Leviticus Perspectives From Faith Communities In Practice
Getting Biblical in Daily Life
Let's put it this way: Leviticus doesn't make it easy for Jews. In fact, it causes a whole slew of practical problems for contemporary Jewish communities. Not only can its ethical and purity rules be difficult to adapt to contemporary life, but since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, there isn't even a place to follow the rules for Tabernacle offerings (for some more FAQs about sacrifices, check out JewFAQ).
Further complicating matters are centuries of analysis by learned rabbis in the Talmud, Mishnah, and Gemara, which serve as a touchstone for rabbinical teaching today.
To top it off, interpretations of Leviticus can also differ among the leading branches of Judaism. Traditions vary on such issues as kosher law, Sabbath observance, the continued application of rules for personal impurity, and—big surprise—same-sex intercourse. For the Orthodox, Leviticus is a book to be rigorously studied and applied; for the more liberal Reform tradition…well, let's just say that descriptions such as "stultifying and prosaic—like the first line of a recipe—and obsessed with irrelevant minutia" are not exactly ringing endorsements.
Offerings in Exile
Despite the many differences, though, the various branches of Judaism tend to share the same core response to the current meaning of sacrificial offering law. Nowadays, in the absence of the temple, the offering laws can be observed through repentance, prayer, and the pursuit of personal purity (whatever that might mean). The specific types of sacrifices provide lessons on such matters as thankfulness, awareness of sin, and ethical dealings with others. Done and done.
This approach to the offering laws treats them as instructive metaphors for acts of devotion and social responsibility. Yep, metaphors. That means don't sacrifice the animal; just do something that represents sacrificing the animal.
From this perspective, prayer itself is regarded as a form of sacrifice. According to the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, prayer is superior to animal sacrifice and sacrifice was just an accommodation to ancient customs. Kind of like how news websites today accommodate popular expectations with cat videos. (But let's be honest—cat videos will never go out of style.)
Other aspects of the offering rituals also continue to have a spiritual application. For example, although the literal altar fire has been out for centuries, Jews can keep the spiritual altar fire burning through prayer, repentance, and good works (source).
How 'Bout That Temple?
If everything's so hard without the temple, why don't they just build one? We mean, if humans can construct the Burj Khalifa, the temple shouldn't be that hard, right? (Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration.)
Whether the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt and temple sacrifice should be restored is, as you might imagine, a subject of heated debate. Some people believe that animal sacrifice is an obsolete practice, while others believe it to be required once the temple is restored in Jerusalem (source).
And it's not just the Jews who have something to say about it. Many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians believe that the restoration of temple sacrifice in Jerusalem is destined to happen. Except, for Christians, it's a sign that Jesus will return to Earth soon. So yeah, it's not really a six-of-one kind of a situation.
So we can all agree on one thing: no one can agree on anything. In fact, opinions regarding the ongoing relevance of Leviticus in its specific details can vary widely even within a particular branch of Judaism. Some rabbis try to make Leviticus happen; others are ready to let it fall the way of yolo.
And of course, one of the most important questions is as follows: to eat bacon or not to eat bacon? Some Jews adhere rigorously to the kosher law (or kashrut) as refined over centuries of rabbinical commentary. Others are all about the cheeseburger.
And Everything Else Under the Sun
Leviticus manages to give us a rule about everything that's ever existed (except what to do when our DVR can only record 4 shows at once but there's just so much good TV on Tuesday nights!). So let's take a look at a few more:
- The laws on ritual uncleanness can be interpreted literally, spiritually, or sometimes in both ways. This is known among religion experts as really confusing. For instance, some Orthodox Jews stick to the rigorous rules for maintaining ritual purity for women in menstruation and other forms of physical uncleanness. (That can't be convenient.) Others interpret these rules in more spiritual ways or pretend they don't exist. Jewish feminist critiques of these laws can go either way, condemning the laws as emblems of the patriarchy or celebrating them as expressions of identity (source).
- The rules on skin disease are commonly interpreted on the spiritual level as a warning against gossip and slander. Some add that Leviticus requires a sacrifice of birds for skin disease because just like gossips they are always "twittering" and "chirping" (source). On the spiritual level of interpretation, it also shows that God has known from the depths of eternity that he hates Twitter.
- The laws of Leviticus pertaining to same-sex intercourse have sparked a lot of debate. Orthodox Judaism tends to oppose gay marriage, but within the movement there is considerable difference of opinion regarding not just the issue, but also the meaning of the relevant passages from Leviticus. Reform Judaism endorses gay marriage, as does the Conservative branch (source).
- The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, continues to be an important holiday in the Jewish Calendar. No goats (sorry), but the service does involve reading the part of the Jonah story where the whale vomits him out onto dry land. As symbols of atonement go, this is sick.
- The other holidays in Leviticus are also still happening, which makes the book an invaluable resource for understanding Jon Stewart's Sukkot and Tu B'Shevat jokes on The Daily Show.
