Vayikra: Leviticus as Literature

Vayikra el Moshe va’yedaber YHVH eilav me’ohel moed

YHVH called to Moses, and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 1:1)

For the modern reader, the Book of Leviticus appears to be an odd and even unwelcome intrusion into the grand saga of our ancestors. After the satisfying conclusion of the Book of Exodus, in which the Children of Israel have reunited with their God, we are ready to hear about their further adventures on the way to the Promised Land. Instead, the action stops and we find ourselves wading through an entire book describing the arcane practices and requirements of the kohanim, the priestly caste who maintain the holy sanctuary that travels with the Children of Israel on their journeys.

But what if the Torah – the Five Books of Moses – is not organized into the narrative shape to which we modern readers are accustomed? This is the argument of the great anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921-2007). Douglas may be best known for her work Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966). In that groundbreaking work Douglas included an examination of the concept of ritual purity in Leviticus. Douglas remained fascinated with Leviticus and in her retirement composed Leviticus as Literature (1999), a brilliant interweaving of anthropology and Biblical criticism. Douglas argues that Leviticus, like many famous ancient texts, is misunderstood because the literary style in which it was written is unfamiliar today. Douglas makes a compelling case that if we grasp the literary structure of Leviticus and the Torah as a whole, a complex yet elegant and coherent picture emerges into our view.

Of course I will only be able to give you a taste of Douglas’ insights in this brief column, but I think it is worth it – her work has deeply enriched my Torah study.

Ring Composition

What if some forms of ancient literature are built on a structure that places their climax in the middle, rather than at the end of the book? Douglas calls this form “ring composition”, a technique that places the meaning of a text in the center, framed by a beginning and ending in parallel. Douglas has us imagine a pediment, the triangular stone filled with carvings that sits atop columns in classic Greek architecture. The carvings tell a story, with the climax at the apex of the triangle. What if the Torah is structured in an analogous way, with the first two and final two books acting as columns upon which is perched Leviticus, the centerpiece of the Torah?

In this reading, we can understand the Torah as asking a central question throughout: how do we make a home for God in our midst? What does it mean to be a goy kadosh, a holy community? If the Torah is a ring composition, rather than strictly a linear narrative, then Leviticus as the central book of the 5 books of the Torah is not some detour from our story. Just as the Mishkan sits at the center of the Israelite camp and houses the Divine Presence, Leviticus sits at the center of our Torah and houses the teachings and instructions to maintain that Mishkan. The opening verse of Leviticus alerts us to our theme: “YHVH called to Moses, and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” The Children of Israel must maintain this Tent of Meeting so that God can dwell among them, and Leviticus will instruct them how.

Analogical Thinking

But this awareness does not make the ensuing instructions any less opaque to a modern reader. For what follows are chapters upon chapters of instructions regarding animal sacrifices and ritual purity that don’t seem to follow a logical pattern. What kind of instruction manual is this? To the modern reader, the purpose of these practices, not to mention the specificity of detail in which they are described, is mystifying. Mary Douglas insists that our handicap is that we moderns are trained to think logically, but not analogically; linearly, rather than associatively. Modern thought is based on rational and logical reasoning. This emphasis has allowed us to realize mind-boggling technological advances in our era, with no end in sight. We are accustomed to an instruction manual that will tell us how to assemble a piece of furniture, or repair a car.

The problem is that Leviticus is an instruction manual for experiencing the presence of God in our midst, and that project will not yield to our logical inquiry alone. That project demands a different kind of thinking, one that perceives the connectivity and interrelation of everything. We might call this the poetic mind, or perhaps the “right brain”, or, as Douglas expresses it, analogical thinking. In analogical thinking, every aspect of reality can be seen as an analogy for every other aspect: the human body is a microcosm of human society, which is a microcosm of the natural world, which is a microcosm of the movement of the stars and planets, ad infinitum. In analogical thinking God is not a separate, distant and distinct overlord of creation. Rather, God is present in every relationship within the creation, from the sub-atomic to the celestial, and every combination in between. To make a home for God in our midst, we must recognize the interconnection of all.

Douglas argues that ancient Israelite society saw all of creation as a map of analogies, for example:

  • Just as Mount Sinai, representing the pinnacle of Creation, is the place from which God’s presence emanated, and which the elders could ascend part way but only Moses could scale to the summit, so the Israelite camp represents that Holy Mountain, with an outer ring of settlement, an inner Holy Place known as the Mishkan (God’s dwelling) which the Levites serve, and within that precinct an inmost Holy of Holies containing the Tablets of the Law, the symbolic pinnacle or center of the Universe from which God continues to communicate with us, and the place that only the High Priest can enter.
  • Aaron, the High Priest, wears vestments that make him the symbolic representative of the entire people, carrying their names inscribed on his shoulders and over his heart, bringing the entire people near to God.
  • The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, meaning “drawing near.” The purpose of the korbanot, the animal offerings, is to bring the person making the offering nearer to God – to restore connection to the Divine source. This was no mere barbeque. It was a symbolic offering up, a drawing near, of that person’s best and purest self. Douglas shows how even the most arcane details about which parts of the animal’s innards are washed, or put on the altar, or saved for consumption can be read as yet another symbolic map of relationship between humans and the Divine. (I wish I had the space to elaborate – perhaps in a future column.)

Douglas includes not only the content of Leviticus in her map of analogies, but the literary structure of the book itself. Just as the Holy of Holies is at the very center of the Israelite camp, just as the pinnacle of the Holy Mountain is covered with the Cloud of Glory, just as the innermost parts of the animal are offered up on the altar, so the center of Leviticus represents the Holy of Holies of the Torah text. The center of Leviticus, the book that is the center of the Five Books of Moses, would figuratively be the apex of the pediment, the climax of the story, the place closest to God. And the center of Leviticus is the portion known as Kedoshim, the Holiness Laws. Here the text turns from ritual instruction to moral code. If the Children of Israel are going to create a society in which God’s presence can dwell, then they must recognize that every human is a microcosm of the Divine, and treat humans with the reverence that is their innate due. If we cannot create a moral society, we will never create a dwelling place for God in our midst.

So, at the very peak, or shall we say, the very heart, of the Torah comes this instruction: V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha – Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). As Rabbi Akiva taught, this is the k’lal gadol baTorah – the central principle of the Torah, its Holy of Holies. The entire edifice of Torah builds up to, and is built around, this verse.

Mary Douglas has persuaded me that the Torah is truly an ancient literary masterpiece, form and function aligned, teaching us how to build our lives into a home for godliness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan