac Luria was a great kabbalist in the 16th Century who formulated the idea that there are sparks of holiness hidden within the shells, or klipot, of our mundane reality. In order for us to better the world, we must raise these sparks of holiness from their klipot through the practice of both the commandments of God, and also acts of loving-kindness or compassion in our day-to-day life, which is referred to in Lurianic thought as tikkun olam, or repairing the world. So according to Lurianic mysticism, the conception of pollution is no longer about maintaining personal purity to allow us to draw closer to God. Instead, God is all around us, hidden within the mundane moments of everyday life. Our requirement is to help to diffuse the pollution through our actions, as opposed to diffusing the pollution around ourselves through ritual sacrifice.

This approach to communing with God, through acts of loving kindness, was picked up by Martin Buber, a 19th century philosopher who believed that our greatest experience with God can come through acts of pure, non-instrumental relation. To put it more plainly, when you approach someone or something in a moment, without considering what this someone or something looks like, can be described as, or can do for you, you are approaching it in non-instrumental (I-Thou) relation. This conception of pure relation is a pragmatic manner of looking at Lurianic kabbalah. You are not judging this someone or something by its klipah, you are looking beyond into its holy spark.

This new basis for drawing close to God certainly creates a method of communing with the divine in every day life. If we are able to view our interactions as sacred and holy in this way, then we are constantly interacting with divinity, and every choice we make draws us closer or pushes us farther away. The great quandary that is now raised by this new approach, though, is the issue boundary maintenance. As Liberal Judaism progresses, it has continually struggled with the issue of boundary maintenance. In Torah portion Shemini, I will focus more on the issue of boundary maintenance in our world today, especially in regards to Liberal Judaism. As it stands, though, this method of drawing close to God, of viewing our interactions as chances for the experience of divinity in and of itself, is a life- and world- changing approach to spirituality. The next time you are confronted with a decision of how to treat someone or something, or how to look at a circumstance you are in, consider the divine implications of raising the holy sparks out of every interaction. Through this constant attempt at drawing close to God, our lives gain immediate purpose, and are renewed with a sense of wonderment in the actual miracle of every day life.

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Gateways to God

ImageLast week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26), begins the record of the Priestly vocation in ancient Israelite religion.  Most scholars agree that the entirety of Leviticus was written well after any stage of roving worship, and that the language of Leviticus that prescribes cultic activity based around the mishkan, the travelling abode of God, was written down by the priesthood during the period of the cult being centered in Jerusalem.

This Torah portion recounts the most common of ritual sacrifices of the time. Each sacrifice either requires a domesticated animal or domesticated crops. The individual wishing to make this offering was required to bring it to the altar found in front of the mishkan, where he would have to lay his hands on the head of the sacrifice, and then slaughter the sacrifice for the priests. Then, depending upon the specific sacrifice, the priests would take the blood, either spread it on the altar or scatter it around the altar, and remove specific fat and organs from the sacrifice. If it is an offering of grain, it is prepared as a specific unleavened bread product. The sacrifice is then burnt, its smoke rising as a pleasing odor to God.

It’s a complex, detailed, and messy business. At the time, these rituals were the gateway between God and the people of Israel. But the book of Leviticus stands on its own today, its Priestly writers lost in the mist of history.  We are left to decode it, and to understand its underlying values, the spirit it is holding within.

Lurianic Kabbalah tells us that our world is full of empty shells, called klipot, waiting to be opened to reveal their internal holy spark. The shells act as a barrier between humanity and the Divine.  To call the rites of Leviticus klipot is surely heresy in some circles, but as we live in a world without a mishkan and without a strong connection to the ritual praxis of the Levites, we are entirely disconnected from spiritual content of these sacrifices. A shell certainly exists around them, especially if we take seriously the reality implicit to the rituals of their being a gateway between humanity and God. With the destruction of the Temples, this gateway was closed.

Rabbinic Judaism attempted to use prayer in place of sacrifice, creating an analogous structure in the prayer service to that of the sacrifice service. Part of the traditional Jewish prayer service is a recounting of portions of Leviticus, followed by a prayer that God will accept the recounting as if it were an actual sacrifice. The early Rabbis’ splitting and reinterpreting of the sacrificial cult via language is a brilliant method of dealing with the very clear problem of how to reopen this gateway to God. Words, in that time, were seen as miraculously powerful. Magic still existed in the minds of the public, and words were able to change and shape reality in incredible ways.

Unfortunately for most today, though, to enter into the real heart of the Jewish prayer structure is requires a great deal of study, a relatively high level of comfort with Hebrew, and an understanding of the meaning of the structure in relation to the Jewish understanding of connection to God. Many find prayer services meaningful without really understanding the background, but my experience has shown me that just as many, if not more, do not.

As Max Weber said, we have disenchanted our reality through industrialization, commodification, and materialization. Words have become nearly worthless. Any shmo such as myself can have a blog where his or her words are posted up for anyone in the world to read. In many ways, silence, the lack of language, has become far holier. In fact, to go back to the original topic, the sacrificial rituals according to Leviticus were completely silent, a far cry from the prayer services we attend today as Jews.

The first parashah of Leviticus is a statement of the general tools of the priesthood; an introduction to the basic procedures that will be expounded upon and specified in greater detail as they become more clearly elucidated. The general outline of sacrifice offered in this parashah gives me my tools to use to interpret it: The main players are the Priesthood, the objects of sacrifice, the methods of sacrifice, and the purpose of sacrifice. Please allow this d’var torah to be the same.  As we move forward into further portions, I will attempt to more greatly elucidate our situation today in relation to our own gateways to God, be it through prayer, silence, or attempting to peel away the klipot, the shells, surrounding these rituals to reveal the divine spark within.

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