In 1926, the great modern Jewish thinker Martin Buber delivered a speech he titled 'The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible.' He said with regard to the Torah: 'Since this book came into being, it has confronted generation after generation. Each generation must struggle with the Bible in its turn, and come to terms with it. The generations are by no means always ready to listen to what the book has to say, and to obey it; they are often vexed and defiant; nevertheless, the preoccupation with this book is part of their life, and they face it in the realm of reality.'
Picture the following scene: the young Bar Mitzvah student and his parents sit anxiously in the rabbi's office. They are having their first meeting with the rabbi and today the boy will be given the outline for what he will be expected to do over the next year. The fresh-faced young lad is handed a copy of the Torah portion, a double parsha in fact, Tazria-Metzora. He eagerly asks the rabbi what it is about, as he knows he will also have to prepare a brief sermon on the verses he reads.
'Well,' answers the rabbi in an attempt to be upbeat, 'depending upon the specific part you choose, you will either be talking about the blood and guts of sacrifice, sexual impropriety, childbirth, genital emissions, or, if you prefer, skin diseases. Your task will be to tell the congregation why this section of Leviticus is relevant to their lives today, as 21st-century American Jews.'
Suddenly, the boy's eyes glaze over, the blood drains from his face, and he can't believe that his birthday falls in the spring when he will have to read from this impossible book.
His parents look at one another and wonder whether or not it might be too late to change the Bar Mitzvah date. Secretly, the rabbi is breathing an enormous sigh of relief, knowing that next year she won't have to tackle these most difficult chapters.
Leviticus. It starts out innocently enough with God calling to Moses after the completion of the tabernacle and the beginning of the instructions with regard to the various sacrifices. Next, we are reminded of those foods we are permitted to eat, and those which are prohibited.
The portions begin to get a little more graphic and strange with the instant incineration of Aaron's two sons for having concocted something which, apparently, was not one of the approved fires according to the priestly code of conduct. In the next several chapters, we are treated to the most intimate descriptions of subjects, which are hardly suitable for polite dinner conversation. We begin to yearn for the good old days of Genesis and Exodus, when the worst we had to confront was dysfunctional families or kvetching Israelites.
There are some who might suggest that as modern Jews, the best thing for us to do in order to maintain our intellectual integrity is to simply abandon this book. The chapters are so remote from our modern reality and alien to our modern sensibilities that it would be better if we simply excised the entire book from the Torah. However, as problematic as parts of Leviticus might be, I believe it is incumbent upon us to struggle with these texts and to try to make sense of them.
Intellectually we understand that Vayikra represents a handbook for the priests, the 'how to survive the priesthood,' if you will. In our heads, we can comprehend that the rites and rituals of the priestly cult represent a remnant of who we were at one time and of how we functioned as a tribal nation attempting to draw ourselves closer to God.
The priestly world view was one of black and white in which something was either holy or profane. One could either be pure or impure. An animal was either fit or unfit. There was either chaos or order. Shades of gray simply did not exist.
Perhaps most perplexing is the role blood plays in so many of the ritual ceremonies that take place. For this sacrificial cult, blood was associated with both life and death. It was a substance that could render something either pure or impure, both life-taking and life-giving. For the ancient Israelites, blood must have been a most mysterious and frightening fluid.
In Parashat Tazria there is a perfect example of something with which we might grapple. We read, 'The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'speak to the Israelite people thus: when a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her monthly infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for 33 days. She shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks as during her monthly infirmity and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for 66 days.''
Unclean seven days for a male and two weeks for a female? In a state of blood purification 33 days for a male and 66 days for a female? What's wrong with this picture? Why is a women treated differently if she gives birth to a boy baby versus a girl baby?
It is a challenge, but if we attempt to put ourselves into the mind of the ancient Israelite, we might come to understand. A woman had just gone through childbirth, which must have been a most terrifying experience and one in which many of the women and babies died. The blood of the afterbirth was seen as something which rendered a woman unclean and placed her in a state of impurity until the requisite time and the appropriate sacrifices of a lamb and pigeon or turtledove rendered her clean once again.
In the case of a male child, the blood of the circumcision which occurred on the eighth day, served as a purifier, which cut the period of impurity in half. Remember, in the priestly world view, blood served as something which could render one either pure or impure. It was either life-giving or life-taking.
I will be the first to admit that knowing this tidbit of information hardly endears us to this parsha anymore than we were before knowing it! But our task is to continue to look for meaning and to attempt to understand that the Torah ' all of it ' even the parts which puzzle us, anger us, or even make us squeamish. We should not be satisified to simply disregard Leviticus because it doesn't speak to us in a way we might immediately understand. The Torah is central part of our sacred heritage and our goal is to attempt to comprehend and not to edit.
'Each generation must struggle with the Bible in its turn, and come to terms with it.'
We are that current generation to which Buber alluded. May God give us strength to come to terms with the Torah. May it continue to vex and inspire us. And may we learn to face the Torah in our own realm of reality and allow it to speak to us today.