23 Adar II, 5776
Shemini, Viyekra/Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47
Todays’ portion is Shemini. ‘Shemini’, '8', refers to the 8th day in the consecration of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary. This sidrah is usually known for its two mysteries: the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, while lighting incense; and the laws of Kashrut concerning what animals can and can’t be eaten. Neither the reason for the death of Aaron’s sons, nor the reasons not to eat certain animals are explained, and they remain much discussed mysteries to this day.
Since you can find plenty of discussion about those two topics all over the place, I decided to focus on other matters: an extremely minor detail with a butterfly effect, and an elephant in the room.
We read that if a small animal like a mouse or chameleon dies and falls on something, that something will become impure: verse 11:35 (Fox translation):
“Thus, anything upon which their carcass falls shall be tamei, unclean. An oven or 2-pot stove is to be demolished; they are tamei and they shall remain tamei for you. (Thus they cannot be made pure, tahor again.)
Well, a chameleon falling on your oven can be a problem, right? Really! An oven or stove is a major appliance and no one wants to have to destroy the whole thing, take the parts out to the hazmat dump (so they don’t make anything else impure), and then have to go out to some over-crowded, under-pleasant strip mall to buy a new one.
Well, the sages of old were discussing this very problem, and in the process they created one of the most famous, conceptually remarkable, and literarily brilliant midrashim of all time (a real butterfly effect, eh?). We know this midrash now as “The Oven of Akhnai.” It goes something like this:
We have been taught: Say a man made an oven out of separate coils of clay, placing one upon another, then put sand between each of the coils; such an oven, R. Eliezer said, is not susceptible to defilement, while the sages declared it susceptible.
So what’s the issue here? [My answer: an oven’s an expensive piece of equipment; is it possible to make one that can be fixed rather than replaced. But the real problem here becomes a disagreement that leads to a power struggle between the sages...]
It is taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them "if the Halakhah (body of Jewish law) agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!" Sure enough, the carob tree was uprooted (and replanted) a hundred cubits away from its place. "No proof can be derived from a carob tree," they retorted.
Again he said to them, "If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the channel of water prove it!" Sure enough, the channel of water flowed backward. [Visualize frowning and yawning as the sages respond...] "No proof can be derived from a channel of water," they rejoined.
Again he urged, "If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it!" Sure enough, the walls tilted as if to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked the walls saying, "When disciples of the wise are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what right have you to interfere?" Hence, in deference to R. Joshua they did not fall, and in deference to R. Eliezer they did not resume their upright position; indeed, they are still standing aslant.
Again R. Eliezer said to the sages, "if the Halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven!" Sure enough, a divine voice (bat kol) cried out, "Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, with whom the halakhah always agrees?" But R. Joshua stood up and protested, "It (the Torah) is not in heaven" (Deut. 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You wrote in the Torah, "After the majority must one incline" (Exod. 23:2).
R. Nathan met the prophet Elijah and asked him "What did the Holy One do in that moment?" Elijah: "He laughed, saying 'My sons have bested Me; My sons have bested Me.'"
So we have here a number of remarkable phenomena. Perhaps most importantly, the rabbis override the Voice of God, and are allowed to get away with it! Also of great interest, we have an assertion of democratic principles that even Jefferson or Paine might not have been so bold as to make. What else do we have here?
Let me answer this through an example. Suppose we are sitting around arguing matters of Torah. Reb Ramon, our hazan, declares that we need to add Musaf to our Shabbat prayers (we don’t do Musaf at Shirat haNefesh). The rest of us disagree. Reb Ramon makes lots of arguments but we blow them off. Finally he says, if God wants us to institute Musaf, let that oak tree prove it by jumping across the street. What do we do? We immediately pull out our cell phones and dial 911 to get an ambulance for Ramon who must be having a breakdown. When we’re working in realtime, adults don’t usually suspend their disbelief.
And so, may I introduce to you Ganesh, the elephant in the room. When reading holy texts we are inclined to suspend our disbelief.
In today’s portion, verse 9:23, we read (using Fox’s translation):
“... and the Glory of Adonai was seen by the entire people. And fire went out from the presence of Adonai and consumed, upon the slaughter-site, the Olah offering and the fat parts. When all the people saw, they shouted and flung themselves on their faces.”
