March 2019, Parshat Vayikra

Dear friends,

This week’s reading begins the section in the Torah referred to as Torat Hakohanim – the Torah of the Priests. Quite simply it is the section in the Torah that lists all of the responsibilities of priests in the temple.
On the day-to-day, they were primarily occupied with killing animals and sprinkling their innards and blood for a god who took pleasure in such things.

It’s usually at this point I would refer to the Rambam, since he is the only one who makes any sense of sacrifices. Placing it in its historical context, animal sacrifices are a way to stop human sacrifices that was prevalent then and for a long time thereafter. Seen in this light animal sacrifices are a huge step forward for humanity relative to what it superseded.

The question may still be asked, why does the Torah go on and on about all the intricate details of every law of every sacrifice? Granted it is a huge step forward, wouldn’t it suffice to give us some basic headings and keep the rest out of the book that is supposed to be our spiritual guide? Why is it that the Torah spends a quarter of its pages talking about something that is actually going to end up being such a turnoff?

Like everything else in the Torah that is rightly problematic to our progressive hearts and minds, the Torah can only be made sense of with historical context. Only when we understand the biblical times, its culture and its norms, can we hope to be free of having to choose between a nauseating fundamentalism and a militant atheism.

A great example of this is in relation to a law we read a few weeks ago in relation to a man who hits a pregnant woman. If she survives but miscarries there is financial compensation only, if she dies too then the perpetrator is put to death. ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.’
For us this idea of chopping someone’s arm off or taking out their eye is simply not something we can stomach which is why we have been interpreting it for a long time as monetary compensation instead. Nevertheless, the Torah clearly means it literally! How then can we retain an idea of Torah as progress, which is absolutely essential, if we are going to avoid the extremes mentioned earlier?

It is only when one is familiar with the laws in practise then that the Torah’s progress is easily seen. One such set of laws is that of Hammurabi which were around at the time the Torah was written. In it, we find two very similar laws with one very huge deviation. If a man strikes the pregnant daughter of another man and she miscarriages, then he lays out ten silver pieces. If he strikes the daughter of another man and she dies, then the daughter of the striker is put to death!

In other words, we thought that a life for a life was brutal. However, killing the innocent daughter of a killer is just one massive step a whole lot more brutal. The progress of the Torah in this instance is to say that a woman is not the property of the father and the punishment should be directed at the perpetrator not his innocent daughter.

With such a lens, we can also approach the meaning of all the intricate priestly laws that the Torah inundates us with. Simply look at what the priests and shamans of the other cultures were up to. Indeed, there is hardly any written information on the priestly practices of those other cultures for very good reason. The secretive nature of the priests’ knowledge was the very source of their power. You go to a priest and ask his advice and they can tell you whatever they want. Many of them no doubt were driven by a wholly spiritual motivation, but one need not be too overly cynical to imagine the abuse of such power.

Comes along the Torah and says, ok you guys still need to have a priestly class because this is all you know. The Egyptians, Babylonians, and every other ancient culture of the time have their priestly class and it will be well more than a thousand years before the priests were made obsolete in Judaism. That we have a priestly class is therefore very ‘normal’. It is the differences between our priestly laws and what came before which truly signifies the progress of the Torah.

One incredible example is the attitude to property. Whereas in Egyptian law, even Pharaoh had no jurisdiction over the lands of the clergy which were the choicest and in abundance. Conversely, the Torah repeats many many times the statement that the tribe of Levi, from whence priests descend, have no inheritance in the land of Israel because God is their inheritance.

There is however nothing more possibly progressive than the Torah’s limitation on the priests. By stipulating every law in its minutia, the Torah has curtailed the potential for abuse of priestly power in the extreme. When a person goes to seek the advice of the priest, the priest cannot invent anything because all the laws are stipulated, clear and transparent for all to see.
It is no accident that Judaism as a religion was all about study. It was to take it away from the hands of the few and ensure as much as possible that transparency rules the day.

It is indeed unfortunate that these lessons of the Torah fall on deaf ears. The greatest landowners in the world is the Catholic Church and our very own religion is starting to compete with that state of affairs. Similarly, rabbis, the ones who superseded the temple priests, are today as secretive and non-transparent as ever.

We are very lucky to be living in a country whose judiciary has proven itself to be pursuers of justice no matter the person in question. George Pell who atrociously abused his immense power is being given a real sentence for his abominable crimes. What we should take out from this experience is that transparency and oversight is essential no matter what clergy of what religion we are talking about. In our own backyard, we have the despicable behaviour of rabbis with regard to Malka Leifer. If we are being true the Torah’s message belaboured by the excruciating length and details of the priestly laws, we would be fighting for open transparent dealings in all that we do.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks