Thursday, 22 Apr 2010

Written by Dr Laliv Clenman, Lecturer in Rabbinic Literature at Leo Baeck College

Stay close.  Go away.  The laws of Acharei Mot – Qedoshim are torn between two conflicting impulses: the ties of kinship and the attraction to difference.  These halakhot weave back and forth creating a tapestry of boundaries between individuals, generations, communities and peoples.  In the context of these ever-shifting and endlessly complex divisions, pulled this way and that, it becomes increasingly challenging to answer what appears to be the simplest of questions:  Who am I?  Who are We?

Much of parashat Acharei Mot – Qedoshim is concerned with laws prohibiting the most endogamous of relations, incest between family members.  At the same time the introductory and concluding sections and a number of other rules take great pains to call for a difference in behaviour and separation between the Israelites and others.  Though a clear prohibition against exogamy never appears in this parashah, there is a midrashic tradition that understands the laws against the worship of Molekh (Lev. 20:1–5 to refer to intermarriage and raising children with non-Jews.  The Mishnah in turn explicitly rejects this interpretation, further demonstrating the disagreement and malaise that exists in this liminal space.1

Biblical narratives also reflect this tension between endogamy on the one hand and exogamy on the other.  Early marriages in the story of the Israelite family are kin marriages, including that of the half siblings Abraham and Sarah.  As the story turns to that of subsequent generations we find the effort to form kin marriages waning with the children of Jacob, where the text tells of no attempt to make endogamous matches and some of Jacob’s sons and his daughter form connections with non-Israelites.  

These stories set two legal codes onto a collision course: the arayot of Leviticus which forbid a range of incestuous relationships and the laws of Deuteronomy which forbid marriage with the local Canaanite peoples.  In the early Israelite narrative the question of who is in and who is out is relatively straightforward: either one is in the family or one is not.  This also leaves limited options, however, as individuals must either risk getting too close and violating the arayot or getting too far away and violating the laws against intermarriage with the seven nations.  

Early midrashic traditions attempt to solve this problem, but they too are left only with the extremes of endogamy and exogamy.  The exegete must, in a sense, choose which of the two is a lesser evil.  Many of the sources preserve this narrative makhloket (disagreement), emphasising the debate between the rabbis on this issue.  In this vein we are told that each of Jacob’s sons was born with a twin sister whom they married, and that Dinah married her brother Simeon, or that Jacob should have married his daughter Dinah to his brother Esau, traditions that clearly prefer sibling incest and close kin marriages over exogamy.  Likewise, rather than have Joseph marry Asenath, a daughter of an Egyptian priest, we find an interpretive tradition that constructs Asenath as the daughter of Dinah and Shechem (or Simeon) so that everything is kept within the family.  Then again, for every tradition that prefers extreme endogamy, we find others that accept the narrative as it is, taking no issue with exogamous marital patterns whatsoever.

We see this same tension expressed in the midrashim of Sifra (Torat Kohanim) on this parashah.   On the one hand, it is our holiness, literally our having been set aside, having been separated as a nation, our laws and customs, that make us who we are.  The ways of the surrounding peoples are termed the worst ways of all the nations of the world.  We are told to avoid going to the theatre or cutting our hair in the current Greek style.  We mustn’t learn the wisdom of the nations along with the wisdom of our own.  Verses from Prophets and Writings regarding intermarriage are interpolated into the midrash on Leviticus, encouraging the reader to worry not just about marriages that are too close but also those that are too far.  This isolationist stance defines the self in opposition to the other, drawing a clear and impermeable boundary between the two.  

In this very same series of midrashim, however, we find an emphasis on the ma’aseh, the doing of Torah over knowledge, over interpretation, over learning.  It is what one does that makes one a worthwhile self.  This is what allows the development of an exegesis that renders lineage and hierarchical caste irrelevant.  Does it matter if one is a Kohen, Levi or Israel?  One midrash spells out in no uncertain terms that it does not.  Parentage, descent, nation are all nothing in the face of one who does the Torah (oseh et haTorah).  What does matter is goodness, righteousness, justice.  It is not the conditions of your birth, the boundaries of holiness or separation or geography that create this self, it is what you do.  Ultimately we are taught that this is how it can come to pass that even a Gentile who does the Torah, behold he is like a High Priest (Kohen Gadol).  

Setting aside notions of yichus—of family, descent, status and identity—leaves us vulnerable and permeable.  If not that, then what?  And if we are our ma’aseh, what if our ma’aseh is not quite good enough, just as our yichus was not quite good enough before that?  What does it mean to do the Torah in a progressive Jewish context where we would like to go to the theatre and the cinema and read The Symposium?  Here we may recall Leonard Cohen’s poetic wisdom,   

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Indeed, as much as this approach may be imperfect, it also holds great promise.  The question of what one’s ma’aseh is or should be, the notion of  oseh/osah et haTorah (one who does the Torah) is a challenging and meaningful one.  This is not some thing, some activity or task or label, that one may tick off a list or fill into a form or retroactively invalidate.  These are questions whose only possible answer is not an endpoint but a process of thoughtful inquiry and meaningful living.  ‘To walk in them . . . that one might live through them’ (Lev. 18:4,5).

Dr Laliv Clenman
April 2010



1 See yMegillah 4:10 75c: Midrash Tannaim Devarim 18:9 and mMegillah 4:9.
2See for example, Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer (Heiger) – Chorev Chapter 35:17 Genesis Rabbah 82:8 (Albeck) Genesis Rabbah 84:21 (Albeck): Tanhuma Buber Vayeshev 10 Pirqei d'Rabbi Eliezer (Heiger) Chorev Perek 37. 
3Sifra (Torat Kohanim) to Leviticus Acharei Mot Pereq 13, Weiss ed. 85d-86d.  I would especially like to thank Student Rabbis Kate Briggs, Lea Mühlstein, Peter Radvanszki and Andrea Zanardo of the Leo Baeck College third year Midrash class for their always thoughtful and inspiring discussions on of this section of Sifra.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.