Sunday, September 7, 2014

Goodbye to Leviticus

Sigh of relief. I admit it. It was a hard one.
The transition from the grand themes of Exodus to the arcane nitty-gritty of Leviticus was jarring. And yes, there were many reasons for the multiple breaks—travel, work, road trips, family responsibility, and that wonderful thing called summer—but still, when I’m honest, can I truly say the subject matter had nothing to do with it?
Leviticus was hard. Reading the intricacies of each chapter was hard; finding an image was hard; being inspired was hard. Animal dissections, strange (and many no longer practiced) rules of ritual purity and impurity, leprosy, the altar, the limitations on permitted food, and limitations on sexuality…
Yet strewn between are also some of the greatest biblical landmarks: “Do not bear a grudge… love your neighbor as yourself”  “Do not hate your brother in your heart”; “do not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind”; the care for justice; the active command to protect the weak and vulnerable;  the repeated injunctions to make space for the stranger.  A mix of high and low; animal body parts and love for your neighbor. It’s a discordant mix to the modern ear. Grand themes wrapped in the language of ritual, tying together vicera and spirit. There is no Cartesian duality here, no way to separate the body and the “soul/ life spirit” (nefesh) that so dominates this book/
Having slogged through the laws of sacrifice, I’ve come to realize that on its own terms, Leviticus is unified, and a logical stage to follow Exodus. Genesis revolved  around the creation of the self, with how the self “reaches forth [its] hand” to handle the world. It is the story of developing individual, wrapped in oedipal themes, sibling rivalry, and the sparks of connection between man and woman.
In Exodus, we more from the formation of the self, to the formation of the community. The book deals with the creation of a collective identity around the relationship to God. It closes with the establishment of the Dwelling, the shared space of God and humanity.
In   Leviticus, we move into the Dwelling itself, into this consecrated space of relationship. All the rituals revolve around the creation of boundaries. We define what can be ingested into the body; what must be left outside. Who enters, who is outside, and what happens in the liminal space of connection.  Relationship is a dangerous space: come too close, and one is ingested by the fire; go too far, and one is “cut off” from one’s people.  Intimacy requires the liminal space, the dividing waters, in order to survive. When the divider disappears,  the “soul revolts” in existential nausea.

The ritualistic definition of relationship in turn reflects back on Genesis’ presentation of the self in formation. If Genesis revolves around questions of possession, money and value, Leviticus closes by redefining the limits of possession. Land and humanity cannot be truly owned; only valued. Yet there is a level of connection so deep—“for the Land is Mine”—that it breaks all local bonds of connection. In “devotion” to God, we can no loner speak of value or money. Ther e is only the object itself. In the end, the space of relationship redefines the self.

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