Leviticus | Notes & Review

Maurice D. Harris. Leviticus: You Have No Idea. Cascade Books, 2013. (123 pages)



The hilariously dramatic introduction video:


The task of bridging these two worlds [laity and scholarship] must rest with clergy… (ix)

Perhaps the greatest challenge to appreciating the wisdom in Leviticus is that the book is written in code and the code is difficult to break without some degree of painstaking work. …we confuse the code for the meaning. (xi)

Introduction: Cozying Up to the Most Avoided Book in the Bible

No biblical book can match Leviticus in its ability to repel and bore its readers. (xvii)

…why would I want to write this book? … Because when it comes to Leviticus, we really have no idea. No idea of the surprisingly relevant questions and insights it contains, and little idea of how to integrate its strange, authoritarian, and intimidating worldview with our commitment to progressive values. (xix)

And if, in the course of greeting Leviticus with those questions, we are willing to let our sacred texts be imperfect — let them be a record of our ancestors’ understandings of God, not of God’s literal words beamed down to us never to be challenged — then the potential for what we can learn that’s directly relevant to our moment in human history expands dramatically. (xx)

…so far the Torah has essentially brought us one continuous story — a story that has included the moment when, at Mt. Sinai, Moses received the laws God wanted the Hebrews to follow. Now the Torah is hitting pause on telling that epic story so that it can tell us what a lot of those laws are, including the ones that the priests will need to know in order to do their jobs as religious officials at the mishkan, as well as other aspects of their duties. (xxi)

kadosh | (קדש). “holy.” The opposite of kadosh is ordinary, that which is khol (כול).

tahor | (טהור). “pure.” The opposite of tahor is “impure,” tamey (תמי)

…it’s not accurate to oversimplify and say that impure = bad and pure = good. There’s an understanding in Leviticus that a certain amount of impurity is simply a natural part of the human experience, and that no one has done anything morally wrong to bring that state about. (xxv)

toayvah | (תועבה). “abomination,” “abhorrent, “taboo,” or “profoundly impure.”

What I do believe is that my Israelite ancestors were misguided in imagining that God condemns homosexuality… I believe this in the same way that I believe that my ancestors were misguided when they imagined that God commands us to stone our sons to death if they behave in a stubborn and rebellious manner (Deut 21:18-21), and when they wrote that God wants us to execute anyone who curses his or her parents (Lev 20:9), to cite only a few of many possible examples. (xxviii)

Reconstructionism regards Judaism as an evolving religious civilization and celebrates Judaism as a living, dynamic system. (xxxi)

Chapter 1: Being Pro-Gay and Hanging in There with Leviticus

“When the Bible (or any sacred text) is used to encourage hate, oppress human beings, incite violence against humanity or the earth, or demand we leave our minds and experience at the door, it behooves inspired or Spirit-breathed humans to go back to that text and liberate it from those who use it in an inappropriate, noncompassionate ways. The Bible, like the sacred text of any religious community, is a guide from a particular context, not an eternal archetype into which contemporary experiences and knowledge must fit. – Rev. Val Webb, Like Catching Water in a Net

…the Torah’s laws on sex, marriage, and intimacy are based on an understanding of women very different from our own. (2)

[Re: Exod 20:13] There is no parallel commandment in the Hebrew Bible directing women to refrain from coveting their neighbors’ husbands. (2)

[Re Exodus 22:15-16] The daughter, as it happens, doesn’t have the authority to okay or refuse the marriage. (3)

[Re Num 5:11-31] There is no parallel biblical procedure for a wife who becomes suspicious that her husband is cheating on her. (6)

[Re “thou shalt not commit adultery”] in the Ten Commandments only forbids sex between a man and a woman who sexually “belongs to” another man, either by marriage or betrothal. (6)

