I Cringe When I Read Leviticus 25

Image: An old wooden fence post, criss-crossed with barbed wire. (LeoNeoBoy/Pixabay.)

Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. – Leviticus 25:44

We are reading Parashat Behar-Bechukotai this week, in which these words appear.

There are verses in the Torah that are downright painful to read, and Chapter 25 of Leviticus, with its rules for Jews keeping slaves, is one of them for me. These verses have been used to justify the practice of slavery in many different times and places in history. These verses justified the keeping of slaves by Jews, and they were cited to justify the keeping of slaves in my birth state of Tennessee.

Over time we have learned better. Jews no longer keep slaves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives a summary of the history of those changes in The Slow End of Slavery, a d’var Torah on Parashat Mishpatim.  So what can we get out of reading these verses again and again, year after year?

First, while the practice of slavery is in our past, it is part of our history. As recently as the American Civil War, there were Jews as well as Christians who used the Torah to justify their ownership of other human beings. The memory of that should keep us humble. We should never forget that there may well be things we do lightly today that future generations will judge harshly.

These verses remind us that there are times and places in which we still, today, profit from immoral advantages over other human beings. For instance, “redlining”  was banned 50 years ago, but the evil it did still impacts black families today.

Look at our synagogue communities: we make it difficult for Jews with brown or black skins to feel at home in our synagogues. We are quick to assume that they must be hired help or dangerous strangers. We leave them standing alone at the oneg. Even if we don’t say or do something overtly cruel, we fail to greet them with the same enthusiasm we might extend to a member who “looks Jewish” to us. If you don’t believe me, do a little reading. One good beginning is Kippahed While Black: The Troubling Resurgence of “Schvartze” and “Kushi” a short opinion piece in the Forward by Michael Twitty.

We American Jews have a favorite photo that we like to trot out whenever the subject of civil rights or race comes up:


In the photo, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches at Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr in March 1965.* But we speak too often of this photo as if the work is done: “See! There’s a rabbi there! One of ours!” We speak of it as somehow each of us should get credit for Rabbi Heschel’s walk.

The trouble with this is that each Jew is responsible for their own self. ALL of us are commanded – individually! – to free the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice. We can’t slide by on the righteousness of a single rabbi who took courageous action 53 years ago. We cannot stand by while our neighbors bleed, while African Americans are executed for holding cell phones on their own family’s property.

Each of us – me included! – needs to ask “What am I doing about racial injustice today?” We need to ask it not in the past tense, and certainly not by proxy. We need to be open to improving our behavior. We need to drop the defensiveness that keeps us from learning when we’ve messed up. We need to not be so fragile when someone points out that what we’ve said or done was, yes, racist.

We can do this. I have great faith in our ability to learn and to make change. We can do it in the voting booth. We can do it by speaking up at racist “jokes.” We can do it by biting our tongues at phrases like “Not all white people…” We can do it by inviting speakers and leaders of color to our congregation to speak. We can do it by including in our tzedakah budgets organizations that serve people of color. We can do it by doing the good work and then not insisting on credit.

Every year when Leviticus 25 comes around, I cringe. I don’t like being reminded of past wrongs – no one likes it. But if I use that discomfort to open my heart, to open my ears, then it will all be worth it.  Shabbat shalom!

*For more about that iconic photo, read Susannah Heschel on the Legacy of Her Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement, an article published in Moment Magazine in April, 2015.



Guest Post: Dear Israel

The following post is by musician Beth Hamon. She writes with great heart and simplicity about some very complex matters. I asked for her permission to share it here with you, my readers. For more about Beth and her music, you can check out her website. – Rabbi Adar

Dear Israel,

You and I don’t really get each other very much, I admit it.
I don’t get why people tell me I should want to move there.
You don’t get why Portland is my Jerusalem. 
I don’t get how you can be simultaneously so loving towards certain Members Of the Tribe and so awful towards, well, a whole lot of everyone else (see: women, people of color, Palestinians).
You don’t get why I think it’s possible to be dynamically and fully Jewish wherever you are — and with whomever you love.

And yet, when I hear your name I still stop for the tiniest moment and listen.
I notice.
I ponder.
I wonder about what it means to be connected to a place so far away, and to Jews whose temperament is so different from mine. (You’re not the first to tell me I’m too nice or too polite.)

Look, I’m super-broke and probably always will be; so it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to go and meet you in person.
So let’s agree to try and understand each other and respect each other a whole lot more from afar.
Can we work on that, you and me?
I’m willing to keep wrestling.
Are you?
Happy 70th birthday. May you have many more in good health.
I hope and pray that someday soon you’ll know real, lasting peace.
Thanks for being here — Beth

Shabbat Shalom! – Tzav

Parashat Tzav takes us deeper into the Book of Leviticus, and into the minutiae of Temple sacrificial practice. This week we see the sacrifices from the priest’s point of view, especially the week-long ordination rite. What can any of this possibly have to say to 21st century Jews? Take a look at these divrei Torah and see!

