Props of Mercy
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, This shall be the Torah of the leper in the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look, and if the disease of leprosy has been healed in the leper, then the priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds, and cedar wood, and red yarn, and hyssop.
The priest shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered in a clay bowl over running water (lit., living waters). As for the live bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the red yarn, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the running water.
Then he shall sprinkle upon him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall release the live bird into the open field.
Two rituals from Leviticus have fascinated me for a long time, at least since the 1980’s when, as a Christian, I first studied them in any detail. The first ritual is the cleansing of the leper with props that appear to work some sort of magic, except that: (a) the disease is not really leprosy, (b) the person has already been healed of the disease before the priest performs the ritual, so (c) no magic actually occurs. The cleansing is merely a formal recognition by the priest that the person is healed and ready to return to the community. The props—a cedar stick, red yarn, hyssop, a clay bowl, “living” water, and two clean birds—may have once boasted magical power to heal disease. However, here their symbolic meaning is largely lost. And rather than props of magic, here they are simply props of mercy. Beyond this, nothing can be said for certain about their significance. Interpretations abound, but often our interpretations only reflect what we want the ritual and its symbols to mean. I note in passing that the live bird released into the open surely carries as much significance as the bird that is slaughtered for its blood.
The second ritual is found in Leviticus chapter 16. On the Day of Atonement, two goats are brought to the priest. One is slaughtered as a purification offering* to purge the sanctuary which has been defiled by the sins of the community. The other goat carries all the sins, transgressions and iniquities of the community into the wilderness, where it is released.
There is an obvious similarity between the two birds and the two goats in their respective rituals. In each ritual the final step is release of a live animal: the bird signifies cleansing of disease, the goat signifies forgiveness of sins. Together they represent the unmatched mercy of the God of Israel.
Sin and impurity
The relationship between sin and impurity is not reciprocal. Impurity does not necessarily imply sin, but sin causes impurity. Sin causes impurity both to the sanctuary of our outward forms of worship and to the sanctuary of our soul. In figurative language, there is the stain of sin and the stench of sin. To atone for sin is to purify the person who sinned (Lev. 16:30). The writer of Psalm 51 draws on the ritual imagery of cleansing physical impurity when he asks for forgiveness of his sin:
Psalm 51:4, 9 MT
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
He writes in the context of the ritual detailed in Lev. 14. He does not seek another way of atonement, but exemplifies the teaching of Lev. 16: “humble your souls” and “you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” (vv. 29, 30)
Psalm 51:19 MT
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and crushed heart, O God, you will not despise.
A broken spirit, a crushed heart: these too are props of mercy.
*Purification offering: Usually translated sin offering, but this is misleading, especially since the offering is brought in situations where no sin is involved. For the technical argument, see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible.
The Kosher Grasshopper
Lev. 11:44a, 47
For I am the Lord your God; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy…. [This is the Torah] to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which may not be eaten.
A concise version of Leviticus chapter 11: Pig is out, grasshopper in. I can see I've been missing out on some fine selections for the dinner menu!
On a more serious note, compare Lev. 10:10 with 11:47. Every culture makes judgments about what may appear on the menu, and these "eating rules" are fairly rigid even in our free country. Horse? No way (for most of us). Ditto dog, cat and grasshopper. Whatever conclusion one comes to about observing kashrut, the system of kashrut serves to promote the value of holiness and the importance of discernment even in practical matters, such as food.
We also forget that kashrut in its historical origin was a matter of law for a nation governed by laws, just as we have statutes which make distinctions about what is clean (acceptable) and unclean (prohibited). I believe spotted owls are unclean today, due to a different cultural value: for the preservation of every species except one.
To keep or not to keep kosher…
Reform Judaism began, in the mid-1800s, as an attempt to make Judaism relevant to modern society, and to focus on the central message of Judaism which was said to be “ethical monotheism”: the belief in one God who revealed moral precepts to mankind. As a consequence, Reform Judaism’s view of the Torah made a distinction between the moral laws which continued to be relevant, and the ceremonial and social laws which served a purpose in the history of Israel as a nation but which no longer made sense to follow. Among these in the latter group were dietary laws known as kashrut, i.e., keeping kosher.
Kashrut is considered binding in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, although these two branches of Judaism vary somewhat in their interpretation of the laws of kashrut. In general terms, pork and shellfish are prohibited, other meat must be slaughtered and prepared according to certain standards, meat and milk are not consumed together, etc. The purpose of kashrut, as well as other observances, is sanctification, not salvation. By following the dietary laws, a Jew recognizes the presence and significance of God even in the food eaten, and so sanctifies the act of eating as if doing so before God. What does God care whether or not one eats pork? Perhaps God doesn’t, but in the tradition of Israel and the teaching of the Torah (both of which are ascribed to God), it is prohibited. And in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, kashrut represents the commandment of God given through Moses at Sinai.
Reform Judaism in its “classical” form dispensed with all of this, except that pork was generally not consumed out of deference to the broader community of Judaism.
In the past several decades Reform Judaism has moved toward more traditional observance of ceremonial and social laws, especially in such areas as prayer services, celebration of the Sabbath and festivals, and to a somewhat lesser degree kashrut. The move has been made partly in response to the existence of the state of Israel, and partly in response to the impact of the Holocaust: nothing like a catastrophe to remind one of one’s roots, ethnic and spiritual. Even so, “personal autonomy” remains a central idea in Reform Judaism, so that observance is not based on arguments from “authority.” As another movement in Judaism puts it, tradition gets a vote but not a veto.
… and what do I think about it
My own view is a bit different. I don’t find a large place for “personal autonomy” in the Torah, rather “personal autonomy” is more a practical adjustment to modern free society than an ideal to be pursued. The ideal is community governed by a covenant with God. So while I may not personally see the sense of the specific dietary laws that make up kashrut, the purpose of kashrut — sanctifying daily life before God — does make sense. Beyond that, the covenant is not between me as an individual and God, but between Israel and God. So as one who aspires to association with Israel as the covenant community of God, kashrut is important.
My interpretation of kashrut is not as restrictive as tradition has made it. The culture-bound nature of the dietary laws can be easily understood by comparison with the strange tastes (and distastes) of other cultures, also ascribed to God. So while I do not find the distinction between the moral laws and the social/ceremonial laws all that helpful (e.g., the Sabbath falls in the latter category, but what would Israel be without it?), I do consider the historical and cultural context of the laws important in any attempt to apply them to modern life.
All that said, my standard remains: when in doubt, observe. Observe for the sake of community, observe out of a humble attitude toward my own personal opinions, observe for the purpose of sanctification. In short, as A.J. Heschel said, “God is everywhere save in arrogance.” I do not arrogantly stand in judgment of the Torah, rather I allow the Torah to judge me and so teach me.