[Re Numbers 5] The Bible spends twenty verses laying down the commandment to perform this ritual procedure, yet it has been abandoned completely by Judaism and Christianity. By comparison, the anti-gay-sex passages in Leviticus that religious conservatives argue are still in force comprise only two verses. This inconsistency in following the dictates of the Bible leads many in the gay community to suspect that the religious right’s key motivation against homosexuality is fear and bigotry, not an unwavering commitment to follow the Bible’s teachings literally. (7)

Again and again, when we look at the Hebrew Bible, what we see is that it is describing a worldview of love, sex, and marriage that is utterly different from how we today understand these important social and intimate aspects of human life. (9)

Perhaps the single most important difference between our contemporary values and those of ancient Israel is that we’ve come to an awareness that it’s wrong to treat girls and women as chattel, and that in fact all of us, regardless of our gender, should be treated as full persons, with all the due respect and all of the expectations of moral responsibility for our actions that personhood entails. (9)

…look to the Bible for core values…that transcend the historical context of ancient Israelite society… (10)

The Torah repeats one commandment to the Israelites more frequently than any other by far, and that is that they are to always treat the stranger as they would treat one of their own. (11)

…we should seek to raise the sexual aspects of our lives up to holiness. Leviticus calls on us to ask the question, “How can we express sex, love, and relational commitments in ways that lead us to bring holiness, as best we understand it today, to these aspects of our lives?” (13)

All religions have been true for their time, in their culture, and at their level of knowledge of the cosmos. What is important is to take and separate what is temporal from what is universal in that religion. What needs to be discarded is what is temporal and culture-bound. Retaining what is universal keeps the spiritual intact and present. – Walter Kania, Healthy Religion, 73.

Leviticus’ mandate of always seeking to bring greater holiness into the world, including through our sexual and romantic actions, demands that we work hard to define what brings holiness into the world and what diminishes it. (14)

Whatever we do that diminishes holiness in the world, that is a violation of Leviticus’ core teaching. (15)

The question of morality of homosexuality becomes one not of Jewish law, or the right to privacy, or freedom of choice, but a question of the affirmation of the value to the individual and society of each of us being able to find that place within ourselves where sexuality and spirituality come together. It is possible that some or many of us for whom the connections between sexuality and deeper sources of personal and spiritual power emerge most richly, or only, with those of the same sex could choose to lead heterosexual lives for the sake of conformity to Jewish law or wider social pressures and values. But this choice would then be a violation of the deeper vision offered by the Jewish tradition that sexuality can be a medium for the experience and reunification of God. Although historically, this vision has been expressed entirely in heterosexual terms, the reality is that for some Jews, it has been realized in relationships with both men and women, while for others it is realized only in relationships between members of the same sex. – Judith Plaskow,”Towards a New Theology of Sexuality,” 149

Chapter 2: Impurity is Kryptonite

It’s really only during the past few centuries, of all the many thousands of years of human civilization, that people tend to look at ideas like tamey and tahor as bizarre, irrational, and remote. For most of human history, communities around the globe have held deep concepts of the sacred and the profane, the pure and the impure. (20)

[ancient people tended] to live as much as possible in the sacred or in close proximity to consecrated objects. The tendency is perfectly understandable, because, for primitives as for the [people] of all pre-modern societies, the sacred is equivalent…in the last analysis, to reality. The sacred is saturated with being. Sacred power means reality and at the same time enduringness… – Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 17

It should be said at once that the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized cosmos, is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit. – Ibid., 12.

magnets. The tahor energy — the one we call “pure” — is the energy state that needs to be present in the community in order for God’s presence to be able to reside there. It’s a “God-attractor” energy. The tamey energy, which we call “impure,” is a kind of energy that repels God’s protective presence. (22)

While it’s clear that impure/tamey energy isn’t good, it isn’t exactly the same thing as evil. (22)

Many scholars have noticed that there seems to be a connection between death and tamey energy, and a connection between creation/life and tahor energy. However, when we look for absolute consistency or a simple key to all the things that correspond with tamey and tahor energy, we find trends, but not perfect patterns. For example, a menstrual cycle and a wet dream both make a person tamey, and both involve the failure of a potential conception, so there seems to be a connection to death, or the loss of a chance at new life. And, similarly, contact with a corpse makes a person tamey. On the other hand, giving birth makes a woman tamey, so the pattern appears to reverse itself. (22-23)

What strikes me the most about this priestly understanding of purity and its relationship to God is the way in which it places a shocking amount of power int he hands of human beings. In this system of thought, God’s powers are limited because God’s presence can only dwell in a place that is tahor/pure. Human being have the power to permit or prohibit God form being able to dwell among them! (23)

If we translate this ancient idea into a contemporary message, the message is that God’s grand plan depends in part on us. God can’t make it happen without us. (24)

Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans in pagan society. Not only can one defy God, but, in priestly imagery, one can drive God out of his sanctuary. – Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, 9

[P]ollution…is contagious and can drive Israel out of its land and even God out of the sanctuary unless it is expiated by a purification offering. – Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 5

The second big idea that I think can help us now is the way that Israelite priestly theology explains the presence of evil in the world. If I’m understanding their worldview correctly, evil happens when the Divine presence is absent. Evil can only take hold when there is a lack of something in the community — God’s living presence. (25)

If we stop tending the garden, evil starts to sprout up like weeds. (26)

This is a theology in which God exists and is real, but God is dependent upon us to make a space for God’s generous, loving, nurturing presence to dominate and direct the movement of things. This is a somewhat different God than the one who boldly commands and pronounces. This is a subtler God, but a potent one because It is constantly available and It will slide into any space that has been cleared of “impurity.” (28)

If we read Leviticus this way, we learn that our job is to work hard to establish these conditions of “purity” (but not in some puritanical sense of the word; rather, in terms of creating a “habitat” where the Divine energy can dwell, take root, and then begin to grow). Our job is to work to create these God-friendly conditions wherever they are lacking, and then to keep up the work of maintaining those conditions where they are present. This is work — hard work — but meaningful work, and we have a profound role as God’s partners in it. This theology trusts that God’s creation — our universe — is designed so that this work can succeed. We can do it. (29)

We have the opportunity today to embrace the spiritual idea that everything we do, including the mundane moments of private life, either contributes to the goal of making a place for the Divine presence, or distances the Lifeforce from taking root. (33)

Chapter 3: Animal Sacrifice Is Gross? The Supermarket Is Gross!

In conjunction with the act of eating meat, the ancient Israelites required themselves to face their shared human/animal life force and their shared mortality. (37)

In the modern Jewish world, the system of keeping kosher, or kashrut, (קשרות) in Hebrew, is designed to preserve this sense of sacredness regarding the slaughtering and consuming of meat. The rabbinic laws governing kosher slaughter reflect the intention of the early rabbis to ensure a minimum of pain in the act of slaughter and a respect for the life of the animal. (38)

Leviticus teaches that in eating meat we are duty bound to remember the Creator, to honor the life of the creature that is about to nourish us, and to protect farm or game animals from cruel or unnecessarily painful treatment. (38)

Chapter 4: What a Skin Disease Can Teach Us about Crime and Punishment

The prisoner cannot free himself from prison. – Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 5b

One lesson we might draw from Leviticus 14 is that, when someone recovers from a serious illness, it is important for him or her to seek out a spiritual mentor or companion o help facilitate his or her reentry into the wholeness of life with others. (43)

…in the pre-scientific mind, physical disease often was thought to have a moral or spiritual component. (44)

…unlike the way quarantine was used in Leviticus 14, 23 don’t limit our use of prison sentences to crimes in which the offender poses a clear risk of harm to others in the community. We use prison as punishment as well as for protecting public safety. (46)

We can easily imagine that part of what the priests would also be doing through these visits is maintaining a vital emotional, psychological, and social link between the quarantined people and the rest of the community — precisely the kinds of links that are usually absent in our system. (47)

One way of understanding these two required acts of atonement is that the offender has caused damage to two entities through his or her behavior: the individual she or he harmed and the community as a whole. (48)

