Parashat Emor, 5771, Bill Stewart

Parashat Emor

May 7, 2011 / 3 Iyyar, 5771

Bill Stewart

Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23

Shabbat Shalom,

This week’s Parsha continues the theme of Kedushim, the Holiness Code.  We’ve already spent some time learning what holiness is and what it means to be holy.  Here we are given a variety of laws and principles.  When one first reads Emor it may be difficult to find a common thread, and some parts of it are hard to comprehend and accept.  Yet, I believe that we can discern much that pertains to us today and some deep, abiding treasures.  What is there in this parsha that guides us on the path to holiness?

As I have come to know and live with Torah over the last few years I have come to some general conclusions that help me on my journey.  First, I believe that nothing in Torah is superfluous or irrelevant.  Also, I view Torah the way I would view a necklace of precious stones:  there is the stunning beauty of the whole, but often even greater beauty and wisdom in the individual beads, so to speak. 

The Israelites of biblical times did not exist in some isolated, insular Jewish paradise.  Tribes and nations, often hostile, with a variety of customs, living arrangements, languages, and agricultural and religious practices surrounded them.  This has been the case to varying degrees throughout our history, especially in and among the communities we’ve built during the Diaspora.  Embedded in Torah are many guidelines and tools for living as Jews among other people. Our greatest challenge today could be finding ways to hold onto our Jewish identity, both in the global arena and among the many streams of Judaism.

Our modern, egalitarian and inclusive sensibilities may seem at odds with some of what we read in Emor.  It would be wrong to gloss over the difficulties, though I don’t wish to dwell on them.  

Joseph B'khor Shor observes, "The previous portion explains the distinction (havdalah) between Israel and the nations; this one explains the distinction between priests and ordinary Israelites."

Jacob Milgrom z’’l notes that the priestly rules in all of the Holiness Code appear to be an amalgam of two oral sources: the “P” text, from Babylonia, specific to priests; the “E” text from the later time of Ezra that extends the laws to include all of Israel.

We no longer have the sacred precinct within the Temple, but we do have our communities and our synagogues.  Rules for Temple observance inform what we do in our worship with Torah. 

Dr. Alan Cooper of JTS states:  “Many Conservative synagogues no longer distinguish between members who claim descent from the priestly castes (kohen, levi) and ordinary Jews (yisra'el) … Nevertheless, it is important to keep the old distinctions in mind as we read biblical priestly law in general and Parashat Emor in particular. Distinctions between priests and their fellow Israelites, like those between Israel and the nations, are fundamental to the biblical concept of holiness.”   We are a to be a holy people and a nation of priests.

Emor begins with rules for the behavior of the sacrificial priests, and even stricter rules for the Kohen Gadol.  We no longer perform sacrificial rites, but some of these traditions and practices are still with us.  Central to much of this is the distinction between tamei and tahor, or being ineligible or eligible to perform duties exclusive to the sacred precinct. While our earthy humanity is truly sacred, the sanctuary calls for separation from the mundane world. According to Jacob Milgrom, the rules about hair, shaving and such have roots in the practices of neighboring people of using hair as a ritual offering.  We don’t do that.  

The command to cleanse after intimacy may serve to separate us from neighboring peoples who would incorporate sexual acts into religious rites; but it may be that the priests are simply making havdala between the realm of the flesh and that of the spirit. As an aside, as a medical professional, I am reminded of universal precautions regarding blood and body fluids in medical and more intimate procedures.  

Restrictions on priestly contact with the dead are puzzling until we consider the prohibition against necromancy at the end of Kedushim.  According to Dr. Cooper,  “The necessity of separating life (holy) from death (profane), and the living from the dead, is a thematic link between {Kedushim and Emor]. The midrash of Bahya b. Asher begins with a vivid polemic against necromancy, with one biblical verse after another yielding the conclusion that it is absurd to consult the dead as opposed to the living God.”  “Forbidding attendance at the funeral of a loved one, in contrast, seems cruel. As is often the case, the divine Author graciously relents for the sake of humanity.”

The rules about the women whom priests may marry seem to be ways to assure that lines of hereditary succession remain pure.  I have no comment on the behavior rules for women in their households.  These things may just seem obnoxious to many of us today, especially by neglecting the character and behavior of men.

