Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I once quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

A strange miniature Aleph opens this week’s parsha, the only one of its kind in the Torah. What does it mean? In our study of the Zohar, we discovered the most remarkable insight:

A miniature aleph — deriving from a diminished place, diminished becoming great as it joins above.

The mystics understand this seemingly obscure scribal tradition of miniaturizing this particular Aleph as a way of showing that although the divine called to Moses, and although the divine showed Moses tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, Moses still constantly diminished himself before the divine and also before the community of Israel. Indeed, cultivating humility before the divine encounter is a central concern addressed through all the offerings made in the Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Leviticus is also a compendium that sharply contrasts with our classic prophetic teachings, which compose most of the weekly haftarot. For the prophets, the God of Moses is the divine source of morality, and social justice is maintained through the fulfillment of ethical commands (mitzvot). According to the renowned Israeli scholar Dr. Israel Knohl, the Priestly Torah in the Book of Leviticus is distinguished by the centrality of cultic command (as opposed to ethical command); this cultic command is portrayed as the principal content of divine revelation. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that the unmediated divine revelation that "is the climactic moment in Israel’s history" is "not revelation at Sinai but revelation at the Tabernacle, associated with sacrificial worship."

Waiting for the cultic calling, it is only fitting then that Moses hears the still, silent voice of the divine from the nexus of cultic activity — the Tent of Meeting [Ohel Moed]. From this point of calling [Vayikrah] — the namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch — the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, are communicated. These include: (1) Ascent offering [‘olah] — wholly raised up in ascent to the divine by fire atop the altar; (2) Meal offering [minha] — prepared of fine flour, olive oil, and frankincense; (3) Peace offering [shelamim] — animal burned on the altar, with parts given to the priest and other meat eaten by the one bringing the offering; (4) Sin offering [hatat] — brought to atone for transgressions committed in error by the high priest, the entire community, the king, or any Israelite; (5) Guilt offering [asham] — brought by one who has misappropriated property of the sanctuary or is in doubt of transgression.

It is remarkable that even in moments of apparent disconnection from the divine, there is always a way to draw closer in the act of repairing by remaining connected through ritual life. The key to opening the doorway of connection, though, is to be as humble as the diminished Aleph.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's parsha illustration marks my last for Beth Sholom. It's inspired by storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver's insistence that we, as contemporary Jews, "try to look Leviticus in the eye – to take it on its own terms. No rationalizations. No mutations. No metaphors. ... Look directly into the fire at the bottom of the altar, and without flinching tell it: 'Go ahead, make my faith.'" Leviticus is hard. Much of Torah is hard. That's partly why it's been a privilege to create weekly parshiyot illustrations for the past 112 weeks (just over two full cycles). Torah study of all kinds demands we look long and hard into the flames, even when it's easier to look away. In so doing, we can spot the threads of personal or communal significance that run through Torah's black fire on white fire like pure threads of techelet, here radiating heavenward amidst a burning offering. Todah rabbah for looking and reading with me. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Emor – Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Facebook_CoverDesign_EmorThis week’s reading builds upon last week’s distinction between the Priestly Torah, which focuses on the priestly views of ritual (as distinct from those of the masses), and the Holiness Code, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

What further distinguishes Chapters 21 and 22 of Leviticus from the rest of the Holiness Code (Chapters 17–26) is a primary concern for the priesthood rather than for the Israelite people as a whole. There is an internal symmetry wherein the code for ordinary priests (21:1-9) and the code for the High Priest (21:10-15) both begin with funerary regulations and conclude with marital restrictions.

Parashat Emor also addresses the annual callings to holiness: a weekly sabbatical retreat; an annual paschal offering on the 14th of Nisan as well as the seven day cycle of Pesach (Passover) beginning on the 15th of Nisan; the gathering and elevating of the Omer offering from the first barley harvest on the second day of Passover to its culmination in Shavuot; the primal cry of the shofar on the 1st of Tishrei for Rosh Hashanah; followed by a fast day on the 10th of Tishrei; culminating with a seven-day festival for dwelling in booths while dancing with the four species on the 15th of Tishrei and then the after-party of the Eighth day of Assembly marking the pilgrimage route home with Shemini Atzeret.

By contrast, the first section of Emor speaks to laws pertaining to Temple service of the High Priest.

All in all, there is something about sacred time that speaks to each of us differently, yet the sacred somehow finds a way to take place in our lives through the Jewish calendar and the synagogue.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's stark artwork is inspired by Emor's focus on separation, especially as it pertains to distinctions between pure/impure or sacred/profane. The Israelite approach to sacrifice, illness, hygiene, sexual biology, food, agriculture, and more is informed by a severe dualism that makes sense in context; nonetheless, it is impossible not to feel empathy for those members of the tribe who are cut off from their people because they are deemed taboo or impure.Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I recently quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tzav – Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

Facebook_CoverDesign_TzavLeviticus is a challenging book to absorb. On one hand, many observant Jews the world over consider the Priestly tradition (as articulated throughout Leviticus) to be obsessed with time-conditioned commands that are far removed from our lived experience today. On the other hand, thanks to the biased scholarship of Julius Wellhausen, critical readers of the Hebrew Bible have unquestioningly inherited a negative view of the Priestly Code, regarding it as a theology that tends towards denaturalization and abstracts the natural conditions and motives of the actual life of the people in the land of Canaan. Thankfully, in her book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen Davis argues that the opposite is the case – namely, that Leviticus articulates a theologically profound vision of the complex interdependency of the created order.