…ay-zov (hyssop) connects the diseased offender of Leviticus 14 with the two most central heroes of the entire Hebrew Bible Moses and King David. The modern midrash I would offer based on noticing this connection is this: we are invited to see that even people who have committed an offense that requires our placing them in quarantine for a time are central to the life of the community. They are, in fact, just as central as Moses and King David were central to the life and story of the Israelites of their time. no one is expendable. (50)

Chapter 5: Strange Fire

…fire is integral to how we live. (56)

…religion is like fire, and…a religious leader is someone who plays with fire. (56)

Another form of unhealthy religion that is all too common is what I would call spiritual disrespect. Spiritual disrespect happens whenever one religious community declares in its prayers that it is the only valid religion, or that it is the truest of all religions, or that it is God’s most treasured or important community. (57)

Spiritual humility is the attitude a person has towards her religion when she realizes that religion is not automatically a good thing, but rather that religion is an important part of human affairs that has the potential for good — however, like fire, it needs to be managed properly. A person with spiritual humility doesn’t believe that his religion is right about everything. Rather, he believes that his religion, when used skillfully, can serve as a vehicle for revealing the truth. he recognizes that his religion may be especially good at some things, but that it can’t be good at everything. Such a person realizes that she wants other religions to exist so that humanity can benefit from the different aspects of truth that they are each able to illuminate. A person with spiritual humility trusts that by being a sincere, respectful-but-questioning participant in her tradition, she can grow closer to God and be more fully what she is meant to be. (58)

We invite diversity into our religious communities not because it is politically correct, but because diverse viewpoints are demanded by the manifold mysteries of great things.

We embrace ambiguity in religion not because we are confused or indecisive, but because we understand the inadequacy of our religious concepts to embrace the vastness of great things.

We welcome dissent from traditional viewpoints into our religious communities not because we are angry or hostile but because respectful conflict is required to correct our biases and prejudices about the nature of great things.

We practice honesty not only because we owe it to one another, but because to lie about what we have seen would be to betray the truth of great things.

We experience spiritual humility not because our religion has fought with other religions and lost, but because humility is the only lens through which great things can be seen — and once we have seen them, humility is the only possible posture.

We become free women and men through religion not because we have privileged information, but because tyranny in any form can be overcome only by invoking the grace of great things.

– Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, 107-8

Until I read Sam Harris (and Robert Eisen, whom I quoted above), Rabbi Hartman had me convinced that particularism vs. universalism was the most pressing question facing Judaism. But now I think there is a more urgent question facing Judaism and all religions, and that is the question of human survival itself. Religion is fire. Can we use it responsibly? (61)

Chapter 6: Planned Obsolescence?

The early rabbis affirmed the official Temple rites and the priesthood, but nevertheless they also posed a threat to the priestly institutional power as they grew in popularity among the common Jews and came to represent a new base of religious authority in Israel. (62)

…God had ordained that a new set of practices would replace the Levitical system of Temple-based priestly offerings. (62)

…Maimonides wrote, God always intended that, over time, the Levitical system of sacrifices would eventually be abandoned and replaced by a new form of worship more consistent with God’s wishes. (63)

…Maimonides offers a launch pad for a discussion of the idea of all forms of ritualized practice being temporary by nature, and even for the idea that, from time to time, a healthy and evolving religion will question whether its forms of practice need an update or a revision in order to continue to be helpful and effective. (67)

Chapter 7: Let’s Talk about the Government

I think the Hebrew Bible’s fundamental question about government is: what is a just government? (75)

The Hebrew Bible is coming from an assumption that people need to govern themselves. We have a moral obligation to govern. (75)

We should worry when absolutist thinking twists sacred texts to try to put religious authority behind a modern political theory of economics. (77)

Here’s what I have to say in response to these beliefs. The writers of the Hebrew Bible could not have imagined modern industrial capitalism. The economic realities they dealt with were complex, and the people o their times shared many of our economic needs and desires. But they could not have imagined many of the features of the economic times we live in. (77)

To claim that the Hebrew Bible’s single message is that government regulations and social welfare programs are an affront to God is absurd for two reasons: one, that’s just not what the texts really say; and two, the Hebrew Bible usually offers us a collection of different ideas and voices on its most important questions. (77)

Again, the biblical question isn’t “is the government too big?” but “is the government just?” (78)

One way of interpreting these core biblical values in terms of modern society is to say that our government is morally obligated to safeguard the rights of the poor and the vulnerable who have lost all other means of survival and basic dignity. (81)

…God has the welfare of the poor and vulnerable always at heart, and that the failure of society, including its government, to defend the rights of these people arouses God’s wrath. (81)

Brown and Garver argue that when we make our primary question some version of “will this or that course of action be good for the economy?” we lose sight of an important basic truth: namely, that we weren’t put here on earth to serve something abstract called “the economy,” but that “the economy” is something that should serve the needs of human beings and the earth. They propose that we should start by asking, “what is the economy for?” and then move on to a series of several other questions that pursue the question of how the economy should function so that it helps maximize what they term “right relationship” between different people and between people and the ecosystem. (82)

The word that comes to mind to describe what happens when people take a mistaken, absolutist belief and use it to guide their ethics, politics, and economic actions is idolatry. (83)

If America adopted Leviticus’ basic question about government — is it just — then we’d still have the conservative and liberal perspectives discussing and debating the issues in a robust and, I think, more meaningful way. Sometimes the biggest gift an ancient sacred text can give us is the simple act of asking a better question than the one we habitually ask. (83)

Chapter 8: Exile and Return

The Hebrew Bible as a whole seems to want to tell us that exile in one form or another is a constant element in life. …the Hebrew Bible’s idea of exile can’t be reduced to the notion that exile is entirely a bad thing. (87)

do humans need to experience exile in order to find God or have some kind of spiritual transformation? (88)

spiritual root metaphors. In my pastoral counseling work as a congregational rabbi, I have turned many times to the spiritual root metaphor of exile-and-return in Jewish sacred texts as a way of helping people try to find strength, meaning, and higher purpose in the difficult passages of their lives. (90)

In a nutshell, a child with RAD is the victim of a cruel trick. As a result of early abuse or neglect, the “fight-or-flight” part of her brain has encoded the belief that the adults in her life that she is emotionally close to are mortally dangerous. At the same time, other parts of her developing brain are, quite naturally, driving her to try to form healthy, loving attachments to her parents and to others close to her. Saddled with this crossed-up mental wiring, the child (and later, teen) experiences conflicting deep impulses. On the one hand, he seeks out loving connections with parents, siblings, community, and friends. On the other hand, he can’t stand the feelings of desperate danger that these close attachments create inside him, so, often unconsciously, he begins to react to his attachments by sabotaging them. He blows up the relationships — perhaps through screaming for hours on end, or breaking furniture, or threatening to kill pets, or punching and kicking and cursing at parents, or stealing, or going to the bathroom on the rug, etc. In adolescence this list sometimes expands to include all kinds of acting out with sex, violence, drugs, etc. (91-92)

When I dwell on the brokenness that RAD kids carry within them — when I dwell on the harshness of their exile — I start to despair. But when I remember the ancient Hebrews, who were always struggling with one or both sides of the exile-and-return coin, I stop and think: we are all exiles. We are all longing for home. We are all struggling to live well despite losses, traumas, endings — exile of one sort or another. And, when we are fortunate and we do experience feeling at home, then we are fearful of losing home and becoming exiled again. Or our ability to live well at home is thwarted by our memories of exile, or by our difficulty in making home work well for everyone at home. (93)

There’s another parallel between RAD kids with family histories o abuse and the mythic arc of the Hebrew Bible’s story, with its axis of exile-and-return. When they’re in exile, the Israelites are grief-stricken over their traumatic loss of home, and they are filled not only with the terrible memories of their homeland’s brutal violation by invading armies, but also with a toxic narrative of self-blame and shame… (93)

Chapter 9: Priests, Prophets, Rabbis, and Christians

The crucial error in “reject and replace” theology is that it removes these laws from the larger biblical framework of which they were a part. (97)

Laws in the Hebrew Bible also stood in dialog and tension with the books of the Israelite Prophets. (98)

The intent of these laws was to cultivate a heart of justice and compassion for the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed. God tells them that their failure to understand that the law was not some heartless bit of rote has done them in, adding that in fact the “true” fast that God desires isn’t actually a fast at all, but rather the development of a “fasting heart,” a heart that is willing to practice self-denial for the sake of others who are suffering. (100)

My belief is that the Hebrew Bible’s overall message is one that seeks the meeting place of law and love, of ritual form and higher meaning, of obedience to tradition and the courage to break with tradition when a different understanding of God’s will manifests in the consciousness of the sincere and righteous person. (102)

I would make the case, as I did above, that a portion of the New Testament’s critique of empty legalism and false piety is an extension of the long-standing Jewish biblical tradition of prophets severely critiquing those same patterns of behavior. (102-103)

What the Hebrew Bible models is that the role of the prophet is to call the peoples’ attention to when they’ve misused a law or tradition for destructive or misguided purposes. (105)

Everybody knows (and quotes) the stirring words of Isaiah (2:4): “Beat your swords into plowshares, and your spears into pruning-hooks.” But very few people know and almost no one…quotes) the prophet Joel (4:10; 3:10 RSV), who exhorts, “Beat your plowshares into swords, your pruning hooks into spears.” Hard to beat this for a contradiction within Scripture! … That one prophet apparently knew and played with the words of the other was all the more delightful — it made clear the urgency of God’s message. There are occasions when God’s word seems to be stood on its head; we’ve just seen the Bible itself attest to it. – Burton Visotzky, Reading the Book, 26.

In sum, when we look at law in the Hebrew Bible (including the highly law-oriented book of Leviticus), we need to recognize that it existed in a living and complex relationship with other parts of Hebrew Scripture. We also need to see ancient Israel as made up not just of priests, supervising rituals and making sure purity laws were being properly observed, but also of prophets, working as teachers and critics of the actual lived religious and ethical lives of the community. (105)

The genius of rabbinic Judaism was its ability to take many of the rituals that had taken place in the Jerusalem Temple and reestablish them as table, home, or synagogue rituals that people could celebrate anywhere in the world. The dinner table replaced the altar. Daily prayers replaced the daily priestly offerings. These rabbis crafted the religion we now recognize as Judaism, a very portable religion that maintained symbolic remembrances of Temple rites while innovating new rituals, theological ideas, and rhythms of daily spiritual practice. The rabbis called on the people — all the common people, not just the priests — to become the ritual practitioners of the newly reconstructed religion of Israel. (107)

Leviticus, and our reactions to it as Christians and Jews, opens up for us the chance to learn together that neither religion benefits from a dogmatic and slavish relationship to religious law, and that neither religion has ever fully proposed such a program. The rabbis and the early Christians had to figure out what to do without a Temple in Jerusalem. In the twenty-first century, we have to figure out what to do without the notion that only one of our religions has all the answers and is the sole vessel of God’s revelations. (115)

Epilogue: The Trader Joe’s Cashier Accidentally Explains My Love of Leviticus

But I keep coming back to Leviticus because there are also many things about Life, God, and Truth that Leviticus understands that we don’t understand, and that’s what makes it worth the effort. Leviticus understands that there is a sacred dimension to existence, that this sacredness permeates reality, and that we can receive or displace that energy depending on our actions. Leviticus understands that animals and humans share the life force, and that the taking of animal life for food deserves awe and ritual. Leviticus understands that ecosystems and economies need to function in cycles that are in some sort of balance, ensuring health for the land and basic fairness and compassion for the weakest members of society. Perhaps most striking of all, Leviticus understands us as God’s partners in creating a space for the Divine Presence to dwell on earth, and it sees us as having the free will to act in ways that support or hinder God’s ability to take root within us and among us. (119)

— VIA —

I commend Harris for doing what is quite difficult to do, making Leviticus accessible and applicable to a modern world. Harris’ approach is to see beyond the mere words on the page — or the rituals, or the laws — in order to observe something deeper, more profound, and illuminating of the human experience. It is this lens that allows the reader to think differently about ancient texts as a whole, and guides the student to a more holistic approach to this literature.

