September 23, 2019

Torah portion: Beauty in the breakdown

Parashat Acharei Mot is so fraught that one can hardly think about its content without considering what parts of it we dodge or downright omit. In its entirety, the parsha covers Leviticus 16-18. The first of these chapters describes the strict regimen of sacrificial atonement, culminating in the famous ritual of the dual goats. One goat goes to the slaughter, while the other is sent into the wilderness and becomes the proverbial “scapegoat,” bearing our sins with it (Leviticus 16:10). 

In Chapter 17, God distinguishes Israel from its foils, namely, idolatrous peoples who live in the land that the Israelites are intended to occupy. The reading zeroes in on questions surrounding animal sacrifice and blood. Polytheistic natives sacrifice in the fields to “se‘irim,” a term pointedly related to the aforementioned goats, but here referring to something even earthier and patently pagan — sometimes translated as “satyrs” (Leviticus 17:7). These foreign worshippers are understood to drink blood, presumably in an attempt to absorb the life force of the dead animal.  Meanwhile Israelites subject both their ritual slaughter and the resultant blood to the approved priestly service. The kohanim, or priests, dedicate these sacrificed animals to God, who brokers life and atonement on the basis of morality and law. 

In Leviticus 18, it is abstention from sexual licentiousness and human sacrifice that distinguishes Israel from the surrounding cultures of Egypt and Canaan. Not incidentally, Canaanite abominations justify their dispossession of the land in favor of the Israelites. Still, the reading cautions us that Israel’s possession is far from unconditional. God commands Israel to avoid “the actions of [those of] the land of Canaan, where I bring you” (Leviticus 18:3), lest Israel get dispossessed in its turn.

Reading straight through, Acharei Mot offers a compelling narrative arc. Aaron’s sons have died on account of their erroneous sacrifices, so we learn what constitutes proper sacrifices and ethics. Then Torah lays out the consequences: inheritance or disinheritance of the Promised Land. Finally, the haftarah, from Ezekiel Chapter 22, extends the principles of sacrificial and sexual propriety to prophetic social justice. 

Acharei Mot, in short, coheres. Even so, the tradition has occasionally chopped this portion up a bit. The rabbis themselves were the first to skip around. They were the ones who determined the length (hence the content) of Acharei Mot, and they also selected the annual Torah portion for Yom Kippur. Curiously, the two portions are identical, with the exception of the middle chapter (Leviticus 17), which the rabbis omitted on Yom Kippur. 

In some ways, though, Chapter 17 suits Yom Kippur perfectly. It explains that “the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls. For it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life” (Leviticus 17:11). Despite its relevance to Yom Kippur’s central theme, the rabbis likely abandoned this chapter because their brand of Judaism functions in the absence, not the presence, of literal animal sacrifice.

Most recently, the Reform movement has, by and large, abandoned reading Chapter 18 on Yom Kippur altogether. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a pre-eminent Reform liturgist, explains that Reform liturgy prefers “themes appropriate to the spiritual expectations of modern worshippers” — clearly at odds with this chapter’s aggressively sexual content. Even more so, the Reform movement has distanced itself in particular from the prohibition against lying with a man “as though a woman” (Leviticus 18:22). 

Reform liturgy often replaces the difficult Chapter 18 with the subsequent chapter, often called the “Holiness Code.” Replete with ethical commandments, this chapter very much resonates with the spiritual expectations of modern worshippers. Notably, Rashi, in the 11th century, already sees the ethical tone of the haftarah from Ezekiel as pointing not to the abominations of Chapter 18, but rather to the social ills for which the Holiness Code details specific remedies.

All told, something is afoot in Acharei Mot that seems to promote a fracturing of its message. But if so, that something defies easy identification. In dealing with atonement, the stakes are admittedly high, but no more so than they are at Sinai, or at the crossing of the Red Sea, or at any number of sections in Torah. And though aspects of the portion lack narrative gusto, here, too, Acharei Mot enjoys no monopoly.

Perhaps this parsha speaks in parts because its collective and individual themes collide so violently. The most intimate of our human relations are juxtaposed to the most elusive mysteries of our relationship with God and, for that matter, with conflicting political relationships. In the end, breaking it apart may allow us to wrap our arms around it. 

Joshua Holo is dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.