וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Va’yikra el Moshe va’yedabeir YHVH eilav mei’ohel mo’eid …
YHVH called to Moses, and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting … (Leviticus 1:1).
For the modern reader, the book of Leviticus appears to be an odd and even unwelcome intrusion into the grand saga of our ancestors. After the satisfying conclusion of the book of Exodus, in which the Children of Israel have reunited with their God, we are ready to hear about their further adventures on the way to the Promised Land. Instead, the action stops, and we find ourselves wading through an entire book describing the arcane practices and requirements of the kohanim, the priestly caste who maintain the holy sanctuary that travels with the Children of Israel on their journeys.
But what if the Torah — the Five Books of Moses — is not organized into the narrative shape to which we modern readers are accustomed? This is the argument of the great anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921-2007). Douglas may be best known for her work Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966). In that groundbreaking work, Douglas included an examination of the concept of ritual purity in Leviticus. Douglas remained fascinated with Leviticus and in her retirement composed Leviticus as Literature (1999), a brilliant interweaving of anthropology and biblical criticism. Douglas argues that Leviticus, like many famous ancient texts, is misunderstood because the literary style in which it was written is unfamiliar today. She makes a compelling case that if we grasp the literary structure of Leviticus and the Torah as a whole, a complex, yet elegant and coherent, picture emerges into our view.
What if some forms of ancient literature are built on a structure that places their climax in the middle, rather than at the end of the book? Douglas calls this form “ring composition.” She has us imagine a pediment — the triangular stone engraved with carvings that sits atop columns in classic Greek architecture. The carvings tell a story, with the climax at the apex of the triangle. The columns supporting either end of the pediment compare to the beginning and ending sections of the literary form. These pillars balance each other while supporting the centerpiece of the text. What if the Torah is structured in an analogous way, with the first two and final two books acting as columns upon which is perched Leviticus, the centerpiece of the Torah?
In this reading, we can understand the Torah as asking a central question throughout: How do we make a home for God in our midst? What does it mean to be a goy kadosh, a holy community? If the Torah is a ring composition, rather than strictly a linear narrative, then Leviticus as the central book of the five books of the Torah is not some detour from our story. Just as the Mishkan sits at the center of the Israelite camp and houses the Divine Presence, Leviticus sits at the center of our Torah and houses the teachings and instructions to maintain that Mishkan. The opening verse of Leviticus alerts us to our theme: “YHVH called to Moses, and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” The Children of Israel must maintain this Tent of Meeting so that God can dwell among them, and Leviticus will instruct them how.
But this awareness does not make the ensuing instructions any less opaque to a modern reader. For what follows are chapters upon chapters of instructions regarding animal sacrifices and ritual purity that don’t seem to follow a logical pattern. What kind of instruction manual is this? To the modern reader, the purpose of these practices — not to mention the specificity of detail with which they are described — is mystifying. Mary Douglas insists that our handicap is that we moderns are trained to think logically, but not analogically; linearly, rather than associatively. Modern thought is based on rational and logical reasoning. This emphasis has allowed us to realize mind-boggling technological advances in our era with no end in sight. We are accustomed to an instruction manual that will tell us how to assemble a piece of furniture or write code for a computer.
The problem is that Leviticus is an instruction manual for experiencing the presence of God in our midst, and that project will not yield to our logical inquiry alone. That project demands a different kind of thinking, one that perceives the connectivity and interrelation of everything. We might call this the poetic mind or perhaps the “right brain,” or, as Douglas expresses it, analogical thinking. In such thinking, every aspect of reality can be seen as an analogy for every other aspect; the human body is a microcosm of human society, which is a microcosm of the natural world, which is a microcosm of the movement of the stars and planets, ad infinitum. In analogical thinking, God is not a separate, distant and distinct overlord of creation. Rather, God is present in every relationship within the creation — from the sub-atomic to the celestial, and every combination in between. To make a home for God in our midst, we must recognize that everything is connected.
Douglas argues that ancient Israelite society saw all of creation as a map of analogies. For example, the peak of Mount Sinai, representing the place where heaven and earth touch, is where God’s presence descended and hovered, and the place from which God speaks. The Torah describes that the ordinary Israelites were not permitted to ascend any part of the mountain, so they gathered around its base. The elders were permitted to ascend partway and behold the Divine Presence from that height. Only Moses could ascend all the way to the summit, there to disappear into the dusky cloud that rested there, commune with God and receive the Torah. By analogy, the Israelite camp is carefully arranged with a similar hierarchy, recreating in human communal structure the topography of holiness found at Sinai: The tribes of Israel camp in a circle around the outside of the sacred enclosure that sits at the center of the camp; they are not permitted to enter it. The Levite tribe now become the institutionalized equivalent of the elders; they are permitted into the outer enclosure of the sacred precinct and tasked with its upkeep.
The inner sanctum, known as the Holy of Holies, represents the peak of the mountain. It is shrouded by the smoke of incense, just as the mountaintop was shrouded by the cloud of God’s presence. Within the Holy of Holies, in a special ark, rest the engraved tablets of the Law that Moses brought down from the mountaintop. Aaron, the High Priest, now fulfills Moses’ role, and is the only one permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. Aaron wears vestments that make him the symbolic representative of the entire people, carrying their names inscribed on his shoulders and over his heart, bringing the entire people near to God. As the peak of Mount Sinai was the place where heaven and earth could touch, so the Holy of Holies is now the earthly analogue of that sublime interface.
Another example: the Hebrew word for sacrifice is קָרְבָּן korban, meaning “drawing near.” The purpose of the קָרְבָּנוֹת korbanot, the animal offerings, is to bring the person making the offering nearer to God — to restore connection to the Divine source. This was no mere barbecue. It was a symbolic offering up, a drawing near, of that person’s best and purest self. Douglas ingeniously describes how even the most arcane details about which parts of the animal’s innards are washed, put on the altar or saved for consumption can be read as yet another symbolic map of relationship between humans and the Divine.
Douglas includes not only the content of Leviticus in her map of analogies, but the literary structure of the book itself. Just as the Holy of Holies is at the very center of the Israelite camp, just as the pinnacle of the Holy Mountain is covered with the Cloud of Glory, just as the innermost parts of the animal are offered up on the altar, so the center of Leviticus represents the Holy of Holies of the Torah text. The center of Leviticus — the book that is the center of the Five Books of Moses — would figuratively be the apex of the pediment, the climax of the story, the place closest to God. And the center of Leviticus is the portion known as Kedoshim: The Holiness Laws. Here, the text turns from ritual instruction to moral code. If the Children of Israel are going to create a society in which God’s presence can dwell, then they must recognize that every human is a microcosm of the Divine and treat humans with the reverence that is their innate due. If we cannot create a moral society, then we will never create a dwelling place for God in our midst.
So, at the very peak, or, shall we say, the very heart of the Torah comes this instruction:
וְאָֽהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ V’ahavta l’rei’ekha kamokha — Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).
As Rabbi Akiva taught, this is the כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה k’lal gadol baTorah — the central principle of the Torah, its Holy of Holies. The entire edifice of Torah builds up to, and is built around, this verse.
Mary Douglas has persuaded me that the Torah is truly an ancient literary masterpiece, form and function aligned, teaching us how to build our lives into a home for godliness.