What Can We Do with the Holiness Code? A Humanistic Jewish Reading

James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

James Tissot’s “Two Priests Destroyed,” depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

(Warning: this is a long read.) The Torah has lots of laws. Lots of them. And in the traditional Torah-reading cycle, we’re neck-deep in them.

These laws make using the Bible today more than a little problematic.

When people set out to “read the whole Bible, cover to cover,” they often stop, oh, right around Exodus 20–basically, when the laws start in earnest and the narrative recedes. There’s lots of skimming to get to the next bits of narrative, and that goes on almost through the whole remainder of the Torah. There are bits and pieces of narrative, but from Exodus 20 until basically the end of Deuteronomy, your narrative gets mixed in with huge amounts of law.

Since this week’s reading is from parshiyot Aharei Mot and Kedoshim–it’s a double portion of law!–there’s really no narrative at all. We get a quick nod to Yahweh having burned alive Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and then we go again with the laws.

This Torah portion is part of what critical scholarship has termed “the Holiness Code”: a catalog of laws addressing what conduct was required to keep the Israelites holy and “in communion” with Yahweh to permit sacrificial offerings. The Torah doesn’t speak of communion, but it does speak of people being “cut off”–in essence, excommunicated–for various periods of time, and of conduct being required to remain holy (hence the name, Holiness Code).

The Holiness Code is a big problem. Setting aside the duplication in many of its provisions (Leviticus 18, 19, and 20 have often-overlapping sexual conduct rules, for example), there are lots of provisions that are just not especially applicable absent a sacrificial apparatus. In a sense, actually, the whole purpose of the Code is to keep people eligible to participate in sacrifices. For example, after a list of all manner of sexual activities that are prohibited, Leviticus 18 ends with this: “and you shall not make yourselves impure through them [the foregoing prohibitions]; I am Yahweh, your god” (Lev. 18:30).

“Make yourselves impure” here is the Hebrew, titam’u, from the root tet – mem – aleph. That root is the source of the word tamei, which means to be impure; it is contrasted with the term tahor, which means to be pure. We sometimes see these translated as unclean and clean, but that doesn’t catch their real meaning. They are a pair of contrasting states directly associated with ritual purity and impurity–not kashrut (fitness for use or consumption), and not simple cleanliness (simply being clean in Hebrew is naki, and cleanliness is n’kiyut)–and they’re specifically about eligibility for participation in the sacrificial cult: people, implements, etc., are tamei or tahor, and there are specific acts that can make something tahor that had been tamei (often this involves cleaning something, as in naki, though often that is only part of the procedure).

It is the Holiness Code that people cite when making arguments about what sexual conduct is or is not biblically permissible (and, by extension, permitted more generally). You can probably guess that I don’t think it’s a good move simply to say, “Bible says, therefore it’s so.”

I also don’t think it’s a good move to say, “Well, the Bible says lots of outrageous things, and it’s wrong here, too.” That’s easy to do, but I think it’s also disingenuous. There’s a whole West Wing episode that basically boils down to this approach:

So, what do I think we should do with the Holiness Code–or, in fact, almost any purportedly normative biblical text?

Well, like many a Facebook “relationship status” entry: it’s complicated.

The reason I think both the “It says it, so it goes” and the “It’s old, so it’s wrong” approaches are unhelpful is rooted in the concepts of taboo and danger. (I’m about to highly oversimplify this discussion, so you should really read Mary Douglas’s book, Purity and Danger, to get the full story.) Taboos often reflect a society’s boundary lines, marking off the extent of acceptable behaviors of many types, based upon any number of factors including what other social groups do, real or imagined historical or mythical experiences of the in-group, class boundaries, etc. Taboos often form the lines upon which rituals–social or religious–center, and rituals can allow transgression of the boundaries established by taboos.

The existence of taboo does not always allow for ritual transgression, and in fact sometimes the prohibition is strengthened by the requirements of ritual and how ritual differs from society to society. We actually get one such example in this week’s double parashah. Leviticus 18:21 states, “You shall not give over to Molech any of your seed, and you shall not profane the name of your god–I am Yahweh.”

What does the verse mean, “give over to Molech any of your seed”? Molech is known to the biblical prophets as a god whose worship involves child sacrifice. There are limited incidences of child sacrifice being acceptable in the Bible–Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11 is the primary example of this–but Leviticus makes it clear that the realm of acceptable sacrifices for Israelite purposes under the Levitical priesthood is limited to certain animals and a few other forms of food (primarily grain products and wine). So it’s safe to say that the Levitical priests who drafted the Holiness Code were probably thinking of child sacrifice to Molech.

“Now, hold up,” I hear you thinking. “Child sacrifice is wrong–the Bible says so.” You’re right–it says it right here.