Giving Thanks in the Present Moment by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Tzav: Oil and Blood by Maggid Melissa Carpenter

The Life Blood and the Nefesh by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Leadership, Precision, and the Power of Ritual by Rabbi Rachel Sabath- Beit Halachmi

“Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes by Rabbi Ruth Adar


The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes

Image: The High Priest in the Holy of Holies, from the Holman Bible, 1890. Public Domain.

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, “Command.” It begins:

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Command Aaron and his sons thus…” – Leviticus 6:1-2

Nowhere in Scripture is there anything to suggest that Aaron wanted the position of High Priest. The more I think about that role, the more I am convinced that it isn’t the sort of job most people would want. It’s hard, heavy work: slaughtering animals, skinning them, cutting them up, stacking the pieces with wood in a very precise manner, burning the lot, then cleaning up the mess. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty work.  And as we will soon see,  mistakes in the vicinity of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] can be fatal.

It’s easy to miss the grubbiness and danger of the job. We read about elaborate vestments with fancy embroidery, precious stones, and magical devices. Most sacrifices involve a meal for the priests. The title is seductive, too: “High Priest” or in Hebrew, “Kohen Gadol.”

There is a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) about a non-Jew who walked by a synagogue, and heard the reading from Exodus describing the High Priest’s garments. He was very curious, and asked a bystander about the passage. “They are special garments for the High Priest.” The man was excited. “For this, it is worth becoming a Jew. I’ll convert and become the next High Priest!” The bystander, amused, suggested that he go see a rabbi named Shammai, who was a builder by trade.

He went to Shammai and said, “I want you to convert me, but only on the condition that I become the next High Priest!” Shammai, disgusted by his chutzpah, poked at him with a measuring rod until he fled the shop.

Undeterred, the man got the name of another rabbi, Hillel. He went to see Hillel and repeated his outrageous demand.

Hillel looked at him for a moment. “OK,” he said, “But if you want to become High Priest, you should learn the laws concerning the High Priest. Start with those.” Overjoyed, the student went away to study.

Then he read the verse, “Any non-priest who participates [in the holy service] shall die” (Num. 3:10). “To whom does this refer?’ he asked. Even King David, he was told. Even David, king of Israel, was not allowed to serve in the holy Temple, as he was not a descendant of Aaron the kohen. He was horrified: he didn’t want to die!

He returned to Hillel. “May blessings fall on your head, humble sir, for drawing me under the wings of the Divine Presence.” For you see, even though he no longer wanted to be the High Priest, he had found the beauty of Torah in the text itself and in the person of Hillel. He continued studying Torah, and eventually converted to Judaism.

There are many lessons available in that story. One I have to work to remember is that sometimes ignorant people ask offensive questions without meaning offense. I can pick up the nearest measuring rod to chase them out of my shop – Shammai’s response is understandable! – or I can give them what they need to educate themselves. It’s my choice.

Have you ever asked a question you realized later was foolish or even offensive? When and how did you learn better? And what did you do then?

Shabbat Shalom! Vayikra

This week we begin the book of Leviticus with Parashat Vayikra. Leviticus is unique among the books of Torah in that it reads like a manual for the kohanim, the priests of Israel. It lays out the laws of korbanot, or sacrifices. The word korban has as its root the Hebrew letters kufbet, and nun. That puts it in the family of Hebrew words having to do with closeness: to draw close, to be close. Sacrifices are the way the ancient Israelites sought to be close to God.

Even though the topic seems dry and far removed from us, you will be surprised at some of the great divrei Torah available on the subject, such as these:

Leviticus on Love by Rabbi Arnold Eisen

Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

Invitation to the World by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Generation to Generation? by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Thinking about Sacrifice by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat


Vayikra: Invitation to the World

Image: High priest offering a sacrifice of a goat, from Treasures of the Bible, by Northrop, published 1894. Public Domain.

Vayikra Moshe [“He called Moses”] appears twice in the Torah. Each time the words mark an invitation from God to Moses. In the first occurrence, following after Moses ascends  the mountain, God calls to him from the midst of God’s Glory, the cloud covering Sinai (Exodus 24:16). These words tell us about God’s invitation to Moses to enter the cloud and receive instruction.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayikra, God calls to Moses, inviting him to enter the Tabernacle to receive the instructions for the Temple cult. Just as the story that begins Genesis describes the creation of a world, the instructions in Leviticus create a new and ordered world: the world of the Temple cult.

