Parashat Shemini

From Regulation to Relation

Relationships between the individual and the Divine are indeed possible.

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When it comes to the Torah, it seems women are from Genesis and men are from Leviticus. This week’s portion is a perfect example.

As much as Genesis is about relationships (and that is generally the way most women navigate the world), Leviticus is about rules and regulations (the way most men navigate the world). Thus, it comes as no surprise that the classical curriculum for Jewish education--as established by the male Rabbis--had Leviticus as the starting point for Torah learning. If you encounter a problem, if something is broken, you apply the rules and you fix it.

jewish outreach instituteIn the case of the sacrificial system as heralded by the book of Leviticus, the same thing is true. If the relationship between the individual and God is broken--the whole point of the sacrificial system is to bring the individual into a closer relationship with God, (hence the connection between mekarev [to bring closer] and korban [sacrifice])--then you find a way to fix it. And since sacrifices work to repair relationships between humans and the Divine, then it might as well be used to initiate the relationship as well.

What is Kosher?

With this relationship comes a spiritual discipline (rules). In this portion, such a discipline is defined in terms of certain aspects of kashrut, specifically what can be eaten and what is forbidden.

Some will argue that the dietary laws when taken as a whole make a social statement. If you can’t eat with the nations of the earth, then you will be unable to marry their daughters. And perhaps there is some truth in that.

But it would seem to be a shallow reason for such a profound directive in one’s life, especially given the social realities of our day. Others argue about the Torah’s discomfort with controlling pairs of generations and offer us such an explanation for another aspect of kashrut: the prohibition of mixing milk and meat. But again, this seems insufficient for the spiritual truth the Torah is seeking to impart.

Tension Between Relationships & Rules

It seems to me that the Torah is teaching us that real access to God is not simply the result of wanting it. It is in the tension between relationship and rules. Access to God through spirituality is available to all. But most people need a roadmap to get there, some of the details of which are listed in this Torah portion. With that access comes responsibility. It is beyond just the rote following of a system of rules and regulations--the male view. And relationship itself is also insufficient--the stuff of women’s navigation.

That is perhaps the lesson of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu which the text explains in short shrift: “Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered strange fire before God which God had not instructed them.  Then there came forth fire from before God and devoured them, and they died before God” (Leviticus 10:1-2).

In the rabbinic understanding of this text, they took the relationship with God--established in the context of their role as priests--for granted. In other words, they didn’t follow the rules of the system. While I see no justification whatsoever in the way these two young boys’ lives are taken and hold God responsible for the action, regardless of the voluminous apologies of the Rabbis in an attempt to explain away something that is beyond any form of reason, I know that there has to be some learning to emerge from it or their deaths will indeed have served no purpose whatsoever.

Relationships between the individual and the Divine are indeed possible and Leviticus gives us some insights from the ancient world as to how to form them, nurture them, and sustain them. At the same time, these relationships, because of their inherent power, are not to be taken lightly or for granted. It is the feminine and masculine in us all that makes our relationship with God and our access to that relationship through Torah rules possible.

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Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.