Connecting to Leviticus Parashat Vayikra Order amidst Chaos
Rabbi Shai Held – firstname.lastname@example.org
Parashat Tetzaveh 5780
Around this time each year, the eyes of many shul-going Jews begin to glaze over. The book of Leviticus seems so utterly foreign, the rituals and practices it describes so alien, the religious vision underlying them so obscure, that connecting to it seems impossible. And yet if we dig a little deeper, we find a great deal about Leviticus that can speak powerfully to modern sensibilities and yearnings.
Ask a traditionally-educated Jew, and he or she is likely to tell you that before God began to create the world, there was simply nothing. “The” Jewish view, he or she will insist, is that God created the world out of nothing1 (ex nihilo).
Many philosophers object that the idea of creatio ex nihilo is actually incoherent, since, after all, something cannot be made out of nothing. In their words, “out of nothing, nothing comes” (ex nihilo nihil fit). The idea that God created something out of nothing is, at any rate, a far cry from the ways in which creation is portrayed in Tanach. Biblical texts describe a God who creates the world by bringing order where before there was only chaos. As Genesis 1 portrays it, God takes an earth that is “unformed and void” (tohu va-vohu) and makes a cosmos, a place where life can survive and flourish, out of it. Bible scholar Jon Levenson writes that “two and a half millennia of Western theology have made it easy to forget that throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, including Israel… creation is not the production of matter out of nothing, but rather the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order.”2
Genesis 1 presents God’s rule as majestic and uncontested. But read Genesis 1 alone—assume that it represents the biblical approach to creation, as opposed to one of them—and you will miss something crucial about biblical theology as a whole: Many biblical texts explicitly invoke a God who created the world by engaging in combat with dangerous and threatening forces of chaos. Some assume, more dramatically, that this process of subduing chaos is far from over.
In much of the ancient world, water and the sea embody and symbolize chaos, threat, and a world not yet under control. (Picture the devastation wrought by recent tsunamis and hurricanes and you can begin to understand just how and why this is the case.) Psalm 74 evokes a great cosmic battle between God and the monstrous forces of chaos. The psalmist praises God for vanquishing the forces of cosmic evil: “It is You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters; it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan.” Chaos defeated, God proceeds to order and structure the universe: “It was You who set in place the orb of the sun; You fixed all the boundaries of the earth; summer and winter—You made them” (Psalm 74:13-14, 16-17).
And yet, crucially, even in a psalm that describes God’s great victory over the forces of evil, the defeated forces of chaos still rear their ugly head and threaten to reverse God’s good ordering of the world. The sea monsters may be defeated, but human forces acting destructively in history still wreak havoc with God’s plans, leaving the psalmist at once pained and perplexed. Right before the verses we have just seen, the psalmist asks: “Till when, O God, will the foe blaspheme, will the enemy forever revile Your name? Why do you hold back Your hand, Your right hand? Draw it out of Your bosom!” (74:10-11). And right after, he implores: “Do not ignore the shouts of Your foes, the din of Your adversaries that ascends all the time” (74:23). Leviathan may be dead but all is still not right with the world. As Levenson poignantly notes, Psalm 74 “honestly and courageously draws attention to the painful and yawning gap between the liturgical affirmation of God’s absolute sovereignty and the empirical reality of evil triumphant and unchecked.”3
Some biblical texts are much more radical than Psalm 74. They imagine a world in which the forces of chaos were not vanquished in the past; God’s victory will only take place in an apocalyptic future. The prophet Isaiah looks forward to the day when “the Lord will punish with His great, cruel, mighty sword Leviathan the Elusive Serpent—Leviathan the Twisting Serpent; He will slay the Dragon (tannin) in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1). In Isaiah’s world, God is not yet fully lord over all creation. There are forces afoot—dangerous, unpredictable, deadly forces. God will one day slay them, but they have not yet been defeated. In a similar vein, a Talmudic Sage imagines a future in which God will make a banquet for the righteous during which they will eat the body of the slain sea monster (BT, Bava Batra 75a). “We must not forget,” Levenson writes, “that the optimistic element in this theology, which is the faith in God’s ultimate triumph, is dialectically qualified by the pessimistic element, which is tacit acknowledgment that God is not yet God.”4
What contemporary sense can we make of such starkly mythological imagery? Are these texts not destined to seem hopelessly antiquated to contemporary readers? It depends, I think, on how literally we want to take talk of sea monsters. The fact is that we live in a world that often seems chaotic in ways large and small, and that there is something wholly terrifying about this. On some level, all of us know that we—or, the worst thought imaginable, our children—could be hurt or harmed or killed in an instant in a freak accident, or at the hands of a crazed sociopath or a cruel monster. (The fact that we still use the language of monsters to describe people totally indifferent to moral norms and constraints is surely telling. Most of us still do believe in, and fear, monsters of one kind or another.) What makes parts of Tanach so powerful, so compelling, and so utterly contemporary is precisely the fact that they do not paper over the reality that life can be so totally frightening, and seemingly so random and chaotic. Biblical texts give voice to the pain of affirming the reality of a powerful God, on the one hand, while acknowledging the often excruciating ways that the world we believe God envisions and wants is unbearably far from being realized, on the other. Tanach gives voice to the agony often felt by those who believe in the reality of a good, life-affirming Creator but who must nevertheless live in a seemingly endless period of “not yet.” Divine dreams and human yearnings—all subjected to a protracted and painful period of not yet.
What does all this have to do with the book of Leviticus? An awful lot, I think.
Let’s return to Genesis 1 for a moment. How does God bring about a habitable world? By dividing, separating, and ordering—and then bringing forth life. God “separates” (vayavdeil) light from darkness (Genesis 1:3); God separates the waters above the firmament from the waters below it (1:7); God distinguishes sea from dry land (1:9-10); God places lights in the firmament to separate day from night and light from darkness (1:14, 18); God distinguishes Shabbat from other days and declares it holy (vayekadeish) (2:3).
Genesis 1 and Leviticus are closely intertwined, since the project of dividing and separating is at least as crucial to the latter as it is to the former. As Bible scholar Robert Alter writes, “There is a single verb that focuses the major themes of Leviticus—‘divide’ (hivdil)”5 [what I have been rendering, following NJPS, as ‘separate’]. Thus, for example, the catalogue of animals permitted or forbidden for eating ends with the following: “These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that swarm on earth, to separate (lehavdil) between the impure and the pure, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten” (Leviticus 11:46-47). Again, after presenting a list of forbidden sexual unions, Leviticus notes: “I the Lord am your God who has separated (hivdalti) you from other peoples. So you shall separate (ve-hivdaltem) the pure beast from the impure, the impure bird from the pure. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have separated for you (hivdalti) to treat as impure” (20:24-26). There seems to be an element of “walking in God’s ways” here: Just as God has separated and ordered, so Israel must engage in separation and ordering. By dividing sharply between permitted foods and forbidden ones, and between permitted sexual unions and forbidden ones, Israel engages in something godly. But Israel does not merely imitate God by separating and ordering. Through its ritual life, it participates in ordering the world and thus in sustaining it. The consequence of all this separation is spelled out in the very next verse: “You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you (va-avdil etkhem) from other peoples to be Mine” (20:26). Israel, a people separated, affirms its special status by committing to acts of separating and ordering.
The tabernacle (mishkan) is nothing if not a tightly structured, highly ordered space. Who may enter where, at what time, and in what garb—all is tightly regulated. The profane must never spill over into and thus violate the sacred. The sacrifices are carefully choreographed and presented “just right.” In a chaotic, terrifying world, one place, at least, is governed by order and structure. Bible scholar Richard Nelson explains that in Leviticus, “sacred space was seen as an island of structure and order surrounded by malevolent chaos. Sacred space provided the human mind with a fixed center, the solace of formed order in the midst of formless chaos.”6
It is perhaps tempting for many of us to adopt a condescending approach to all this preoccupation with order. We may imagine that we have moved beyond the kind of anxiety that seems at least partly to underlie Leviticus’ manifold legislation, and congratulate ourselves for our willingness to embrace life’s messiness. To be sure, there is something important—humanly and religiously—in our ability to tolerate and even embrace messiness. And yet the reality of chaos and the experience of seemingly total randomness are always with us, and the fear they induce is real—as, for many of us, is the theological questioning and struggle they call forth. Leviticus presents another, alternate reality to inhabit. Worship in the mishkan is “intended [as] a counterworld to Israel’s lived experience, which is dangerous and disordered. The counterworld offered in the tabernacle holds out the gift of a well-ordered, joy-filled, and peace-generating creation.”7 Bible scholar Samuel Balentine captures beautifully the point I am trying to make: “Who among us does not yearn for that one place, however small and difficult to find, that invites us to believe the ‘very good’ world God created and the world in which we scratch out our frail existence are in fact one and the same?”8 Leviticus attempts to describe and thus to evoke that place. In reading and studying Leviticus, we are invited to imagine and inhabit just such a space—if only for a brief moment.
What happens to a person who has visited the mishkan—and by extension into our own time, who has imaginatively entered the mishkan through close study of the book of Leviticus? Having partaken of, or merely glimpsed, the counterworld that the mishkan represents, a person is changed (at least when the practice “works”). After the glimpse he has been afforded, nothing looks quite the same anymore. He sees that another reality is possible, that the chaos and suffering he observes all around him are not ultimately all there is. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wonderfully puts it, “Having ritually ‘lept’… into the framework of meaning which religious conceptions define, and the ritual ended, returned again to the common-sense world, a man is—unless, as sometimes happens, the experience fails to register—changed. And as he is changed, so also is the common-sense world, for it is now seen as but the partial form of a wider reality which corrects and completes it.”9 To read Leviticus, then, is to enter a different kind of world, a small pocket of reality in which God’s will is heeded and perfectly executed, in which chaos and disorder are kept at bay—in which, thus, God is already fully God, even as the realities outside fall painfully short of that long longed-for dream.
1 For a Jewish example of this view, see Gersonides (Ralbag, 1288-1344), Wars of the Lord, 6:1. Gersonides adopts the Platonic view, namely that God created the world out of eternal, formless matter.
2 Jon D. Levenson: Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (1988), p. 12.
3 Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, p. 19.
4 Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, p. 38.
5 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (2004), p. 541.
6 Richard D. Nelson, Raising up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology (1993), p. 27
7 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (1997), p. 664.
8 Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus (2003), p. 18.
9 Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System.” in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), p. 122.