At times it can seem as if his liberal perspective clouds the exegesis of a passage. Admittedly, Leviticus is more rhetorical commentary than scholastic exegesis. In other words, the reader simply must know that this book is focusing more on the big global issues that are implied, inferred, or referenced in Leviticus more than a thorough exposition of the book or even the mentioned chapters. Case in point, he makes note that the passages that deal with homosexuality are extremely minimal in the Torah, yet they get so much attention in our public discourse. The same is true in this very short tome, that much attention is given to his counter-interpretation which includes a smattering of gay (queer) theology through the Levitical passages. I opine that this is for two main reasons. One, there is much in our public discourse that needs to be addressed, and it makes perfect sense to launch into this issue boldly and directly making both his point and his position clear. Second, it illustrates Harris’ very thesis, that Leviticus needs, no, demands better attention as wrongful readings have dire consequences for real people in this world. Regardless of your aggreement or displeasure with his views, I commend his contribution to anyone wrestling (ideologically, that is) with either the current topic of homosexuality, or with Leviticus itself.

I would like to pose a slight distinction, perhaps an augmentation to one of his statements. Harris makes the comment about the modern human experience, that we have come to greater understandings from our ancestors based on, “the remarkable ability human beings have to question social norms when confronted with real people seeking dignity and equality.” (9) I very much like this idea, but Harris seems to suggest that this is how we should approach the Biblical writings. I would like to suggest that this may be more fundamentally the grounding ethic in the Bible’s writings itself. In other words, we can see this ethic working in the text of the Bible (including Leviticus), rather than just using this ethic ourselves when we read the Bible.

Most profoundly, however, is the following.

There is a great tension that was illuminated for me in Chapter 6, the section on “planned obsolescence.” First, there is quite a resonance to “redemptive movement” by William Webb, and it is intriguing to understand that Maimonides and others have considered this same idea. He states, “If God were to have tried to impose the ‘final,’ ideal form of worship on the uneducated newly freed Hebrew slaves, Maimonides claims it would have blown their minds and failed to work. He claims that God’s willingness to meet people where they are and incrementally bring them forward is a manifestation of God’s love and grace. (67) However, there is something greater, and frankly, a bit more disturbing and challenging in this idea of “planned obsolescence.” Later in the book, Harris addresses the “reject and replace” concept, that it “is an interpretation of Christianity that states that Israelite law was a failed system of salvation, and that God manifested in the form of Jesus in order to overthrow it and substitute a new form of spiritual communion and redemption: grace through Christ.” (96) Also known as “replacement theology,” or sometimes a “theology of contempt” (though each of those has variant nuances), the problem for me is that “replacement” and “planned obsolescence” sound eerily similar, even if they have different tones and attitudes. If you remove some of the negative words like “failed,” and “overthrow” and rewrote it, there may be much that is concomitant. If one accepts the idea of “planned obsolescence,” then it is sensible to believe that the manifestation of God in Jesus is merely in lines with the “redemptive movement,” and “a process of refinement” and “transformation.” It is unfortunate that there is so much bad history between Christianity and Judaism, as here — as in many other areas — there seems to be, in my opinion, much that is to be shared and celebrated. However, the other side of the tension is to state this move and transformation of God without forsaking, neglecting, or deprecating that which came before. How does one describe new functions, new revelations, new developments in spiritual life and practice without using words like “replace,” or “supersede?” I welcome the discussion.

Harris is to be thanked for his wonderfully accessible contribution to the Levitical conversation.

About VIA


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