This week we begin the Book of Leviticus. It’s the third book of the Torah and often considered an archaic and challenging book. It relays, among other things, the details around the ritual sacrifices our ancestors made in the earliest days of Judaism. We read about the sacrifices that existed for every human emotion and experience, sacrifices made in the name of gratitude, joy, regret, wellbeing and much more. As Baruch Levine notes: ‘Leviticus is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation. Its main subject matter – animal offerings and ritual impurity – seems remote from contemporary concerns.’ The book is hard to be sure; it lays out a type of Judaism hard for us to fathom in March of 2023.
What do we do with a text such as this? Do we toss it aside as irrelevant and useless or do we roll up our sleeves and learn about the concerns and practices of our ancestors? Do we admonish the Torah as an outdated document or do we approach it with love and curiosity? I think you know my answer.
The Judaism we practice today has extremely little in common with a faith predicated on ritual offerings as described in Leviticus. Ours is Judaism of study and prayer, good deeds, community building and working toward a world of greater justice and equity. This is a Judaism that would come to be in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It is a Judaism that marks a necessary evolution from Leviticus. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70CE, synagogues would come to replace a centralized temple, rabbis would replace the priests that oversaw the ritual sacrifices at the Temple, and the very mode of communing with God would have to change. To express ourselves to God we could pray rather than sacrifice animals of the flock or herd. Beside the Torah we would place the wisdom of the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash, collections designed to lift Judaism from the time of the Torah and make it real, relevant and accessible to every Jew.
For me, one of the takeaways of Leviticus is that we cannot ignore our past. We cannot pretend our ancestors did not practice a Judaism we find arcane or even off-putting altogether. We should tell their story too. I would say the same about Jewish history or American history: Let’s tell the full story, not toss aside those parts that make us uncomfortable. This is a discussion playing out in the U.S. all the time these days. Let’s not pretend that there are parts of American history that are not deeply troubling, chapters of the American story that were profoundly rooted in prejudice and racism. They deserve to be told.
There are some who would say otherwise and lift up the United States as a consistent beacon of tolerance and acceptance. There are some who say that we must focus only on the good. My Yiddishe Kopf tells me otherwise. Let’s honor our past fully by telling the full story so that we might know it, our children might know it and we can all learn from it. Thus we might ensure a more peaceful and compassionate tomorrow.