Parashat Vayikra - Calling on Controversy

Parashat Vayikra 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

Calling on Controversy 

Usually, when we finish a book of the Torah and close its final words with ‘chazak, chazak v’nitchazek’ (be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened!), there’s some excitement about the book ahead. The story of the family of Abraham in Genesis becomes the story of a people in Exodus. Crossing from Numbers into Deuteronomy means being uplifted by the moral words of the ‘Mishneh Torah’, the second Torah. We may feel less of a buzz when it comes to leaving Exodus behind for Leviticus. 

There’s plenty in Leviticus to dread. It’s known as the ‘Torat Kohanim’ for its emphasis on the Priesthood, ritual purity and holiness and has its fair share of sacrifices. It behooves us as Progressive Jews to ask: ‘what do we do with all this stuff?’ It’s an important but also problematic question because at the heart of it lies discomfort with being uncomfortable. It is this discomfort with the uncomfortable that is having far-reaching consequences all over Europe and even England for our religious freedom. It is ironic that just as we are to read Vayikra with all its details of animal sacrifice and kashrut, the ancient practice of shechitah (ritual slaughter) is being questioned yet again. 

For instance, John Blackwell, the president-elect of the British Veterinary Association proposing to ban un-stunned ritual slaughter, affecting both the Jewish and Muslim communities. And furthermore, a few days ago, the Dutch Conservative Party youth propose banning male infant circumcision. These proposals keep on resurfacing time and time again throughout Jewish history. Several Scandinavian countries with Denmark being a recent addition, have banned ritual slaughter. In Holland, there was an attempted ban. There’s also been a lot of controversial discussion about infant male circumcision with speak of bans. In fact, this discussion was so predominant and vehement in Holland that my husband and I chose to speak out in favour of brit milah on national TV when I was pregnant with Jonathan. 

The arguments made are remarkably similar: animal welfare and the autonomy of children. In many ways, these are strawman arguments. If we are so concerned with animal welfare, shouldn’t we focus more on how animals live, given the bio-industry’s poor track record? Besides, different research has proven that for chickens at least, shechitah is the most humane way to dispatch them (the alternative being electrocution in pools of water) and that the science is inconclusive when it comes to the suffering of larger animals such as cattle. Surely, there’s great hypocrisy to be found here, considering that over 900 million animals are slaughtered in the UK per annum. 

As for child autonomy: since when is a child autonomous in any case, morally, legally, religiously or even physically? We live in a framework that accepts that we make decisions on behalf of our children and the normal assumption is that we act in their best interest. Male infant circumcision –which should in no way be compared to female genital cutting, as is sometimes done by these ‘intactivists’ – is done in our community because we value upholding the covenant across the generations, ledor vador. Even the American Association of Pediatrics concedes that male infant circumcision is a harmless (though obviously irreversible) surgery that even carries some mild but significant health benefits: including a 70% reduction in the chance to transmit HIV or Human Papilloma Virus, the virus that can cause penile cancer in men and cervical cancer in women. 

But ultimately, both the rituals of Vayikra and those we value to this day, cannot be wholly rationalized. This is already a classic debate in the times of Maimonides and Nachmanides. There was a makhloket (disagreement) between both philosophers. Maimonides argued that the sacrificial cult had a rational basis, namely to wean the Israelites off the idolatrous practices they had been used to. Nachmanides, however, argued that the sacrifices had intrinsic, mystical value and showed our dedication to serving the Divine. Maybe the answer lies in both. Maybe science can give us insight into what practices are harmful or not but religion gives us wisdom to find meaning in those practices. And that is not for outsiders to interfere with. 

When it comes to kashrut, Progressive Judaism holds a valued place for both personal autonomy and the weight of tradition. In full disclosure, I keep a kosher home and eat kosher meat exclusively (though sparingly). If a ban would come to pass, it would impact those of us in the Progressive world who find meaning in connecting with our fellow Jews as well with our tradition through an observance of traditional kashrut. 

I cannot unpack all the nuanced arguments in the space of one sermon but what we can do is look at the underlying discomforts. Are the concerns of the secularists who look askance at our ancient rituals rooted in animal or child welfare? Or is there something else at work here? A failure to integrate the uncomfortable, the difficult or the dark into our glossy, sanitized, photoshopped lives? Perhaps many of us are afraid of confronting that discomfort. Of looking at blood, gore and death or even the strength of our own emotions when it comes to life-transforming milestones. 

What Vayikra tells us is that the blood and gore is part and parcel of our human experience. What must it have been like to select the finest animals from your flock: the lamb, goats and calves you tenderly raised, and to offer them up as a sacrifice? To place your livelihood and productivity in the balance. To connect so deeply with both your faith in an unseen God as well as your rootedness in the rhythms of Nature through offering what your hard, calloused hands brought forth from the good earth? 

In a way, both shechitah and brit milah are echoes of a bygone era, where splendor and brutality co-existed. Now we live in an era where we polish the splendor and hide the brutality, pretending it’s not there. The secular world fails to understand not only the powerful symbolism of our rituals but the even more powerful ethical message. Just like Vayikra contains at its heart the Holiness Code with its powerful ethics such as ‘V’ahavta lareacha kamocha’ – ‘love your neighbor as yourself’, our rituals remind us of the sanctity of life and the strength of covenant: of our children welcomed into our community as Jews and of the food we eat. 

Vayikra calls us, through the Divine voice with which the parashah opens, to not gloss over the ugliness and discomforts of life but to sanctify them. We can talk about this, sure. We can rail against it, of course. And there is a place for polemics, debate and discussion when it comes to the primal emotions of discomfort that we may feel. But there can be no talks of bans. We have the right to heed the call of our God and of our community and the obligation to stand in the breach when the rights of others are violated. 

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