Never mind the bullocks - just heed the prophets

Leviticus, with its lengthy account of sacrifices and purification rites, is tough going for Liberal Jews

By Rabbi Pete Tobias, April 30, 2009
The priests around the sacrificial fire — Pauline Frankenberg’s illustration of Tzav, the second sidrah of Leviticus, in her Picturing the Parashah series

The priests around the sacrificial fire — Pauline Frankenberg’s illustration of Tzav, the second sidrah of Leviticus, in her Picturing the Parashah series

It is a beautiful spring morning. The months (years?) of planning are over and the barmitzvah boy is about to be called up to read from the Torah, the book at the heart of the Jewish faith in which he is symbolically taking his place this Shabbat. Nervously, he lifts the piece of paper on which is his dvar Torah, his explanation of the portion he is about to read, and its significance for him as he becomes a Jewish adult. Glancing at the congregation, he begins to read words he has prepared on the subject of … menstruation. Or leprosy. Or lists of animals his ancestors are not supposed to eat or people they are not supposed to sleep with.

An essential element of a Liberal bar- or batmitzvah ceremony is for the young person to offer his or her own thoughts on the relevance of the section of the Torah that is to be read. And much of the book of Leviticus, currently being recited in our annual cycle of Torah readings, has little to offer. Of course, this weekend’s portion includes the stunning insights of the Holiness Code in chapter 19, a blueprint for social justice that still demands to be implemented some three millennia after it was written. But even these timeless instructions are punctuated by more rules about sacrifices and which bits of hair not to cut.

Fortunately, the time of the year at which the first half of the book of Leviticus is read coincides with Pesach, so bnei mitzvah in my Liberal synagogue read excerpts from the Exodus story instead. This means that their 13-year-old thoughts about their religion can focus on the significance and effect of that event for their ancestors and subsequent generations of Jews, instead of minute details of sacrificing lambs and bullocks.

The significance and effect of the Exodus was the emergence of our ancestors from slavery into freedom and a recognition that no one should be treated as the Israelites were. That message is repeated throughout the Torah: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt” is the refrain following the most profound demands that those ancestors establish justice in their society (eg at the end of Leviticus 19).

The demand for social justice was trumpeted by the prophets, who saw those ancestors consistently failing to fulfil those obligations, assuming instead that the correct observance of Levitical ritual was all that was required. Time and again they were reminded that sacrifice and ritual were meaningless if those carrying them out did not care for the less privileged in their society. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, acknowledgment of God, not burnt offerings,” said Hosea.

Amos berated the wealthy of Israel for “selling the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals”, while Isaiah declared that what God wanted was not the offerings of lambs, oxen and bullocks, but fair treatment for orphans and widows.

Claude Montefiore, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism, wrote that the movement was determined to “emphasise the ‘prophetic’ elements in Judaism, and to minimise the ‘priestly’ elements”. This meant abandoning priestly conceptions of clean and unclean, and rejecting the idea of “holiness” as attaching to things as well as persons, and avoiding reference to the Temple and animal sacrifice.

So using alternative Torah readings to those sections of Leviticus, which many congregants find “offensive and distasteful”, is fully justified in Liberal tradition. And our 13-year-olds (and their rabbis) are spared from the struggle to find something meaningful to say about the sprinkling of a bullock’s blood on the horns of the altar.

But the bullocks are still there; these elements are still part of our heritage and history, even if, for Liberal Jews, they have no place in our present or future. We should recognise them for what they are: ancient attempts to deal with aspects of the human condition of which our ancestors had little understanding and over which they exercised little control.

Watching an elite group sacrificing animals to an invisible God was deemed to be the method by which fertility might be assured, famine averted, uncleanliness and transgression atoned for. To this deference to priestly superiority can be added mythical explanations about the origins of the world, the cause of a great flood and the plagues that facilitated the escape from slavery in Egypt. And behind them all lay an appreciation of the world in which our ancestors dwelt, a recognition of their dependence on nature and an awareness of the existence of a greater power that demanded justice from human beings in their dealings with one another.

The Torah embodies that striving for understanding, that acknowledgment of the unknown, that requirement for justice. Its earliest teachers, the prophets (who may well have been its authors), emphasise that the need for a just society outweighs the requirements of ritual.

So should we read biblical laws about leprosy and mildew, or instructions on sacrificing bullocks? If, and only if, we recognise in them our ancestors’ sense of awe, and learn from them what the prophets demanded that our ancestors learn from them: not to be prejudiced or greedy, not to exploit or oppress but to support the needy in society. This is the essential message that we need to hear from and for our b’nei mitzvah, for ourselves, and our world — and never mind the bullocks.

Pete Tobias is rabbi of The Liberal Synagogue Elstree and chairman of Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference. His new book, Never Mind the Bullocks — A Twenty-First Century Exploration of the Torah for Bar/Batmitzvah Students, is published by Liberal Judaism at £7.99

Last updated: 10:29am, August 18 2009