The laws pertaining to maimed or disfigured priests may offend us, but they were written in and for a very different world.  Today we are blessed with the technology, willingness and compassion to address, correct or accommodate our varied abilities.  Not to make light of it, but being cross-eyed, far-sighted and left-handed with one leg shorter than the other would have disqualified me. We accept that we do our best to enable any of us to participate as fully as possible, and can be thankful we have ways of doing so within a compassionate community.

Prohibitions on priests with blemishes just no longer apply.   We could dismiss them simply because we no longer have sacrificial priests; perhaps, though, we can see this as a call to be mindful of our internal fitness, striving to be our best.  We do strive to take pride in how we present ourselves within our community, especially at synagogue.

There are lovely little gems strewn throughout Emor and all of Torah.  Here we are commanded to welcome the stranger [22:18] and the commandment not to reap an entire field is repeated, emphasizing the need to honor the poor and the stranger. Be generous.

Although we rarely consume anything like a sacrificial ritual meal, terumah, we take care and pride in our food and its preparation, We don’t eat “road kill” or spoiled food.

I’m really glad we don’t sacrifice animals anymore; I just couldn’t do it, and just thinking about it keeps moving me toward being a vegetarian.  This section does make one think about where your animal-based food comes from and how the animals are treated, “animal husbandry” being a good term.  Kosher meat and food processing, and the current call for “New Kosher” standards are akin to this passage. 

We are to respect the bond between mother and offspring, not offering for sacrifice an animal less than eight days old and not offering an animal and its offspring on the same day.  [22:26-28] This echoes prohibitions elsewhere on cooking a kid in its mother’s milk and taking the bird and its eggs from the same nest.  In the words of one popular, modern voice, “Don’t be Cruel.”

Chapter 22, verse 32 commands us to praise Hashem in public worship, especially those of us in mourning.  Oral Torah has developed this into the requirement of a minyan for certain prayers and the practice of saying the mourners’ kaddish. 

Chapter 23 introduces the holidays we are commanded to observe, with a few directives on how to do so.  We have a distinctly Jewish way of marking time based on weekly Shabbat, lunar months and the renewal of life in the Spring.

Most emphasis here is on Shabbat, the counting of the Omer and Shavuot, and Sukkot. These agricultural festivals are presented in greater detail than even Pesach and the High Holy Days.  While similar holidays are common worldwide, the way we determine them and how we observe them is unique. 

Lighting of the Ner Tamid is commanded.  “Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of testimony to burn from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lamp stand before the Lord to burn regularly (tamid).”

Emor ends with the tale of the blasphemer, the son of the Egyptian Moses slew and Shelomith, an Israelite woman.  The death penalty imposed is difficult to accept, but what really stands out is that our laws are meant to apply equally to Israelites, proselytes and the strangers among us. "You should have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God (Leviticus 24:22)." We conclude with guidelines for punishing various offenses, noting the powerful and abiding principle of “an eye for an eye.”

The Kedoshim chapters of Vayikra guide us toward finding ways to be a holy people in the modern world.  We are called to establish our Jewishness in ways that make us distinct from non-Jews.  It is to be hoped that these things even make us better citizens of the world.  

How we show our Jewish identity changes over time, sometimes very quickly.  When I first attended Conservative services in the 1960’s, most of the kippot and tallitot were very similar to each other, and only worn by men.  Becoming a bat mitzvah was not common.  Service music, at least as I recall, was not as varied as what we have now.  There has surely been a huge change over what is really a very short time.  It is wonderful now to be able to celebrate our rich and ancient traditions while also embracing inspired innovation.  Constant change with reverence for the past is the heart of our tradition.

Here are some of the things we do to honor the commandments in Emor:

We deal respectfully and appropriately with our dead.  We can be very proud of our Chevra Kadisha and Gan Yarok.  We have ways of fulfilling our duties and allowing those with halachic limitations to maintain their boundaries with grace and dignity.

We are mindful, indeed very creative with our demeanor, presence and appearance; Berkeley Formal is a look that should only take the world by  storm.

We welcome newcomers to the point, I hope, that it is difficult to remain a stranger among us.  Our tent is really very big and festive.

We are generous, guided by the principle of taking only what we need, respecting the needs of the poor.  After all, we don’t really own any part of God’s creation.

We are mindful of our food, not just with respect to halacha, but also how it is raised or grown.  We have a sacred duty to respect all life, including food animals, and agriculture’s impact on our world.

We gather often to pray together, to praise Hashem in the midst of the people.  

We follow our Jewish calendar with daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal observances.  Many of these we share with the greater Jewish community, also with people of other faiths.  Together we cast our own light in the world.

