Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Understanding Leviticus

Jacob Milgrom z"l, in "Leviticus":

What are Israel's priests trying to convey through this ritual? I submit it is their answer to the question of questions, as voiced by Jeremiah, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" No intellectual circle within ancient Israel evaded the challenge of theodicy (justifying the ways of God), but none found an adequate explanation. The prophets agonized over it but came up with no immediate solutions-they only prophesied that answers would be provided by a future messianic king. The wisdom teachers gave their superficial answers: for example, the wicked will ultimately receive their comeuppance-and an entire book (Job) was written to refute them. We should expect a priestly answer, but we search in vain. Is it possible that Israel's priests, whose prime function was "to teach the Israelites" (10:11), had nothing to say regarding God's providence?
We know now where to find their answer-not in words but in rituals, not in legal statutes but in cultic procedure-specifically, in the rite with the blood of the purification offering. I call their response "the priestly Picture of Dorian Gray" In the novel by Oscar Wilde, when virtuous Dorian was granted eternal youth, he embarked on a career of increasing evil. Oddly, his evil acts did not affect his young, handsome appearance. His portrait, however, hidden away, became ever uglier and more grotesque. Like this Wilde character, the priestly writers would claim that sin may not blotch the face of the sinner, but it is certain to blotch the face of the sanctuary, and, unless quickly expunged, God's presence will depart.
Thus the fourth and final principle: the priestly doctrine of collective responsibility. Sinners may go about apparently unmarred by their evil, but the sanctuary bears the wounds, and with its destruction, all the sinners will meet their doom.
What of the innocents who will suffer along with the sinners? The priestly doctrine of collective responsibility yields a corollary. The "good" people who perish with the evildoers are not innocent. For allowing brazen sinners to flourish, they share the blame. Indeed, they, the involuntary sinners, have contributed to the pollution of the sanctuary (fig. 2). What of the "silent majority" of every generation-the Germans who tolerated the Nazi rise to power and territorial aggression, and the peoples of the free world who acquiesced in silence?
A column by Michael D. Hausfeld in the Houston Tribune dated Friday, February 27, 2001, revealed that IBM "inadvertently" aided Nazi Germany even during
the war years by selling it advanced technological equipment that compiled, sorted, and classified information. He concluded: "Crimes against humanity are not limited to perpetrators who define or sign the orders of extermination, pull the triggers, drop the pellets, or crack the whips. Those who aid, abet, or unconsciously participate in the furtherance of those crimes have their own responsibility for which they must be held legally accountable."
In the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., there is an enlarged photograph, covering an entire wall, of Allied planes over Auschwitz flying on to other destinations. It is estimated that the Auschwitz crematorium was gassing two thousand Jews and other "undesirables" each day. Imagine, had these planes released but one bomb, they could have stopped that killing machine for months!
How would Israel's priests see our world today? Without hesitation they would spot the growing physical pollution of the earth: oil spills, acid rain, strip mining, ozone depletion, nuclear waste. They would be aghast at the unending moral pollution of the earth: the murder of thousands in Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, East Timor, Armenia, Angola, Rwanda, Chechnya . . . the millions dying of hunger or AIDS, while again the free world, involuntary moral sinners, silently observe the carnage on TV and-flip the channel. How long, the priests would cry out, before God abandons God's earthly sanctuary?
I have limited myself to one rite, of one ingredient, of one sacrifice. If only this ritual were fully understood and implemented, it could transform the world.

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