So what then is the relationship between obedience and commandedness [t'zivui] and how does it affect our relationship to sacral duties [mitzvot]?

From hearing the calling to obeying the command [tzav], Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons all receive the divine command regarding their duties as priests [kohanim] to make offerings [qorbanot] in the Sanctuary. The fire on the altar must be kept burning at all times, so as to completely consume: the ascent offering [‘olah]; veins of fat from the peace offering [shelamim]; sin offering [hatat]; guilt offering [asham]; and the handful taken from the meal offering [minha]. The priests are permitted to eat the meat of the sin and guilt offerings, as well as the remainder of the meal offering. The peace offering is offered by the one who brought it, with sections apportioned to the priest. Consumption of the holy meat offerings are to be eaten by a person for whom it is ritually appropriate, in a designated place and time. Initiation into the priesthood for Aaron and his sons takes place over the seven day retreat in the sanctuary compound.

What makes this profound vision of the complex interdependency of the created order real is the degree to which human beings responsibly participate in that order.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s artwork is inspired by the following instruction: "An earthenware vessel in which [the sin offering] is cooked shall be broken..." (Leviticus 6:21) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kedoshim -- Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

CoverDesign_KedoshimEveryone recognizes the dictum known as the Golden Rule. So why does it hold such sway over Western civilization while its source continually remains neglected, if not forgotten?

The English politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833) once made his own observation about the Golden Rule: "Let everyone regulate his conduct... by the golden rule of doing to others as in similar circumstances we would have them do to us, and the path of duty will be clear before him."

And so, once again, this path of duty guides us to a central question addressed in the Book of Leviticus: How do we bring holiness into our lives? How do we prepare ourselves to seek out the divine in our age, in whatever form it is manifest? The directive could not be clearer: "Love your fellow as yourself."

Indeed, the source of the ethical vertebrae of the Golden Rule is embedded in the center of this week’s reading (19:18), which is also the center of the entire Pentateuch. The larger envelope of Leviticus (chapters 17-26) is known as the Priestly Torah. According to renowned Israeli scholar, Dr. Israel Knohl, these chapters stand out in their linguistic and stylistic uniqueness. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that if we carefully listen to the divine symphony of the Pentateuch, we will hear the voices of two distinct and independent schools of Torah in Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness School. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Given the political, social, cultural, and religious upheavals that marked the eighth century BCE, a different spiritual paradigm was needed to bring order and solace to the Israelites. These spiritual forces included the critical message of the classical prophets, who sharply attacked the Temple cult and called for a new understanding of the human-divine covenantal relationship. It was in Hezekiah’s court that the priesthood sought to grapple with and respond to the urgent religious and social problems of their time, and they did so by responding to the critique of the prophets. It is precisely this recurring struggle for meaning that is shaping the creative activity of a new Priestly Torah — the Holiness School.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract interpretation of Hillel's riff on the commandment to "love your fellow as yourself." "That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — go study." The imagery calls to mind ears, two spheres in relationship, and our CBS architecture. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26

CoverDesign_VayikraA strange miniature Aleph opens this week’s parsha, the only one of its kind in the Torah. What does it mean?

In our communal study of the Zohar, we discovered the most remarkable insight:

A miniature aleph — deriving from a diminished place, diminished becoming great as it joins above.

The mystics understand this seemingly obscure scribal tradition of miniaturizing this particular Aleph as a way of showing that although the divine called to Moses, and although the divine showed Moses tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, Moses still constantly diminished himself before the divine and also before the community of Israel. Indeed, cultivating humility before the divine encounter is a central concern addressed through all the offerings made in the Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Leviticus is also a compendium that sharply contrasts with our classic prophetic teachings, which compose most of the weekly haftarot. For the prophets, the God of Moses is the divine source of morality, and social justice is maintained through the fulfillment of ethical commands (mitzvot). According to the renowned Israeli scholar Dr. Israel Knohl, the Priestly Torah in the Book of Leviticus is distinguished by the centrality of cultic command (as opposed to ethical command); this cultic command is portrayed as the principal content of divine revelation. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that the unmediated divine revelation that "is the climactic moment in Israel’s history" is "not revelation at Sinai but revelation at the Tabernacle, associated with sacrificial worship."

Waiting for the cultic calling, it is only fitting then that Moses hears the still, silent voice of the divine from the nexus of cultic activity — the Tent of Meeting [Ohel Moed]. From this point of calling [Vayikrah] — the namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch — the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, are communicated. These include: (1) Ascent offering [‘olah] — wholly raised up in ascent to the divine by fire atop the altar; (2) Meal offering [minha] — prepared of fine flour, olive oil, and frankincense; (3) Peace offering [shelamim] — animal burned on the altar, with parts given to the priest and other meat eaten by the one bringing the offering; (4) Sin offering [hatat] — brought to atone for transgressions committed in error by the high priest, the entire community, the king, or any Israelite; (5) Guilt offering [asham] — brought by one who has misappropriated property of the sanctuary or is in doubt of transgression.