We read this and what do we say? “Oh yeah, I’d have thrown myself down too. Wow. Amazing!”
Two verses later at 10:2 the text describes the demise of Nadav and Avihu:
“And fire went out from the presence of Adonai and consumed them (Nadav and Avihu), so that they died, before the presence of Adonai...”
We read this and what do we say? “Whoa. Why did God kill them?”
Or, way back in Beraysheet/Genesis we read, “God said to Abraham, kill me a son...” (Reb Dylan’s translation) and we think, ‘How could God demand such a thing?’ Etc, Etc.
We read this book, almost every one of us, like fundamentalists. We read the text, and believe it is true and accurate, and events happened just like what’s written; we believe people said just what’s written; and we believe God talked in human language and said exactly what’s written. Are we out of our minds?
But to mention this, of course, is virtually blasphemous. It got Rabbi Avuya excommunicated for questioning God’s justice, and it got Spinoza excommunicated for questioning the truth of the Torah. Nowadays, of course, we don’t get excommunicated (at least in most congregations), but if we’re asking these questions, we’re almost certainly not spending much time reading Torah (why bother?). We probably don’t come to shul more than a couple of times a year, if that (again, why bother?). Indeed, we probably have no use for religion or God whatsoever.
This is a dilemma! Indeed, it has 70 faces just like the Torah. It’s important now for you, the reader, to try to articulate what the problem is, before you read the four ways I articulate it.
Let me offer up a couple of ideas that may help us begin to address these problems.
First: over a half century ago Erik Erikson proposed the theory of the psycho-social stages of human development, a theory that has since become virtually canonical. I think we can use Erikson’s model to postulate stages of growth in human civilization. I would suggest that we, as a civilization, are emerging from childhood into a kind of early adulthood. In our childhood we may have been happy and satisfied to believe in a God that is near, loving, and always enforcing the rules. We were largely credulous, and we had, if I can mix religious metaphors, a Santa Claus view of God. It appears that civilization is growing beyond that now, although, obviously, not uniformly. A more sophisticated understanding of God and the value of faith is concurrently beginning to emerge, although people who have abandoned religion are rarely aware of this.
Second: how can we talk about God if we’ve never really, honestly experienced God? I have no patience for, nor interest in hand-me-down versions of spiritual awakening. People that claim that God surely exists need to provide personal credentials that are more than a collection of feel-good experiences or curious coincidences that have been invested with “the intentions of God.” Consider this quote from Cormac McCarthy’s, The Crossing:
Third: have our spiritual senses grown dull? If so, we need to be teaching ourselves and our children how to sharpen those spiritual senses, and how to appreciate the complexity of what we call God. We need to develop in ourselves a more nuanced, multi-faceted understanding. But we also need to hone our innate ability to sense the subtle workings of God in this world. Every civilization that has emerged on this planet has been grounded in a sense of the Divine. This stands as compelling evidence that we have an innate sense of God and spiritual matters within us. Therefore, if we can make 100 tons of metal fly, we should surely be able to develop tools, physical and mental, to help us discern, even if dimly, the Divine within and beyond us.
Finally, our children need to know that God isn’t going to step out of the sky to tell them what to do. Neither will God come down and spank them when they’re bad. We don’t now have the sensitivity and skill, and we may never have it, to comprehend Divine causality as it works in this world. In any case, harking back to the McCarthy quote above, we may be able to live and thrive in this world with no religion and no sense of God, but our lives will be deeply enriched by a knowledge of our Divine Essence, and we will surely be immeasurably transformed if we have the privilege to experience that Essence in its power and grandeur. Of that I am certain, having been, myself, greatly transformed!
Let us therefore turn our energies to help develop the skills to sense the Godness embedded in this world.
So, it seems we stand in two worlds, often at the same time. Now, that wouldn’t be such a big problem if we didn’t care that so many people have walked away from religion, and if we didn’t care about our children walking away from our faith, our traditions, our sense of calling, our community, our identity. But we care. I hope we care. Anyway, I for one, care!
So how then do we tell the story of God talking to our ancestors in such a way that it is still believable, and doesn’t sound like folklore and fairy tale? How do we tell it, not with a stick – ‘you have to understand things THIS way or you’re bad’ – but with real and convincing insight? So how do we read this book in a new way that doesn’t rely on suspending belief, but actually inspires belief? What do we do? You tell me.