Leviticus is the biblical book rabbis do not want you to read. Saturated with sacrificial minutiae and unsettling descriptions of ritual impurity, its countless sheep and goat offerings seem a more effective salve for insomnia than any woe that pains the heart. After all, what do wave offerings or incense recipes have in common with more substantive things, like wireless Internet or the smell of freshly brewed java in the morning?
Yet the reason why studying Leviticus is so often neglected is not because it seems boring or embarrassingly regressive. Au contraire; study of Leviticus is neglected because its contents are so revolutionary and radical that we fear giving the book anything more than a dutiful glance.
This week’s Torah Portion, Emor, begins with a command to the priestly caste that they avoid all contact with the dead, the exception being close relatives and kin. “And the Lord said unto Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say unto them: There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people” (Leviticus 21:1-2).
The law is in keeping with the general obligation that priests maintain the requisite strictures of purity and holiness. Indeed, the Sons of Aaron have already been warned not to serve in the Tabernacle while drunk (Leviticus 10:9); and they are given further rules prohibiting self-mutilation as well as strict limits about whom they can wed (Leviticus 21:4-7).
Yet if we think about this command a moment longer, it should strike us as being extraordinarily counterintuitive. The priests — Kohanim — are meant to be the spiritual leaders of Israel. Their sacred task is “to distinguish between holy and unholy, between impure and pure and to teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken unto Moses” (Leviticus 10:11). They are in essence the clerical heads — the rabbis — of the people. And yet, here they are expressly forbidden from officiating or even participating in perhaps what is one of the most trying and difficult of lifecycle events — the Jewish funeral. In almost all cases, they are banned from preparing the body for burial or even accompanying the family as they escort the departed to its final resting place. It seems fair to ask why this is so.
The Italian sage, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (1475-1550), suggested that since it is the task of the priest to give honor and glory to God, it would be a grave violation of his charge to use his station to give honor to the dead (Sforno, Leviticus 21:5.6).
More recently, modern scholars have pointed to the immense chasm between the practices of ancient Egypt and those of Israel. In contrast to Israel, Egypt’s priests made funerary rites and rituals the single most important aspect of their religion. Embalming, mummification and numerous ceremonies accompanied entombing. To appreciate the centrality of Egyptian burial rites, consider that the pyramids were not built for the living, or think back to how Joseph was embalmed and entombed in Egyptian fashion at the end of Genesis.
Against this cultural milieu, Israel’s priests are abjured from making deities of the dead or even excessive mourning. Their task is to worship a living God and to sanctify the day-to-day life of Israel instead (Jacob Milgrom on Leviticus 21:1-5).
Yet, there is something unsatisfying with this answer, primarily because the Kohanim are absent from a whole number of other lifecycle events as well. A few weeks ago, we read the portion of Tazria, which decreed that the birthmother should avoid “entering the sanctuary or touching any holy thing” for some 40 to 80 days after birth (Leviticus 12:1-8). The mother, it seems, is bid to stay well away from the Temple’s priests.
One might expect a Kohen to carry out a circumcision, but here, too, no officiant is mentioned. “On the eighth day, let the flesh of his foreskin be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). Similarly, for marriage, the Torah makes no mention of any presiding prophet or priest (Deuteronomy 24:1). Remarkably, it was not until the early Middle Ages that an officiating rabbi became obligatory at weddings.
The question, then, is if a priest was not called upon to “hatch them, match them, or dispatch them,” then just who did the presiding over these lifecycle events? The answer, quite simply, was anyone. A father would likely have circumcised his son. A relative would see to proper burial. Learned wedding guests, or the groom, would ensure that the marriage was done according to the Laws of Moses.
Indeed this is but one reason why Leviticus is so radical.
The Italian commentator, Shadal (1800-1865), remarks that this idea is encapsulated by the phrase that Israel be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6): “Every Israelite is meant to have a personal ‘priest-like’ relationship with God.” Toward that end, perhaps it is time that laity and non-laity alike give Leviticus the attention it deserves.
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.