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Book of blood & guts


People – many, many people – hate the book of Leviticus. All that blood and guts and priestly ritual: it’s so old school, so over the top. All those dead animals and rules. Can we skip this part?

Not me. I’m happy to be here in the meat (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the religion. I like the non-modernity of this book, the visceral worship style, clear sense of morality, and dividing line between clean and unclean, holy and not. Leviticus, as I write in this week’s poem, The Book of Blood & Guts, is about doing a thing right.

Yes, Leviticus is the place where we find prohibitions on making marks on oneself and lying with men the way one does with a woman (interpreted widely as bans on tattoos & homosexuality). Yes, there’s plenty here that makes me feel kinda oogy. But the 3rd book of the Torah is also where we find the communal day of atonement, loving your neighbor, and the right of the land to rest every seven years. The moral of the story is plain: it’s not enough for a people to define itself by a shared redemption from slavery or even the 10 Commandments. There must be day-to-day ritual, the basic stuff of culture: all the ways in which the Israelites and their God could distinguish themselves from the rest of the world and prove their allegiance to one another. (For a pretty good summary of the book, see Wikipedia.)

This first week’s reading from Leviticus wastes no time. We’re knee-deep in sacrifices from the get-go: herds, flocks, grain. Offerings for guilt, individual or communal. Plenty of messiness, a ritual practice rooted not in the mind, but in the body. We like to pretend that we’re a different kind of people, that we ourselves would never institute or participate in anything of this sort, but I’m not so sure. (Don’t look at me that way. I’m just not sure we’re so different a people.) The dozen-plus weeks of readings ahead of us always brings me happily up close and personal with the primal nature of our existential desires. See for yourself — it may not disappoint.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/15/2010 8:40 am

    In my first year of rabbinic school I took a class with a Reform rabbi named Judy Abrams who absolutely adores Leviticus. Talking with her about it helped me see the book in a new way…

    • 03/16/2010 8:29 pm

      When you come up for air, I’d love to hear a synopsis of Judy Abram’s love for Leviticus. And/or I should go look her up on the web…

  2. judith rose permalink
    03/16/2010 10:50 am

    so to turn this week’s parsha into a modern parable – breaking the rules/guilt vs. corrective action/sacrifice -look at the tension between how we use the words sacrifice and guilt today. For example:
    We sacrifice our pleasures and our needs so that our children succeed based on our criteria of success..
    At the same time we tell them of our sacrifices so that they feel guilt that they have made us struggle…
    This guilt causes them to reject the rules by which we decided to sacrifice…
    And the circle continues allowing for the endless fictionalized accounts of how this is played out within family after family.

    • 03/16/2010 8:27 pm

      Fictionalized, of course. Maybe if we (and I include myself here) thought of these sacrifices as gifts, then there would be no need to involve guilt. Just a thought.

  3. judith rose permalink
    03/17/2010 1:50 pm

    very sneaky to sideline my guilt. I love the idea of ‘gift’. Perhaps if we go back to the actual hebrew – we can determine whether the word ‘sacrifice’ is used which would connote ‘giving up’ or ‘offering’ is used which would connote ‘giving to’. The wonders of words.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/18/2010 9:20 am

      Let’s ask a rabbi or Hebrew-knowledgeable person about this one… I’ll work on it!

    • Sarah Rubin permalink
      03/18/2010 10:37 am

      Hebrew. What a fun language. There are many words for “sacrifice” in Torah. The first one in Leviticus (1:2) is the generic sacrifice, the Korban (bringing close [to God]), “אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן adam ki yakriv mikem korban l’YHVH – a person who brings close from them a bringing-close to God.” Then there is the עלה OLAH (1:4), the burnt offering, but literally the “going up” (in smoke). מנחה Minchah (2:1), one of the names for our prayer services, is a grain offering. זבח ZEVACH (3:3), which is the first the JPS text (at translates as “sacrifice,” is related to the word for altar – so it is something that goes on the altar (or the altar is something that goes under the ZEVACH; we don’t have any other context for it that I’m aware of).

      The English word sacrifice comes, I think / guess, from the sense that these are sacred. Things set aside for offerings cannot NOT be offered (though I believe there are ways of replacing / substituting that are quite complex).

      Hope that’s helpful!

  4. Sarah Rubin permalink
    03/18/2010 8:19 am

    If you take away Judith’s guilt – if you make these “gifts” rather than expiation – what do you do with “gifts” that are specifically referred to as being about sin or guilt or expiation? And what’s wrong with a little guilt (or shame, for that matter)? What is to keep us motivated toward good if bad has no negative association? And what’s negative association other than guilt or shame? I’m experimenting with this – no certainty whatsoever. I do think shame and guilt can be abused – but are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/18/2010 9:28 am

      Well, I was specifically talking about guilt & children (speaking about babies and bath water). I’m in favor of guilt and shame and all manner of social regulation — just want to make sure we don’t overdo the guilt with the kids. It screwed me up for life, that’s for sure.

  5. Sarah Rubin permalink
    03/18/2010 8:27 am

    p.s. I love the whole book of Leviticus. A Bar Mitzvah a couple of years ago was thoroughly embarrassed by his Parasha, Tazria-Metsora, with both female and male bodily emissions (as well as all the skin things). His comment in class was that these are things one should only talk with one’s parents about – that it was inappropriate to talk with anyone else about them. What I love about Leviticus is being able to say, “Hey – the Torah talks about it – it’s natural stuff – we’re actually meant to talk about it, not to be so embarrassed that we don’t pay attention enough to know what’s normal and what’s not normal.”

  6. sue swartz permalink*
    03/18/2010 9:32 am

    Oh yay, another Leviticus lover!

    What amazes me is that a 13-year-old would want to talk to his parents about this sort of stuff. Now THAT’s just plain oogy.

    And hey, Rabbi, could you take a look at Judith’s question/comment about the Hebrew…

    • Sarah Rubin permalink
      03/18/2010 11:29 am

      Yes – exactly. At home?! (Although his dad is a doc.) But not at all surprising not wanting to talk about it with the (female) rabbi and a bunch of other 12/13 year olds.

      see Hebrew above.

  7. 03/18/2010 5:06 pm

    With regard to the relation between “sacrifice” and “sacred”: I suspect both words relate directly to blood! I’m thinking they must relate to the latin root that becomes “sagrado” in Spanish, very close to the Spanish “sangre” (blood. cf also “sang” in French).

    Then again, I think that our words “contaminate” and “ashamed” must somehow relate to the hebrew words “tamei” (unclean) and “asham” (guilt), ideas which may out me as the world’s loosest linguistic cannon.

  8. Herb Solomon permalink
    03/18/2010 5:10 pm

    Hi Sue: I admire your devining the hidden meanings and implications from seeming irrelevancies to our current lives. You’re obviously a talmudist or poet. Speaking of primitivism, you must have enjoyed your experiences in D.C. ? Love, Herb

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