Making Leviticus Relevant: What is Holiness

A Summary of My Shabbat Talk - April 1, 2017

Last week Rabbi David Wolpe wrote an article that helps us understand the meaning of the book of Leviticus. As we read through the Torah over the course of the year we may find the weeks that are focused on the book of Leviticus to be spiritually challenging. The endless descriptions of sacrifices and the method of slaughter and the many possible kinds of bodily impurities that can be contracted can seem to be disgusting and down right barbaric. Perhaps we may be asking, What do these rituals have to do with me today? How can I find meaning in this archaic book?

We need to step back from the details and understand that the book is presenting us with an interpretation of holiness. Though we may have many ways to define that word, holiness implies a sense of God in the object or in the ritual. Rudolf Otto in 1923 published a book titled The Idea of the Holy in which he claims that the rituals described in the book of Leviticus respond to the awesomeness of God. There is a sense that God is a mysterium tremendum that we will never be able to fully understand and that in response to this great mystery we try to get closer by offering the sacrifices or by praying today. We are meant to be in awe of God and marvel at the wonders of the world around us. The glory of God's creation should instill in us a response - a spiritual response that reminds us of the holiness of God.

However powerful that idea, it is a difficult one to maintain in our lives. Attending synagogue services can help remind us of God's presence but we need to be reminded of that all the time, especially outside the synagogue. When we observe the commandments often we recite a blessing. That prayer teaches us a different aspect of holiness. The standard formula is "Baruch ata Adonay Eloheinu Melech ha-olam asher kidshanu be-mitzvotav - praised are You Lord our God sovereign of the universe Who has made us holy through God's commandments..." The performance of the mitzvot isn't just an obligation it's an opportunity to experience God's holiness and to make ourselves holy at the same time. The rabbis when they constructed this system recognized that the pageantry of the Temple service wasn't enough to spiritually unify the people. We couldn't depend on the Temple always being their either (witness the past 2,000 years). Instead the rabbis radically transformed our Jewish lives by bringing the Temple to us. Even when we do something as simple as lighting the sabbath candles we elevate that experience to one of great sanctity. The mystery of God is brought into our homes and we personally experience a moment of great holiness.

Let us read the book of Leviticus in this light and may we appreciate the personal spirituality that we can aspire to in our lives.