31: Whose Responsibility?
The society in which each man lives is at once the basis for, and the nemesis of, that fullness of life which each man seeks.
– Reinhold Niebuhr
Leviticus won’t let go. This central book of the Torah keeps driving home the message of religious ritual, the “organized” part of organized religion. In this week’s reading, God commands Moses to transmit to Aaron and his sons the ritual laws relating to the Tabernacle service (Lev. 21:1–6). Moses gives over the instruction, and the section ends with, “Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons, and to all the Israelites” (21:24). We have come to expect this cadenced phrase, so it takes an extra measure of attentiveness to ask, what’s it doing here? These laws are explicitly for the priestly clan, for Aaron and his male descendants who will minister in the Tabernacle. Why do all Israel need to hear?
While these behaviors and qualifications are incumbent on the priestly clan, it is the responsibility of the entire society to be aware of them in order to enforce them and to support the Kohanim in their role as representatives of the nation. The focus of the Kohanim is service within the Tabernacle, but the Tabernacle and its service are also the responsibility of the nation.
Harking back to the seminal episode of Nadab and Abihu, this week’s portion (chs. 21–24) opens by prohibiting Aaron and his sons from contact with the dead. At the root of this prohibition lies a paradox which the hasidic rebbes, with their profound grasp of human psychology, understood only too well. The natural human response to death is despair, fear, and anger. When we behold the death of another, we are reminded of our own mortality — a shadowy figure looming at the end of a narrow corridor. We rarely look back to the eternity before we were born, yet we behold with dread the eternity that stretches beyond our last mortal hour. This descent into despair, this anger against God for creating a world that ends in death, is not the proper state of mind in which to serve God on behalf of others.
The Torah opened by in effect relieving God of the blame for our mortality. Genesis never states explicitly that humans were mortal at their creation; the actions of Eve and Adam are said to bring death into the world. For most orthodox thought, both Jewish and Christian, the notion that death is God’s doing feels mildly heretical: God being wholly good, how can God be the cause of death? Yet religious people respond to the death of loved ones by saying, “God took her,” or “It was God’s will.” It is difficult to reconcile “God is all good, and does only good” with the reality of death, and the common response, “God’s ways are mysterious,” comes across as a dodge.
The apologist approach skirts a paradox which even the teacher — even the rabbi, even the priest — knows to be irreconcilable. The greatness of the hasidic approach is that it doesn’t seek to explain the mind of God. The practical–mystical approach of the rebbes is to explain how God’s world works, not why God makes it so. Along the same lines, the rabbinic writings that constitute the Oral Torah open with the laws of reading the Shema prayer: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4). This very first law leapfrogs over questions of the existence of God and belief in God. The rabbis understood how difficult it is to command people’s inner state. Can people be ordered to love and to believe? What human authority can even begin to police the content of people’s hearts? But we can demand obedience. The Torah may accept the difficulty of requiring belief; it does, however, require you to behave at all times in accordance with the belief in God. “From doing an act not for its own proper sake,” say the rabbis, “one will come to do the act for its own proper sake.” (This fundamental principle is articulated in the Talmud, tractate Pesachim, page 50b, and repeated prominently by Maimonides, for example, in chapter 10 of his Laws of Repentance. It is a key linchpin of rabbinic thought.) Arriving at proper reverence takes a lifetime of practice.
Looking to the behaviors that bind society together: good manners and respect for the rights of others, matter far more than such outstanding qualities as the courage to rush into a burning building to save a life. Devastating fires break out only occasionally, but we are afforded the opportunity for common courtesy countless times each day. Smiling and saying “Good morning” to the server who pours our morning coffee, holding the door for others. Simply saying “Please” and “Thank you.”
The emphasis of the book of Leviticus on ritual was not even derailed by the death of Aaron’s sons, and it continues here unbroken. Last week’s portion emphasized holiness: “You shall be holy because I, God, am holy” (19:2). This week’s portion opens with repetition of the word, now in connection with ritual requirements: “[The Kohanim] shall be holy to God…they shall be holy…he is holy to his God…you shall make him holy…you shall consider him holy because I, your God, who make him holy, I am holy” (21:6–8). The word holy means set aside for an exclusive relationship, a relationship whose boundaries are defined by ritual.
Religion comprises both ritual and ethics, a distinction that is often not fully understood. The objection, “I don’t need religion to make me a good person,” is a response to a common misapplication of ritual for morality. Ritual is neither spiritual nor moral; it is a representation of the moral and spiritual content of the Torah’s message and expresses the grammar God uses to communicate with us. Nadab and Abihu died because their offering violated the Tabernacle’s parameters: they brought “an outsider’s fire.” It is troubling how the Torah seems to randomly impose the death penalty for what we perceive as transgression of ritual commandments: unauthorized contact with the Ark of the Covenant, Nadab and Abihu’s offering, the worship of the Golden Calf, the man found gathering wood in the wilderness on the Sabbath.
But while God punishes ritual transgressions harshly, moral and societal matters are turned over to humans. Pushing back forcefully against the plain meaning of the words, the rabbis interpret the penalties listed at the closing of this portion (24:17–22) — which include the famous formula, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” — to mean financial penalties. We are not God. We do not have the right to impose harsh penalties for behavior that, however detestable, turns out to be all too human.
The Torah lists the Sabbath and the festivals, ritual cycles wherein we live and breathe the formal aspects of Torah, to reinforce the centrality of ritual as the container for our relationship with God (23:1ff). We are exhorted to be holy, and though we must also live and breathe the spiritual aspects of religious practice, it’s sometimes easier to dispense with the burdens of morality and embrace ritual. The weakness of organized religion is that people focus on the container and often overlook the contents. Worse, they believe the container is the contents.
The next passage (24:1–4) hints at this, describing the oil which fuels the eternal light. The Menorah is the rigid structure — the container, but the light itself comes from the oil — the content. Here we have the joint role of ritual combined with ethical behavior and spiritual development. The container is useless without its contents, yet the content cannot perform its function unless properly contained. Harmony.
Suddenly, a blasphemer appears. Out of nowhere, the flow of lawgiving is interrupted as two men are fighting, and one hurls the Ineffable Name of God at the other as a curse. This perverts both the container and the content, the Name meant to bring peace has been used as a weapon.
The Israelites are commanded to bring the blasphemer outside the camp and stone him to death. But what makes his punishment unique in all the Torah is that, first, those who heard him utter the sacred Name lay their hands on the blasphemer and say, “You brought this upon yourself.” Maimonides points out that this is the only time in the Torah where the death penalty is combined with a laying on of hands.
In ritual sacrifice, the owner of the animal lays his hands on the offering before the Kohen slaughters it. This action transfers the owner’s guilt to the animal. As Nachmanides observes, the owner acknowledges that he deserves death for his sin and he transfers this culpability to the animal, which dies in his place.
What sin are we transferring to the blasphemer? And who is the scapegoat now? Just as the priests need the ongoing support of the entire nation to carry out their task, those who fall by the wayside are equally our responsibility. When we say to the blasphemer, “You brought this upon yourself,” we are really acknowledging that we — the society as a whole, and yet “the society” is also each one of us — have failed this individual. Had we been more attentive, they might not have been so blind with rage, might not have felt so alienated that they would actually curse in the name of God. That is our sin, and having others die for it does not bring expiation.
When we focus on the container, we ignore the pain in the heart of the stranger, the outsider. We can even ignore those closest to us. Who will see their pain? Who shall draw them close? For all that we are part of the group today, the time will come when we will be on the outside, too. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, our day will yet come. And who will reach out a hand to us then?