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Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

April 18, 2013

Yearning for Wholeness
By Rabbi Len Levin

Chapter 19 of Leviticus is one of the most sublime-and one of the most puzzling-in the entire Bible. Imitate God through being “holy”; honor your parents; keep the Sabbath; do not put a stumbling-block before the blind; love your neighbor as yourself-what could be more ennobling and uplifting? But then there are the puzzling parts: don’t desecrate your sacrifice by keeping it till the third day; avoid mixtures in plowing, seeding, and clothing; don’t eat the fruit of immature trees. What does the one set of rules have to do with the other?

The seemingly indiscriminate mixture of ethical and ritual precepts is quite characteristic of the vision of the author of this section of Leviticus (dubbed “the Holiness Code” by modern Biblical scholars). The late Jacob Milgrom suggested, appropriately, that this author had heard the prophet Isaiah’s denunciation of those who observe priestly rituals and neglect ethics, and decided that he needed to articulate a vision in which attention to priestly detail and ethical dedication could be welded into a higher synthesis.

The English anthropologist Mary Douglas (in Purity and Danger, 1970) put her finger on the connection by invoking the idea of “wholeness,” rooted in the divine order of creation. God created an orderly world. Plants, trees, animals and human beings have their proper place in that world, and their boundaries must be respected. The social order builds on the natural order.

The Holiness Code teaches us to live in both realms, and to respect the divine intention in each. In the natural realm, it teaches us to respect the integrity of species and the natural rhythms of their life-cycles and growing conditions. In the social sphere, it teaches us to practice integrity in our dealings with one another. “Developing the idea of holiness as order, not confusion, this list [of injunctions] upholds rectitude and straight-dealing as holy, and contradiction and double-dealing as against holiness.” (Purity and Danger, p. 68) The rabbis played on the similarity of words hen (“yes”) and hin (a liquid measure): “An honest hin-this means your yes should be yes, and your no should be no.” (Sifra on Leviticus 19:36)

The priestly sanctum is a model and imitation of the divinely created world; respecting its rules inculcates respect for God and for the created order of nature.

Already in ancient times clever livestock managers produced mules by cross-breeding donkeys and horses, but mankind’s capacity for wholesale alteration of the natural environment was meager. Today, genetic engineering has multiplied exponentially our capability of changing the boundaries and characteristics of natural forms of life. On the other hand, the rampant expansion of human population centers has radically altered natural habitats, resulting in an alarming destruction of native species, while our emission of greenhouse gases throws the very future of the planet itself into peril.

The explosion in physical technology has been matched by the explosive development in complexity of our social order. We are governed by huge bureaucracies, and ruled by legal codes that fill libraries. We shop in a marketplace of wares of bewildering variety and innumerable ingredients, hawked by advertisers schooled in duplicity, who so creatively stretch the boundaries of language that we are no longer sure what any word (let alone “yes” or “no”) means any more. We are more distant than ever from the ideal of wholeness, of “you shall be holy.” Yet we need it more desperately than ever.

If we were to write our own code for holy living in the spirit of this parashah, we could adopt many of its injunctions as is, and update the rest to address our contemporary reality. Among the items of this new code might be:

-Keep the Sabbath as a holy sanctum and model of back-to-basics living.
-Honor parents and keep family ties strong, a bulwark against the hyper-mobility of today’s world.
-Eat real food, from healthy sources-the fewer ingredients the better.
-Uphold fairness and justice in our business and personal dealings, in our social governance, and in the market wares we patronize.
-Have regular contact with the natural world, as close to the way God created it as possible, and try to keep it that way.
-Belong to a community that celebrates our connection to God.
-Be holy-try to see the world through God’s eyes, and act in the world the way God would have wanted.

It is no longer the same world as the author of Leviticus envisioned. But we can still learn from his vision to make our world the best it can be.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.