Saturday, September 21, 2013

Leviticus: You Have No Idea


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

The biblical book of Leviticus is ancient Israel's guide to holiness. A sometimes perplexing collection of regulations for, among other things, kosher eating, ethical living, the offering of animal sacrifices, and the treatment of skin diseases, Leviticus is remote from modern westerners in both time and culture. Yet it is considered canonical Scripture by both Jews and Christians. What are we to make of this strange book? What are we to do with it?

A typical Christian response is to simply ignore Leviticus. "Oh, that's the Law. That no longer applies to us." Passages from Leviticus occur only twice in the three-year cycle of readings that make up the Revised Common Lectionary. No, that's not quite right. Let me rephrase it. The same passage from Leviticus 19 occurs twice in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. Still, while Leviticus is largely disregarded by Christians, its two verses condemning male/male copulation are often weighted heavily in arguments about homosexuality. Are there better ways for modern believers to understand and apply the book of Leviticus?

Reconstructionist Rabbi Maurice D. Harris attempts to pave a way for this to happen in his short, pithy book Leviticus: You Have No Idea. This is not a verse-by-verse commentary but a collection of 9 brief, rather personal essays on topics found in Leviticus.

Readers should not skip the book's introduction in which Harris provides a helpful review of the content of Leviticus as well as some of its important themes and concepts.

In his first chapter, Rabbi Harris jumps right in to deal with the topic of homosexuality. He does not try to explain away Leviticus's condemnation of male/male sex. Rather he honestly disagrees with it. (Yes, in spite of what your preacher may have told you, even fervent and devout believers can disagree with the Bible). Even as he disagrees, however, Harris finds in Leviticus a call to the practice of holiness in sexual relations.  I couldn't help but hear an echo of Martin Luther's explanation of the adultery commandment in his Small Catechism in this chapter.

In chapter 2, Harris explores an essential part of the Levitical worldview: the spiritual energies of tahor and tamey (roughly "purity" and "impurity"), forces which exist in the natural world and which either attract or repel God. From this concept Harris develops two applications for today. First, God needs us. We live in partnership with God. Our job is to increase tahor so that God can flourish in the world. This is an appealing idea, though it is antithetical to much of Christian theology. Second, this provides an explanation for the existence of evil. Where human beings, by their increase of tamey, have driven God out, evil flourishes.

In his third chapter, Harris relates how a surly and rebellious Hebrew School student gave him insight into Leviticus's regulations concerning animal sacrifice. Near the conclusion of this chapter, Harris writes that we have "rightly objected to some of the misguided values that Leviticus imposed, but we've not replaced those values with new ones that would represent our generations best effort to define how we can honor the sacred in these areas of our lives: eating, sex, work, rest, etc. In overturning Leviticus entirely, we've created a society in which we live with the absence of a  shared sense of values and of the sacred in these areas of our lives" (pages 40-41). There is a challenge for Christians in this chapter. Harris asks us how we might faithfully proclaim Jesus' teaching that "It is not what goes into a person's mouth that makes them unclean" (Matthew 12:34).

The fourth chapter takes, in this reviewer's opinion, an odd turn. It takes Leviticus's regulations concerning skin disease as a possible pattern for the reform of the United States' broken penal system. It is a strange and intriguing application, and I think Harris knows this. But, Harris's analysis of American justice is spot on and his proposals worthy of consideration. The chapter ends with a nice little midrash on hyssop, the plant used in rituals for cleansing those who suffered skin diseases. In other Scriptures hyssop is connected to kings David and Solomon. From the lowliest offenders to the greatest kings, no one, Harris tells us, is expendable.

In chapter 5 Harris looks at one of the few narrative sections of Leviticus, the story of Nadav and Avihu (Christians may know them as Nadab and Abihu), the priests whom God killed for offering "strange fire." In Harris's analysis this story becomes an analogy for the dangers of religion when used wrongly. Religion can be a force for good and the advancement of the human spirit or an oppressive, dangerous, and destructive power.

In chapter 6 Harris cites 12th century Jewish mystic philosopher Moses Maimonides to the effect that the religion of Leviticus was intended by God to be temporary. Harris asks whether our modern forms of worship are also meant to be temporary. Then he applies Maimonides's principle to biblical notions of marriage. In biblical times legitimate forms of marriage included polygamy, concubinage, and arranged marriages. By Maimonides's time these had been abandoned as contrary to God's intentions. Can we now abandon our taboo against same sex marriage?

Chapter 7 goes beyond Leviticus in looking at biblical norms for government. Since the 1980s, Harris points out, American political discourse has been dominated by the question "How large should government be?" Harris makes a strong case that the Bible's question is "What is a just government?" He writes "The Hebrew Bible contains many different voices and viewpoints on social issues, including economics. Yet one perspective that it presents repeatedly is...that God has the welfare of the poor and vulnerable always at heart, and that the failure of society, including the government, to defend the rights of these needy arouses God's wrath" (page 81).

In chapter 8 Harris uses a passage from Leviticus 26 as the jumping off point for an examination of biblical themes of Exile and Return. These are the common experience of the Jewish people and, I would argue, of all people. Using the experience of his adopted children as an illustration, Harris points out that both states, exile and homecoming, have their challenges and he examines the problematic theology of self-blame that is common among those who have been traumatized.

The ninth chapter is of particular interest to Christians, especially those who are concerned with interfaith relationships. Too often and too easily Christians lapse into what Harris calls "reject and replace" theology, a close ally to the dangerous theology of supercessionism. "Reject and replace" theology rejects the Law and replaces it with faith in Jesus. It is based in false notions about the purpose of the Law in Jewish life. Lutheran and Reformed readers, who have an understanding of the classical "uses of the Law" will find plenty of grist for their theological mills in this chapter. Harris sets the Law into its context in the Hebrew Bible and notes that the Law is sometimes in tension with both narrative and prophecy. He also notes that both Jews and Christians hold, among themselves, a variety of opinions concerning the role of the Law that lead to robust, internal debates.

In a short epilogue Harris explains his love for the book of Leviticus. It is, he says, an "acquired taste." Somehow, I share that taste as I find Leviticus to be a fascinating, if sometimes maddening, book of Scripture. Perhaps Rabbi Harris's little guidebook can help others to acquire a taste for this strange, difficult, rewarding book.

Readers who are bent toward liberal politics and progressive religion will find Leviticus: You Have No Idea  most congenial. I think that all readers--regardless of religious or political persuasion--will find challenges in this book. That is a good thing. Theologically astute reading groups should find Harris's book to be an excellent discussion starter.

If you have a good local independent bookseller, have them order a copy for you.

Full disclosure: I requested and received free of charge a review copy of
Leviticus: You Have No Idea. There were no stipulations or restrictions put on what I have written here. If you have read this far, God bless you. I will mail my copy of this book to the first person to comment on this thread. Be sure to give me your name and mailing address. I promise not to publish your personal information.