It is remarkable that even in moments of apparent disconnection from the divine, there is always a way to draw closer in the act of repairing by remaining connected through ritual life. The key to opening the doorway of connection, though, is to be as humble as the diminished Aleph.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork credit: Illustration of an 'olah offering by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): What's In A Name? (Or What's With Orev?)

CoverDesign2_RavenNow and again, someone asks me why I sign my CBS emails with a two-part first name: Christopher Orev. Fair question.

In day-to-day life, I prioritize my given, secular name, Christopher. In this respect, I'm like most Jewish Americans. My patronymic Hebrew name, Orev ben Avraham Avinu v' Sarah Imanu, is known by very few people and used by fewer still, generally reserved for use in a ritual context.

So why, then, do I insist on writing Christopher Orev? Because my Hebrew name is very important to me, and I feel it should appear in formal correspondence, especially in a Jewish context. Because the name itself is unusual, however, I'm often asked what it means. Not long ago, Rabbi Glazer suggested that I share the origin of the name on the CBS blog in the hopes that a handful of readers might find my explanation of interest.

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Those well-versed in Tanakh might worry that I've chosen Orev in some misguided tribute to one of the two Midianite chieftains killed in Shoftim 7:25. But, no, the ill-fated Midianite is not my namesake.

Because Orev means 'raven,' some friends of mine have assumed that my choice stems from my fondness for natural history and especially for reviled and misunderstood species. I am fascinated and excited by ravens, but that partiality isn't my principal motivation, either. Instead, I chose Orev because of the raven's mysterious role in the story of Noah.

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the ground." (Bereshit 8:6-8).

Where did the raven go?

Contemporary biblical critics contend that the raven's disappearance is evidence of the biblical narrative's many sources. According to these scholars, when the stories of Torah were first edited and assembled, scribes often included details from differing accounts (rather than choosing between them). By this reckoning, one of the ancient riffs on the flood story had it that a raven was released while another, slightly different version of the tale assigned the recon flight to a dove. The two versions were simply spliced together so that Noah released the raven and then the dove.

The literary, analytical, and rational inclinations of this particular Torah reader make me appreciative of such striking examples of narrative juxtaposition and mythmaking. But while I appreciate our sacred text through a decidedly non-supernatural lens, I also invest Torah with much social and mystical power. These two, very different approaches to Torah — one universalist and secular, the other specific and traditional — place me in a grey zone of contemporary Jewish identity, but I consider this balancing act (this push-pull or hybrid position) to be the very essence of the Conservative movement’s philosophy.

But what does this have to do with my name? Back to Noah’s raven; what became of it? There are a number of traditional drashs that explain the raven's disappearance, but I view the stray bird as an analog of my Jewish neshamah (soul). This particular orev "flew the coop," so to speak, for a few generations, but has at last come back to the ark (through the covenant of conversion).

I find a satisfying etymological riff on this interpretation in the Hebrew name itself, עורב. Ayin means "eye," Vav means "and," Resh means "beginning" or "head," and Beit means "house" or "home." Orev, therefore, can be read as "eye and head home," an oblique reference to the raven's "seeing" his way home. Likewise, my neshamah has turned anew (or returned) to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

Another gratifying etymological connection has been made between orev and erev, meaning 'evening' or 'dusk.' Both words are comprised of the same letters, and Hebrew linguists believe that the word orev was derived from erev, a reference to the raven's dark plumage. If so, the raven’s name is born of the gloaming, my favorite time of day, one electric with magic and possibility, and ideal for sustained rumination.

But the etymology can be (and is) taken one step further. Ervuv is the Hebrew word for 'mixture' and, just as day mixes with night at erev, some rabbis point out that, although it is officially deemed treif, the raven is the only bird species to split the difference on the Mishnah's four kashrut qualities; it possesses two kosher attributes and two treif attributes, and is therefore a "mixed" creature.

This mixture angle is also important to me. When I emerged from the mikveh, I was a new Jew. If you had asked me then if I stood at Sinai, I would have confidently replied, ‘Yes.' Yes, at least, with respect to metaphysics and psychology...but my personal history is not that of Hebrew school, kugel, or Camp Ramah. My Gentile past informs my Jewish identity in unexpected, generally positive ways, but the individual ger, like the individual shul, will never please klal Yisrael. Because I am actively engaged in the Jewish community (across the denominational, political, and theological spectrums), my very "Jewishness" is sometimes challenged. Some fellow Jews review my attributes and deem me kosher; others say I'm treif. I'd be fibbing were I to claim that this limbo doesn't trouble me, but I also recognize that it provides me with a special opportunity to examine questions of identity. I will be wholly Jewish and yet I will be "the stranger that sojourns among" my fellow Jews. The name I have chosen embodies two themes that are important to me: my (re)turn to Jewish peoplehood and also the peculiar/particular Jewish identity of the ger.