Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Vayikra 2015

Parashat Vayikra
20th March 2015 - Rabbi Rene Pfertzel

In Midrash Rabbah (on Leviticus 1:1), Rav Assi says: “Why do young children begin [the study of Torah] with Leviticus, and not with Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure; so, let the pure come and engage with the study of the pure”.

For Liberal Jews, this Midrash can be extremely difficult. First, we are very uncomfortable with the notion of purity. Of course, we can read it as ritual purity or impurity, but these categories belong to a time when there was a Temple, the only way to reach this kind of purity. In addition to that, purity can be very dangerous. In post-1492 Spain, the obsession with blood purity, limpieza di sangre, peaked with the obligation for those who wanted to work for the Crown that they did not have Jewish ancestors, at least five generations back. This policy was the first step which led to the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, “for the protection of German blood and honour”. These evil laws provided a legal framework for Jews’ exclusion from the public sphere.

There is no such thing as blood purity. It is at the best a fantasy, but a bloody one! Our society has benefited considerably from cultural and ethnical mixes. Our cultural diversity is a source of wealth. Encountering others makes us wiser and more sensitive.

We have the same reservations towards sacrifices. Since the first Liberal rabbinic conferences in Germany in the 1840’s, we have abandoned the idea of the restoration of the Temple of Jerusalem and the sacrificial system. Purity and sacrifices are intertwined. Even Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed (3:32), explained that sacrifices were necessary at one stage of the religion of Israel, and we do not need them anymore. They have been replaced, internalized, as our own avodah, our endeavour to reach the divine.

So, why do we need to study these passages, or even read them?

The first answer is quite obvious: it is not up to us to change Torah, a text which comes from the depths of times. We are ivri’im, “passers”, and we have the task to transmit our heritage to the next generation. If something in a text bothers you, it is a call for deeper reading, studying, a call to analyse the text, even more so if it upsets us.

Moreover, our tradition offers a wide range of ways to read a text, from the plain text, the pshat, to the secret teaching, the sod, through the remez, the allegoric reading (what is hidden in the text, what does it symbolize?), and the drash (the explanation). These four levels are called PaRDeS, and altogether represent the paradise, this world beyond ours, and the excitement of discovery (the Archimedes Eureka!).

The text asks questions more than it provides answers. In Leviticus, we are confronted with a norm, with ways to amend our deeds, with a path. What are we ready to sacrifice to achieve who we are? Why do we need a normative system to express our relationship with the divine?

Beyond the well-described system of the temple worship, Leviticus raises questions about our need to create structures, institutions, as if we were afraid of losing control.