We are not afraid of thorny and painful issues among and around us, and we continually pray for justice in the world.  We are not silent in the face of injustice.

Perhaps the greatest challenge among Jews: to remain true to Torah in our own ways and to accept the vast diversity here and in the greater Jewish community. Most important is that Torah lives with us and among us, and it is our communal interaction in living with Torah that shapes our community, our interactions with other Jews and the greater world.  We cannot afford to reject any of our fellow Jews; Torah is a tree of life, and all of us together are the garden in which it grows.

Sources from JTS commentaries:

Rabbi David Ackerman

Leviticus 22:32 reads: “Do not profane my holy name, rather sanctify me among the people of Israel; I the Lord who make you holy.” The Talmudic tradition emphasized the public nature of this call for holiness, deriving many of the rules regarding minyanim from this verse.

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary

Second, the beneficiaries of our idealism include the stranger, who is even more vulnerable than the impoverished native. A touch of universalism informs this vision of society. Charity does not begin strictly at home, a principle on which the book of Ruth turns. Having accompanied her widowed mother–in–law, Naomi, back to Judah, Ruth, a Moabite, and also bereft of husband and child, takes to the fields at harvest time to feed them both. She chances to glean on the field of Boaz, a blood relative of Naomi. Boaz takes Ruth in and quickly gains the right to a levirate marriage. Their nobility is duly rewarded with a great grandson named David, who is destined to be ancient Israel's greatest king. In short, the good that may result from a modest act of charity should never be undervalued.

But our sacred texts do not speak with a single voice. They are gloriously multivocal. On the subject of the "other," noble ideals, untarnished by history, are also in abundance. This week's parasha closes with a noteworthy example yet to be fully realized in our own sovereign Jewish state: "You should have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God (Leviticus 24:22)." For the Rabbis, the resident alien was obliged to observe only the seven laws of Noah. Nevertheless, Rashi, who died in 1105 shortly after the first Crusade, saw fit to comment on the final phrase of our parasha ["for I the Lord am your God"], "the Lord of all of you." That is, "just as I confer my name on you, I confer my name on the resident aliens." No matter how grief–stricken, Rashi did not let the bitter reality of his own era erode the inclusive spirit of the Torah.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

Heschel:

"The Baal Shem thought of the Jew's relationship to God as a romance, and it disturbed him to see how many rituals had become routine rather than rapturous acts, exercises in repetition rather than gestures of surprise – a hand without a heart. Faith was fire, not sediment. Did not a pillar of fire serve as a guide when the people Israel roamed in the wilderness? And fire was the beginning of light . . . One of his contributions was to awaken a zest for spiritual living, expressed in hitlahavut, which literally means 'being aflame'; the experience of moments during which the soul is ablaze with an insatiate craving for God, when the memory of all other interests and the fear of misery and persecution are forgotten. In such instances a man seeks to give himself to God and delights in his being a gift of God" (A Passion for Truth, 47–48).

Dr. Alan Cooper, JTS:

Many Conservative synagogues no longer distinguish between members who claim descent from the priestly castes (kohen, levi) and ordinary Jews (yisra'el). The priestly blessing is recited by whoever happens to be leading the prayer service; the first two aliyot to the Torah are handed out democratically and dubbed rishon/sheni ("first/second") instead of kohen/levi. Nevertheless, it is important to keep the old distinctions in mind as we read biblical priestly law in general and Parashat Emor in particular. Distinctions between priests and their fellow Israelites, like those between Israel and the nations, are fundamental to the biblical concept of holiness.

As Joseph B'khor Shor correctly observes, "The previous portion explains the distinction (havdalah) between Israel and the nations; this one explains the distinction between priests and ordinary Israelites."

The necessity of separating life (holy) from death (profane), and the living from the dead, is a thematic link between the two parashiyot.

Bahya b. Asher asks, "Why was this section about priests attached to the verse about ghosts and familiar spirits?" He finds an answer in the Tanhuma (Emor 2). The midrash begins with a vivid polemic against necromancy, with one biblical verse after another yielding the conclusion that it is absurd to consult the dead as opposed to the living God. "And if you should ask, from whom shall we inquire, Scripture says, 'Come to the levitical priests . . . and act in accordance with the torah that they teach you'" (Deut. 17:9–11). The priests are an authentic and legitimate source of oracular teaching, in contrast to various diviners (including necromancers) who carry on the "abhorrent practices" of the nations (Deut. 18:9–14).