Sibble Saturday: Wholly Holy (Leviticus 19:1–20:27)

A little off schedule this week, courtesy of grading and suchlike, but now we’re into פָּרָשַׁת קדשים (“Holy” portion).

The quick snarky summary: Be nice to the disadvantaged. Wait, that part’s hard to snark about. God hates it when you mix different things together, so take your whiskey neat, not in a cocktail. Also, he totally meant it when he told you not to screw your relatives or non-human-type animals. The dolphins may act like they want it, but, seriously, it’s an abomination and will only result in a public stoning and dolphin steaks for the community.


The odd thing about this laundry list of things one does to be holy is that a good chunk of them don’t fall under the heading of holiness laws. There are several broad categories of laws which appear in the Torah: there are the precepts of God’s service by the priesthood and in the temple, there are the laws of personal holiness, and there are laws of civil order. The first two fall under the general heading of what people call “holiness code”, and there are an awful lot of things which transparently fall under one or the other category: the laws against, say, murder are obviously civil, the regulations concerning sacrifices are clearly priestly, and the laws of kashrut are personal-sanctity. The grey areas are pretty contentious: a lot of the hemming and hawing about Biblical injunctions against homosexuality, particularly among Christians, come from disputes over whether sexual misconduct was regarded as a personal or civil issue.

But there’s a certain irony of classification that the very things emphasized as part of being holy, and which indeed lend the name “holy” to this parsha, are unmistakably matters of civil justice. We start Leviticus 19 with some bonafide holiness measures, which are repetitions of some things that have gone before: no idols, keep the Sabbath, honor parents, and eat sacrifices promptly. The first three, as part of the list of ten things that are not actually described in the Bible as the “ten commandments”, might well be argued by some as civil, but I’m willing to accord them the status of holiness-code. But from Leviticus 19:9 on we’re seeing pretty much nothing but rules of civil justice and social welfare. TO its credit, the Torah does seem to place a pretty high regard on kindness to the disadvantaged (a virtue it squanders rather badly, alas, with its willingness to be absolutely vile to those who are not traditionally regarded as disadvantaged).

So in this section we get a lot of social justice towards the poor, the handicapped, the elderly, and those without means of traditional family support (e.g. orphans and widows). A lot of the social welfare is passive but conscious: one’s enjoined not to donate to the poor so much as to leave a small portion of one’s agricultural produce unharvested so that the poor can take it. Likewise, the social justice for other disadvantaged classes is mostly phrased in terms of not being evil rather than being actively good: that one shouldn’t commit fraud, withhold wages, take advantage of other people’s weakness, or judge unfairly. It’s not deeply progressive in any instituting-a-social-welfare-program way but it at least acknowledges the existence of social injustice and of disadvantaged classes, which is some progress. These verses are popular ones to quote when one wants to make the argument that the Boble is a socially progressive text, and it’s a popular source of behavioral commonplaces. But that having been said, “don’t be a dick” is a pretty low bar for saintly behavior, and it’s telling that pretty much all of the behaviors enjoined here are of abstention rather than of action.

From verse 19 onwards, we swing back into laws which are widely agreed to be personal-holiness strictures again,a s they don’t, for the most part, pertain to any sort of social justice. There are a few exceptions, such as the civil procedure for dealing with the crime of sleeping with someone else’s designated concubine, as well as an injunction against forcing your daughter into prostitution (which may be referring to something a bit different than we would interpet that phrase), but mostly in this section we have a lot of personal-behavioral injunctions which don’t affect society at large: the community as a whole is not really affected by shaving, divination, or tattooing, much less by the injunction against “mixing” of various sorts: it’s here that we have the classical prohibition on wearing clothing made from fiber blends, as well as the lesser-known rules against sowing different seeds in the same field or interbreeding different varieties of cattle.

A couple of the prohibitions appearing here deserve greater interpretation, as they correspond imperfectly to modern-day practices. The entire slave-girl concubinage issue is mercifully outdated, but two other laws mention practices which are still in vogue today: 19:28 is generally interpreted as referring to scarification and tattooing, and 19:29 discusses prostitution and apparently forbids it.

The customary interpretation of 19:28 is probably correct. Tattoos and scarification have for a long time been popular religious practices, as physical marking of the flesh is one way that people mark property (as in the branding of cattle), and people will mark their flesh to mark themselves as the property of a God, or inscribe themselves with religiously significant glyphs. As we’ve seen in previous chapters, the God of the Israelites is very fussy about the way he is worshipped, and wants his people neither worshipping him in this manner or, worse yet, worshipping other gods.

