God’s Call

In an extract from his new book, Lord Sacks explains why Leviticus is far more than a manual of priestly sacrifices - it could be Judaism's key text


Of all the Mosaic books Vayikra, Leviticus, is the one most out of step with contemporary culture. Many find it difficult to relate to its concerns. It opens with an account of sacrifices, but we have not had sacrifices for close to two millennia.

Its preoccupation with ritual purity and defilement seems to come from another age, and with the exception of the menstrual cycle, has little contemporary application. The long account of tsara’at, usually translated as leprosy, is a good example of the difficulties the text poses. Are we talking about a disease, a defilement, or a punishment, and how, in any case, is it relevant to the spiritual life and our relationship with God?

Little happens in Leviticus. There is not much narrative and what there is, is troubling. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, die on the day of the consecration of the Tabernacle simply, it seems, because of an act of misplaced enthusiasm. Even when Leviticus speaks about ethics, it does so in a perplexing way. The great chapter 19, with its majestic summons – “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” – mixes moral imperatives with ritual and seemingly irrational commands like the prohibition against wearing clothes of mixed wool and linen, in a way that challenges conventional ideas of logic and coherence. The mindset of Leviticus is far removed from that of secular culture in the West in the twenty-first century.

Yet Leviticus is a, perhaps even the, key text of Judaism. It is here that we read for the first time the command to "Love your neighbour as yourself". It is the source of the even greater moral principle: "You shall love [the stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt."

It is Leviticus that forbids us to take vengeance or bear a grudge, taking a stand against the psychopathology of hatred and violence. It contains one of the most remarkable of all religious ideas, that we are summoned to be holy because God is holy. Not only are we in God's image. We are called on to act in God's ways.

Leviticus sets out an entire infrastructure for justice and equity in political and economic life

At a more practical but no less profound level, Leviticus sets out an entire infrastructure for justice and equity in political and economic life. It is Leviticus that sets out the parameters for employer-employee relationships. It humanises slavery and sets in motion a process that must end in its abolition, however long it takes. It speaks about debt relief and the return of ancestral land in the Jubilee year.

Leviticus is the central book of the Pentateuch, the Torah. This makes it the most important of the five. Biblical literature often works on the principle of mirror-image symmetry (“chiasmus”), structured in the form: ABCBA. In any work so patterned, the climax is not at the beginning or the end but in the middle. At the centre of the five Mosaic books, Leviticus is the axis on which they turn.

It is also the purest expression of one of the most important voices in the Torah, the priestly voice, the sensibility the sages called (it was their original name for the book), Torat cohanim, “the law of the priests.”

We hear this voice elsewhere at key points of the Torah. One is the first chapter of Genesis 1 – “In the beginning God created” – which describes creation in the language of the priest. Another is Exodus 19:6, just before the revelation at Mount Sinai, with its mission statement of the Jewish people: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This is a priestly vocation. Despite the importance of the prophets to the religion of Israel, it is to the role of priest not prophet that God summoned our ancestors and summons us. The very name given by tradition to the Mosaic books, Torah, is a priestly word.

Leviticus was the book with which Jewish education traditionally began. For many centuries, as far back as Talmudic times, it was the first text Jewish children studied, their introduction to the word and will of God. “Let the pure come and study purity,” said the sages. They wanted this above others to be the book first engraved on Jewish minds and inscribed in Jewish hearts.

Again this is odd when we consider the rabbis’ own view of their provenance, the opening line of the Mishnah, Avot: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the elders and the elders to the prophets.” The rabbis saw themselves as heirs not to the priests but to the prophets. In truth, they were a creative synthesis of both.

I believe that you cannot understand Judaism without the priestly voice. Judaism, from the Torah onward, is a conversation scored for many voices. It is this internal diversity, this complex harmony and occasional discord that gives Judaism its dynamism, its ability to defeat entropy, the rule that says that all systems lose energy over time. Among the Torah’s voices, the priestly sensibility is the dominant one, despite the fact that Moses, the dominant figure from Exodus to Deuteronomy, was not a priest.

It is this sensibility that communicated the absolute and austere monotheism that made Judaism unique in the ancient world and singular even today. It insists on the total difference between humans and God, but it also knows how to bridge it by aligning our will with His.

It is the priestly voice that tells us that human beings are in the image of God. It speaks of the integrity of difference and the importance of respecting it. It takes abstract ideals and turns them into codes of behaviour that transform lives. The book of Leviticus is a sustained meditation on what holiness is and how it can be translated into life. Indeed it is the priestly voice that identifies God with life and refuses to consecrate death.

Torat cohanim wrestles with some of the deepest questions of religion. How, in a finite world, can we relate to an infinite God who cannot be identified with any natural phenomenon, who can neither be seen nor visually represented? At a quite different level, how can we take the fire of religious inspiration and turn it into an everlasting flame? How can we recapture “peak experiences” on a regular basis? And how can we take a way of life for the few and make it the possession of the many?

Leviticus is a precisely structured book, divided into three parts. The first is about the holy. Specifically it is about sacrifices and more generally about how to come close to God in the house of God. The second part is set at the boundary between the holy and the world. It is about the things that prevent us entering sacred space. The third is about taking the holy into the world.

The book begins with an elite, the priests, sons of Aaron, a minority within a minority, one specific family within the tribe of Levi. It culminates in a call from God to the entire nation. It begins in the Sanctuary but ends in society. It democratises kedushah, holiness, the sign of God’s presence, so that it becomes part of the ongoing life of the people as a whole.

Historically this was taken further still after the destruction of the Second Temple, when prayer replaced sacrifice, repentance substituted for the service of the High Priest of the Day of Atonement, and Torah knowledge, originally a speciality of the priest, became a normative expectation of the people as a whole. Torat cohanim, the law of the priests, became what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik called Ish ha-Halachkah, the halachic personality.

Vayikra, “He called, summoned, beckoned” is the language of invitation, friendship, love, not an order we must obey. In love God called Abraham to follow him. In love God led the way for the wandering Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day, fire by night. In love God calls the people Israel to come close to Him, to be regular visitors at His house, to share His quality of holiness, difference, apartness: to become, as it were, mediators of His presence to the world.

Vayikra is about why love needs law and law needs love. It is about the quotidian acts of devotion that bring two beings close, even when one of them is vaster than the universe and the other is a mortal of flesh and blood. It is about being human, sinning, falling short, always conscious of our fragile hold on life, yet seeking to come close to God and – what is sometimes harder – allowing Him to come close to us.

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