Parashat Emor

Image by kind permission of Colin Watson

Parashat Emor tells a fascinating and complex story. It’s the story of God and Moses, along with Aaron and the Israelites, trying to establish rules for their nascent society. They all need to find ways to adapt when their constitution meets the messiness of reality. Emor is among the clearest examples of Torah as a work in progress, a picture of the ongoing struggle to balance noble ideals with the practicalities of living with other people.

As usual, Emor is named for the opening words of the parashah, and the commandment Emor, ‘say’ to the priests, is critical to the unfolding of this story. This section of Leviticus forms part of the response to the disaster of the consecration ceremony recounted in Parashat Shemini, when two of Aaron’s sons were killed during a solemn communal moment. My colleague Dr Jennifer Verson wrote powerfully about Aaron’s silence in the face of this terrible event. There’s another silence haunting Parashat Shemini: the silence of Moses and Aaron who had the responsibility to inform all those participating in the ceremony of what was expected of them. Could the deaths have been averted if Nadav and Abihu had been told explicitly that it is forbidden to bring strange fire, or to serve at the altar while drunk? Perhaps they should have known without being told, but relying on ‘should have knowns’ falls short in a highly dangerous situation. In the aftermath, the Torah seems to become aware that in matters of holiness, we need to ‘say’ what the rules are.

Stating things in words is undeniably necessary, and yet, once we start to express grand ideals in terms of specific rules, the rules themselves take on a life of their own. Keeping the rules in detail becomes dominant even over the ideals that the rules were intended to express. In the opening section of Emor, we are reminded of the idealized value: the priests “must be holy to their God”. Being holy means they must be different, special, set apart from sources of pollution. The risks of mixing ordinary things with the holy sacrifices are all too apparent after their recent loss. But once we have verbalized and eventually written rules, we end up with unpalatable details of what this holiness implies. What started as a ritual separation becomes a value judgement.

Priests must limit their contact with death, but is it really wrong to participate in mourning rituals? Sexual connections should be an expression of our holiest selves, but the details of additional restrictions on the priests could easily be interpreted and applied in a misogynistic way, setting women’s sexuality in opposition to holiness. The priests should aspire to physical, bodily perfection to match their spiritual greatness, but it is never right to treat people with different and disabled bodies as lesser.

At the time these codes were created, the Israelites were trying to put words to a new reality, one where God’s presence is found in their midst, marked by complex sacrificial rituals. The priests, among the rest of the people, are tasked with acting in a holy way at all times. They need to reimagine the festival cycle in a way that works with these priestly rituals as a focus. Throughout Jewish history, we’ve had to adapt our understanding of holiness to new times. Even in Torah itself, the Israelites must transition from being a nomadic people with a portable Tabernacle, to settling in the land of Israel with a Temple at a fixed location in Jerusalem, meaning that most people will end up living at a distance from the centre. Exile and destruction brought further challenges to the core idea of being holy because God is holy. And we must continually adapt what it means to be holy in the modern world, with technologies and challenges that could hardly have been imagined by Moses and Aaron.

The development of the story in Emor illustrates the gaps between holiness itself, putting rules into words, and actually living in society and the world. In the middle of a section where various laws of holiness and ritual purity are laid out, we suddenly find an incident where a man gets into a fight and curses God’s name. The Israelites have no idea what to do. It was one thing to declare that it is forbidden to speak God’s name in this way, but the next stage is to decide what should be done if someone does break this central rule. The answer seems to be that the offender should be put to death by stoning. Leviticus 24 goes on to list a number of other crimes which deserve the death penalty or corporal punishment.

Emor takes us through the whole arc, from committing to the ideal of holiness, to attempting to define holiness in terms of rules stated in words, to dealing with the consequences when the rules are broken. It seems to conclude that the only way to ensure something is holy, meaning of highest possible importance, is to enforce the rules of holiness with violence. This conclusion is flawed before it is even formed. The whole idea of holiness is to elevate life and truth and stay away from violence, pollution and death. How can we follow the trajectory from the priests not even being allowed to participate in mourning rituals because of their connection to death, to a commandment to execute criminals? We cannot. There is no way to enforce holy behaviour by acting in total opposition to holiness.

The paradox of Emor helped to inspire the rabbis of history to make the death penalty so restricted it could essentially never happen, and to understand corporal punishment in terms of monetary fines. We can learn from their example that holiness must be expressed in words, rules and behaviour to be real, but ultimately, words, rules and behaviour may end up destroying what is truly holy, what lies beyond the power of expression.

Rachel Berkson, LBC rabbinical student