In the modern day, of course, the prohibition on tattooing remains one that runs pretty strongly through Jewish cultural identity, and Judaism institutionally tends to take a dim view of Hebrew-language tattoos (it doesn’t help of course that Hebrew-language tattoos tend to be only marginally more competent than Chinese-language tattoos). Certainly this traces back to Leviticus 19:28, but a major boost for this cultural distaste in the modern day (particularly among less conservative Jewish denominations, who usually have a relaxed relationship with the holiness strictures) is that the strongest Jewish cultural identification with tattooing in the 20th century is the involuntary marking with numbers for systematic extermination in Nazi Germany. So this one remains culturally significant, for somewhat post-facto reasons, but with the central message unaltered from the original injunction.

By way of contrast, we’re not sure about Leviticus 19:29. The custom of prostitution took on several forms in the middle east, and the cultic or temple prostitute was a rather different matter, both religiously and in terms of social class, from a nonreligious one. Cultic prostitution would be a more obvious parallel with the immediately preceding law: like tattooing, sacred prostitution is a practace of non-Jewish religions, and is thus Not Done in the community of Israel. Compare to a prohibition on sex for profit, which might not be out of character but is certainly out of place in this specific set of not-showing-devotion-like-the-gentiles themes. The language doesn’t help us here, unfortunately: the same Hebrew stem appears here is it did back in the story of Judah and Tamar, which is generally regarded as referring to temple prostitution, but the same stem is also used in the final denunciation after the rape of Tamar, which suggests it was also used to describe sexual impropriety, so I reckon you could argue this either way based on the words, but I’m inclined to interpret it as a specific injunction not to adopt the practice of temple prostitution.

Mercifully, we return after thins to more sensible civil laws, enjoining respect for the aged and the stranger, and requiring accurate weights and measures. It’s hard to argue against these, much like the previous socil-justice rules. These really are the Torah at its best, when it’s acknowledging a social-justice need.

But it doesn’t last, since in Chapter 20 we dive back into a litany of sexual sins, right after an injunction not to give children to מלך. There are some secondary sources identifying this entity as an Ammonite or Phoenecian deity, to whom children were either literally or symbolically sacrificed. Particularly if the former is a correct interpretation, it’s clear why this practice was regarded as horrific by the ancient Israelites. Human sacrifice came and went out of vogue in ancient history, and the cultures which didn’t practice it were unsurprisingly horrified by those that did, so it’s not surprising that 5 verses get devoted to condemning this practice.

What’s less explicable is why the rest of the chapter seems to be a recapitulation of Chapter 18. We already saw sexual sins once, and these track pretty well onto those we’ve seen: having sex with relatives, animals, menstruating women, same-sex partners (men, anyways; lesbians aren’t condemned here), and so forth, are forbidden, but here it’s explicitly said that they should be put to death. Not really surprising, seeing as how we’ve seen it all before, and this duplication, like all the other duplications, I’m going to add to the growing pile of evidence for multiple authorship and clumsy redaction.

A couple of other prohibitions show up in these two chapters worth mentioning even if they aren’t terribly cohesive: first, there are no fewer than three warnings about entities called אבת and יּדענים, telling people not to turn to them (19:31), not to go astray after them (20:6), and to stone anyone who has them (20:27). The last mention suggests some sort of demon, but the previous mentions suggest that they’re some sort of voluntary assistance. They’re usually translated as “ghosts” and ‘familiar spirits”, so presumably the first two rules are against necromancy, and the last against possession. But it’s definitely peculiar to see the same rule repeated, basically, thrice in a very short section of the text.

The last rule to deserve special mention is good old 20:9, which, in the midst of leveling the death penalty towards child-sacrificers and adulterers and incestuous folks, casually mentions that children who insult their parents should also be executed, which seems really absurdly harsh, even in a highly patriarchially organized culture. I suppose, given the patriarchal structure, we should be grateful that the mother is just as protected from insult as the father.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Sibble Saturday: Wholly Holy (Leviticus 19:1–20:27)

  1. Greg Sanders says:

    I had forgotten the death for insulting rule and its somewhat surprising gender equity.

    I do wonder how other religions at the time compared on social justice. Obviously child sacrifice gets a pretty big minus. That said for the nonsacrificers, presumably when you hear seccond hand you mostly hear the bad bits.

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