Leviticus: These and these are the words of the Living God

Every year when we roll around to Leviticus I’m tempted to read Jacob Milgrom’s magisterial Anchor Bible commentaries but I skeptical that I will ever have time to pull it off.  This year I found a one-volume summary by Milgrom (Leviticus:  A Continental Commentary) and I decided to download it to my Kindle.  I’m only through the introduction and already in sort of stunned amazement at the depth and power of the work.

An example that I would like to share is Milgrom’s assertion (and I haven’t heard anyone else make it as directly) that the theological diversity of the Rabbis flows from the literary form (in the Higher criticism sense [1]) of the Torah itself and particularly from the book of Leviticus.  We generally think of disputes in the Oral Law as arising either from a corruption of an original pristine tradition or being rooted in the exegetical process from which the Oral Torah is formed, but Milgrom posits that the diversity in the Oral law flows directly from the theological diversity of the Written Torah:

The text itself does not make a truth claim among the traditions, nor does it try to reconcile them blithely.  Instead, the text happily transmits the various, oftentimes conflicting traditions, to the reader.  None proclaimed exclusive access to the divine word.  None labeled the other “false” (as the prophets later labeled their rivals).  To explain their divergences, their students might have answered in words similar to those coined by a later generation of rabbis concerning the different schools of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai:  “Both are the words of the living God.”

Leviticus is a striking example as it consists of two major theological strands which divide the book into two corresponding parts.  The first part is the Priestly strand (chapters 1-18) which holds qedusha or “holiness” to be an attribute of the Mishkan, and the second is the Holiness Code (chapters 19-27) [2] which sees holiness as an possession of the entire people.  Milgrom uses Mary Douglas’ work _Leviticus as Literature_ to show that the contrast is not incidental, but rather that the strands are in chiastic correspondence.  The opposing theological perspectives are not happenstance, but are the structure around which Leviticus is built.  It is a monument of sorts to theological pluralism.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that liberal Jews have wished to throw Leviticus overboard.  Implicit in the branding of liberal Judaism as “Prophetic” Judaism is a turning away from the icky Priestly teaching towards the (allegedly) more wholesome and edifying message of the Prophets.  But as Milgrom points out it is the Prophets who marginalize theological dissent by labeling their rivals “false”.  The prophets of the Hebrew Bible were some of the most strident people who ever lived and who were responsible for institutions such as, well, the holy war, which would seemingly make them odd role models for liberal religious expression.  (Not to mention, though I will mention, that elevating the Prophets as moral exemplars over an allegedly corrupt priesthood and degenerate priestly tradition is as clear of an internalization of Christian thought that one could ask for) [3].  If we want to reassure the world of our liberal bone fides, we should proudly wave the flag of Priestly, and not “Prophetic” Judaism.

But it is Leviticus which we end up apologizing for.  Sometimes weakly.  I read a sermon for this past Shabbat which defended Leviticus in the manner that Schechter did and too many do still:  Leviticus is valuable because it contains “Love your neighbor as yourself” in its middle.  A nice thought to be sure, but the weakness in legitimating a Jewish book by pointing out that one of the great Christian commandments is contained within it should be palpable.  Rather we should focus on the powerful religious ideas that are unique to the Priestly Torah.  Gershon Cohen was fond of saying that it was the audacity of the Rabbis that the Torah and Prophets are contained in the same composition.  In only the beginning of what promises to be a great and moving exposition, Jacob Milgrom reminds that the great audacity of the Rabbis was a legacy of the Written Torah in general and its neglected core in particular.

 [1]  Just the usual disclaimer that to learn from Higher criticism is not to necessary agree with its assumptions.

[2]  There are issues of insertions and the question of whether the Holiness Code edited the Priestly strand or vice versa.  See Israel Knohl _The Sanctuary of Silence_.

[3]  Beyond all of this is the fact that rabbinic Judaism seems to take as axiomatic that prophecy is dead.  But pointing that out would be piling on.

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