The world of the Temple cult is an ordered world: there are right ways and wrong ways of doing things. The acts of each person have consequences for Israel as a whole. We must read slowly and study deeply, if we are to absorb the many levels of this “priestly manual.”

Millennia after the physical Temple was reduced to rubble by the Roman horde, the Temple cult remains intact, enshrined in the words of Leviticus.  The world of the Temple cult is available to us through this book of Torah. We cannot carry out the korbanot [sacrifices] without the physical Temple, so the literal meanings of many of these lessons are history. However, other understandings can emerge if we study closely enough. Many of us in the Reform Movement understand this shift as progress. As Maimonides asserted, we have outgrown the need for animal sacrifices, substituting sacrifices of prayer. Every time we say the Amidah, we evoke the spiritual altar of Leviticus, the constant connection of God and Israel.

Intertwined with the ritual commandments regarding the sacrifices, Leviticus conveys ethical mitzvot directing us to live according to specific values. Just as they are in the book of Leviticus, in the lives of observant Jews the ethical commandments and the ritual commandments are intertwined, never entirely separable. That was the message of the prophets: we can make sacrifices all we want, if we don’t take care of the weak and the suffering, God will reject the ritual. (Isaiah 1)

This week God invites us in, as long ago Moses was invited into the cloud, God’s Presence, and into God’s Home, the Tabernacle. What instruction will we hear this year as we receive the world of Leviticus anew?

This d’var Torah previously appeared in a slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.


Shabbat and Capital Punishment

Image: A Judge’s Gavel. (Public Domain)

Parashat Vayahkel-Pekudei begins with an alarming statement:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day. – Exodus 35:1-3

After this bombshell, Moses continues to tell the Israelites the directions for building the Tabernacle without saying anything more about Shabbat or capital crimes. What?!

Commenters including Sarna point out that this brief mention of the regulations of Shabbat echoes a longer passage about Shabbat in Exodus 31: 12-18. Both passages about the Sabbath stand paired with passages about the building of the Tabernacle.  The text is making two points here:

  1. Keeping Shabbat is very important, more important than any work, even such work as the building of a sanctuary for God.
  2. Jews have two holy sanctuaries: one in space and one in time. Our sanctuary in space was the Temple in Jerusalem. Our sanctuary in time is Shabbat. This juxtaposition in Torah is the source for the “cathedral in time” in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poetic The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. 

As for the death penalty:

We have an account in Torah of a man who was executed for violating the Sabbath. In his case:

Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. Then the Eternal said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death—as the Eternal had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:32-36

Notice that this is much later – in Numbers! – and yet “it had not been specified what should be done to him.” Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that they were waiting to see precisely what sort of death penalty was required, since there were four possibilities. Only when Moses consults with God do they learn that the punishment is stoning. Whatever is going on here, Moses and the Israelites gave this matter great seriousness, wanting direct confirmation from God before proceeding.

Many centuries later, the rabbis would write down their understanding of the rules they had received from God for capital punishment. They had strict requirements for it, without which the sentence could not be carried out:

  1. There must be 2 eye witnesses to the crime who were willing to testify.
  2. Those witnesses must be willing to participate in the execution.
  3. Those witnesses must have warned the accused before the crime that he was about to commit a capital crime.
  4. Valid witnesses must be adult Jewish males not related to the defendant or one another.
  5. The court had to consist of 23 learned rabbis.
  6. Each witness must be examined separately. If there were any discrepancies in their testimony, no matter how minor, the court must acquit.

And then in Sanhedrin 17a, we get yet another requirement:

Rav Kahana says: In a Sanhedrin where all the judges saw fit to convict the defendant in a case of capital law, they acquit him. The Gemara asks: What is the reasoning for this halakha? It is since it is learned as a tradition that suspension of the trial overnight is necessary in order to create a possibility of acquittal.

The rabbis seemed to feel that if the court was unanimous, then there was so much emotion running high that it was inappropriate to go forward with a conviction; best to sleep on it. The rabbis were worried that a unanimous court had something wrong with it – vengeance, perhaps?

At any rate, we learn from all of this that in our tradition, while the Written Torah appears to speak lightly of execution, in fact the Oral Torah – the larger context of tradition –  is extremely cautious about capital punishment, so cautious that it is hard to see how they ever managed to convict anyone of a capital crime.  (It is also worth noting that after the Romans took control of Judea in 63 BCE, the Sanhedrin no longer had the power to carry out such a verdict. The whole discussion was theoretical.)

At any rate, don’t panic at the beginning of Exodus 35. While the peshat [simple meaning of the verse appears to say that people should be executed for violating the Sabbath, our tradition does not advocate capital punishment.

That said, there are parts of the soul that come to life when we keep Shabbat, and that cannot survive without it:

More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. – Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, poet, philosopher, 1856-1927)