Leviticus is more important to Christianity than one might think. For Christians, Leviticus hands us the Old Covenant, while Jesus embodies God's New Covenant. Out with the old and in with the new. As branding strategies goes, even if New Coke doesn't end up replacing the previous product, sometimes it can lead to a successful spinoff.
The Christian connection to Leviticus goes back to Jesus himself. When Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39), he's taking it straight from Leviticus 19. Don't worry—plagiarism wasn't a thing back then. And throughout the Gospels, Jesus has a knack for cleaning up people who are unclean or imperfect according to Leviticus. Leprosy, disabilities, out of control menstruation—you name it.
It's not just about the Gospels, either. The New Testament's Book of Hebrews is kind of like Leviticus 2: Electric Boogaloo. Offerings, atonement, redemption—all the good stuff in Leviticus has now been done by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This is a deeply treasured principle among many young Christian people, since it gets them off the hook from actually having to read Leviticus.
New Testament professors aren't so lucky. See, the majority Christian view of atonement isn't about saving the community from how imperfections can mess things up (see: Leviticus), but saving individuals from God's anger through the offering of Christ as the perfect blood sacrifice (source). So that means you'll need to check out Leviticus if you want to see the other side of the coin. Plus, Hebrews has a knack for turning Leviticus against itself. For instance, it repeatedly calls attention to the fact that human priests are imperfect (Hebrews 7:23-28), thus lumping them in with the rules in Leviticus 21 against priestly imperfection and pollution.
Of course, not all Christians share the modern majority interpretation. The medieval theologian Saint Anselm, for example, viewed atonement and redemption in terms of compensating God for a debt. Although this view is largely rejected today, it echoes the rhetoric of compensation in Leviticus, so score one for old Anselm in the Hebrew Bible book of alluders.
Big surprise: the most widely held Christian view of Leviticus is that it is fulfilled in the person and life of Christ. But Christian applications of Leviticus can vary widely, and they often don't divide neatly along denominational lines. Some of the differences represent split views of unclear passages, while others can seem like the result of too much time spent chewing the cud.
Of course, one of the areas where this has been at hot-hot-hot issue is same-sex relationships. For some Christians, the laws in Leviticus prohibiting same-sex sexual relations falls under the category of binding moral law (source). Translation: don't do it.
Christianity is also not particularly known for having a don't-ask-don't-tell policy. For centuries, confession manuals in the Roman Catholic Church included rather detailed questions regarding a penitent's sexual behavior (source). Modern scholars believe that if the Church had been able to record these confessions, being a religion professor would be a lot more fun.
Others Christians believe that the passages in Leviticus regarding same-sex intercourse are not binding moral law (source). Popular reasons cited in support of this argument include Christ's fulfillment of the Torah, limitation of these laws to pagan temple prostitution or rape, the laws' apparent basis in ritual restrictions against the mixture of certain bodily fluids, the laws' lack of any reference to loving relationships or sexual orientation.
For more on this hot topic, head over to "Hot-Button Issues and Cultural Debates."
Practicing What Leviticus Preaches?
Again, the zillion laws in Leviticus mean a zillion different kinds of practical procedure. Let's take a look at how some of these unfold in the Christian tradition, bullet-point style:
- One direct expression of Leviticus can be seen in church. The priestly robes described in Leviticus 8 have had a strong influence on vestments worn by priests and some pastors. Or as Reverend Barbie likes to say—Confirmation classes are hard! Vestments are fun!
- A passage occasionally cited as a binding moral law is the ban on wizards and witches. This has meant trouble for Christian kids who like (or think they would like) the Harry Potter series. Some conservative Christians believe it's a "gateway drug" to the dark arts such as casting spells (source).
- The tithe—the requirement to give 10% of your goods to God—continues to be a binding rule among some Christians (check out this example). As in Leviticus 26, God honors this tithe by rewarding the giver with more wealth, part of which apparently comes from no longer having to tip wait staff.
- Similarly, there are Christians—such as Seventh Day Adventists—who still adhere to the kosher laws. Despite the clear denominational differences, scholars do not divide Christianity into Catholic, Protestant, and Bacon-Free.
- Some Christians believe that the Sabbath is binding moral law, inasmuch as it is one of the Ten Commandments (source). The day of the Sabbath has been changed to Sunday, though, in keeping with the practice of the early Christian church.
- Following a theory of the end times known as dispensationalism, many conservative Christians also believe that animal sacrifices will continue when Jesus reigns over the Earth for a thousand years (source). Unlike Christ's sacrifice on the cross, these sacrifices will not have saving power, a theological position widely shared by cattle, sheep, and goats.
Several of the laws in Leviticus regarding purity and sexual ethics might sound familiar to Muslims: namely, various bathing rituals and the prohibition against eating pork. Islam also regards Moses as a prophet and respects the revelation that he received from God.
And therein lies the rub.
According to traditional Islamic doctrine, the Torah in its present form is corrupt and unreliable (source). Why? Because the laws weren't recorded until hundreds of years after Moses heard them from God; and then, centuries later, they were lost again during Babylonian captivity. That means that the Leviticus that Jewish leaders in the 6th century cut and paste from surviving earlier material is an impure mix of the human with the divine.