Except it doesn’t actually say it’s morally wrong here. It says that child sacrifice to Molech is not acceptable in the broader structure of national purity for purposes of the cult of Yahweh. Only three verses later, we read: “Do not become impure through any of these [proscribed actions], for it is by these that the nations I have sent out from before you made themselves impure. And the land became impure (v’tim’a, from tamei), so that I visited its iniquity upon it and cleansed (vataki–from naki) the land of its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24-25). (Note that the land was “cleansed,” but not made “pure,” so that the concepts aren’t totally separate–often it is by some form of cleaning that purity is restored to something.)

What else do we find in Leviticus 18? Many of the proscribed acts are sexual prohibitions–and these too rendered the people and the land impure. But it’s impure–not wicked (ra in Hebrew). In fact, immediately before the “no sacrifices to Molech” provision we get two other sexual rules: no sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman, and no sexual intercourse with your neighbor’s wife (Lev. 18:19-20). And this entire catalog of prohibitions began with Yahweh instructing Moses to tell the Israelites not to do what Egyptians and Canaanites did (Lev. 18:1-3).

The point of all this for us, today? We need to be cautious about how and when we cite the biblical text as a source of moral authority. It is easy to say, “Well, the Bible was ahead of its time–look at its prohibitions on incest, and animal abuse. Look how it says to pay laborers on the day they work, and not to withhold their wages.”

But those rules exist as a set of considered boundaries between a certain view of Israelite society and other societies around it. Many of the “ethical” commandments have as their justification not only the “this was done to you, don’t do it” rationale, but also the “I, Yahweh, said so, so don’t do it” rationale. Those twin rationales are what make Hillel’s dictum that the whole of Torah is “Do not do unto others that which you find hateful” a pleasant, but partial summary of the traditional understanding of the Torah.

And consider what we might or might not now consider legitimately ethical standards to conform with, even in the “ethical” commandments. Do we pay laborers their wage each day? No; most workers are paid in arrears, and only the “worst” types of work (day labor is generally not highly desired or highly paid work) are paid daily. Do we think Leviticus 18:19’s proscription against intercourse with someone presently deemed ritually impure is ethically compelling? Not usually. (Recall that this period is not only during menstruation, but extends a number of days past that.)

The challenge, then, if we really want to ground ethics in the text of the Torah as a source–rather than as an example–is that the Torah’s rationales for imposing certain limits are mixed, and may well track the social taboos of its time rather than compelling reason. (Explain why no pork is permitted, without falling back on discredited arguments like health or cleanliness.) And the limits the Torah imposes that we do agree with might be legitimate independently, might be taboos or other social boundary-defining behavioral patterns that we follow for reasons entirely separate from the Torah’s influence, or might be taboos or behavior patterns we follow because of the Torah’s continued influence in modern life as a function of cultural legacy.

Put differently: it may be a complete coincidence that we share a particular value or conduct requirement with what appears in Leviticus (or anywhere else in the Bible).

And if that’s the case, we need to ask whether we should be using the biblical text as a source at all, rather than as a case in point.

This is a point of divergence between most secular forms of Jewishness (Secular Humanistic Judaism, Yiddishism, etc.) and those forms of Judaism that accord normative authority to the biblical text. Those of us living in the secular end of the Jewish world think of the Torah as a cultural document, a source of information about the perceptions held by its authors. It is in turns inspiring and horrifying, instructive and repelling, poetic and inelegant. But it is not a normative document.

What about ethics? Note that things like, “Don’t commit adultery,” “Don’t murder,” “Don’t steal,” etc., are conclusions that most societies have reached without any help from the Torah. And even those aren’t clearly true in all circumstances: we recognize theft as wrong, but we also recognize heroism in fiction when we look at characters like Jean Valjean, who steals bread to feed his family. We condemn the bearing of false witness, but largely condemn Immanuel Kant’s treatise, “On Lying,” where he suggests lying is always wrong, even when lying can protect an innocent person from an unjust government.

How can you be a good person without the rules in the Torah? Millions of persons simply are, without the Torah’s examples–some of which are far from what we would call “good.”

Can you be fully engaged in Jewish life without recognizing that the Torah holds a unique place in the tradition? I don’t think so.

But the fact of recognition is not the same as reverence, let alone deciding that a profoundly human document is the carrier of all ethical truths. One need only read Yiddish authors like Mendele Mocher Sforim or Y.L. Peretz to see how fealty to Torah often results in a view of life as though seen through a glass, darkly. (Peretz’s story, “The Pious Cat,” is a great example of this.) Without understanding something of the place of Torah, one can’t really understand much of the stuff of Jewish culture that secular and cultural Jews love.

That doesn’t mean we have to think that a profoundly human Torah, reflecting the social boundaries and taboos of its day, is a right guide to life. We can recognize that what some of what worked in the Torah works today, while many other things simply don’t, and use that as inspiration for making our own way as Jews–because sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t.


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