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The Idea of the Holy
into the heart of Torah
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re generally working our way through Leviticus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
As we journey our way through Leviticus, a few notes on where we are, at present:
First of all, remember back months ago, how we talked about how Leviticus is generally about the priestly agenda, with all that focus on the priests and the priestly sacrifices— this source is known as P, the priestly source.
Well, at Leviticus 17, that shifted.
I haven’t pointed that out so far because we actually went from Leviticus 16—the Yom Kippur ritual, very much a priestly concern with the cleaning the Temple’s Holy of Holies of tumah—to the Queer Things in Leviticus 18-20, and those each deserved their own deep dive.
But now, let’s pick up the map and have a look at where we we are.
There are, in fact, understood to be two authors of Leviticus: P, the Priestly Code folks, and… H. The Holiness Code people.
H is currently generally said to run from Leviticus 17-26. It’s a different author, with a different agenda.
In P, the priests guard holiness. They are ordained. They tend to the sacrifices, they guard the sanctity of the Temple. They are in charge of telling us if we have a disease that will confine us to the home, set us outside the camp, or whether it’s nothing serious.
But after the great crescendo of P going and protecting the ultimate sanctity—seeing after the atonement / cleansing of the Temple space and the people of Israel, it goes on pause for a moment.
And H enters the chat:
Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them:
You will be holy, for I, God your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)
Suddenly who gets to be holy is everybody. The WHOLE Israelite community.
And you will be holy. All of y’all.
And it’s not just about bringing sacrifices, either. Our conversation about holiness focuses on sexual safety/consent, economic justice, disability accessibility and inclusion, dealing ethically with one another, and a lot of other stuff that’s about… everybody. It’s much more democratic in vibe.
These people with the mic for Leviticus 17-26 are understood to be a different school from P, the priestly source. So it’s called H, the Holiness Code. Reread the verse quoted above and guess why.
I want very much to present to you a definitive timeline of P and H—who were these authors (singular or plural), which was written when, whether P was added to H or the other way around, and so forth. But there seems to be, still, some debate among scholars about that, as well as the role of the Biblical Book of Ezekiel, which shares much language with H.
On the one hand, there seems to be a good case to be made for H predating Ezekiel, whose prophesies are understood to date from 571 to 593 BCE. The First Temple was destroyed in in 586 BCE; Ezekiel was one of those sent to live in exile after the Babylonians captured Judea. (Generally, P is assumed to be pre-Exile, to date to during the First Temple.) Doesn’t solve the chicken-or-egg of P and H, but would give us someplace to land.
On the other hand, this stunning article from Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon argues that P, anyway, is early post-Exile, and is part of a heated political debate happening all over the Bible about whether or not to rebuild the Temple. And that—this is the 🔥 part—P is anti-Temple, they’re team “worship from the tent” tradition. The crux of the argument is that P’s use of the language of Ohel Moed/Tent of Meeting rather than mishkan/sanctuary is intentional polemic, and thus dates to the first couple of decades post-Exile. If so—well, notably H uses the Ohel Moed/Tent of Meeting language as well—in which case maybe P and H aren’t as far apart as they may have seemed.
As an aside, if you buy Dr. Sassoon’s argument, you will enjoy what he describes as “The most explicit statement of anti-Temple sentiment” in the Bible, whose “survival borders on the miraculous.” For, he says, “Isa 66:1 is an escapee whose kindred were probably stamped out once a Temple became the reality.”
ישעיה סו:א כֹּה אָמַר ה׳ הַשָּׁמַיִם כִּסְאִי וְהָאָרֶץ הֲדֹם רַגְלָי אֵי זֶה בַיִת אֲשֶׁר תִּבְנוּ לִי וְאֵי זֶה מָקוֹם מְנוּחָתִי.
Isa 66:1 Thus said God: The heaven is My throne And the earth is My footstool: What house could you build for Me? What place could serve as My abode [lit. resting place]? (Isaiah 66:1)
This is all like a tangent of a tangent at this point, but it’s fascinating, no?
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So remember at the beginning of Leviticus when we talked about chiasm? That literary motif where things are ordered so that the most important thing is in the middle, and things are layered or paralleled out from there: A-B-C-B-A, etc.
And if Leviticus is the middle book of Torah, well, Leviticus 19 is the middle chapter.
And you want to know what the middle verse is, don’t you?
The very very center of Torah, where all of those arrows are pointing, ultimately?
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am God.
That’s the core of the thing, kids.
And yes, of course Jesus was a fan of this verse (no, he did not “say,” it, he was quoting Torah, same as the verses just before it.), thought it one of our most key ones.
And then another Rabbinic Jew, a generation or two later, comes in with:
Rabbi Akiva taught: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus, 19)— This is the most important rule in the Torah." Ben Azzai says: "This is the book of chronologies of Adam" [is, rather].(Genesis, 5) (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 30b)
So Rabbi Akiva’s making the case that the creamy nougat center of Torah is the greatest principle of Torah. It tracks, especially since it’s such a good one. (Ben Azzai goes even harder, though—even better than loving your neighbor is being told again that we’re all descended from the one same common ancestor. We’re all related. We’re all kin.)
In any case, if there’s anything we can say about Leviticus 19:18, it’s this:
This is a good and important verse.
And this is what sits at the heart of Torah.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll spend some time with Leviticus 19.
There’s no need to rush through this; let’s pause and see what’s here at the center. We just climbed all those stairs to the roof, let’s look around and admire the view for a moment, shall we?
Sending many blessings of holiness in your day.
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💖 Sending a big pile of blessings and goodness your way. 💖
So on one foot, source criticism basically looks at the language of Torah to figure out where texts come from—two texts talking about the same topic but using different words may come from different places, eg. Like “E,” the source that uses “Elohim” for God’s name, or “J” which uses the Anglo Yud to try to allude to the Tetragrammaton—aka it’s the source that uses God’s holiest name, or D, which is in a couple of books.
I really believe, with my one true heart, that Jesus was a Rabbinic Jew/Pharisee/Tanna whatever you wanna call it; he engages text like one, and the Tzadokim/Sadducees try to play gotcha as though he is one. And imho he holds positions generally of the School of Hillel, and generally is arguing with positions held by the School of Shammai. And it’s possible that texts written down after the Jewish/Christian breakup portrayed those conversations (or the people in them) just slightly differently than how they happened—you know, same general conversation, just a different vibe? Less laughter in-between the barbs, maybe? Maybe a gentle contextual remark swept away? Just saying: how do you tell a story about your partner vs one about your ex? And by the time the Gospels were being written, Christians were intentionally distancing themselves from Jews, and Jews were intentionally distancing themselves from Christians. ANYWAY it’s not surprising that Jesus and Rabbi Akiva would be on the same page, here, really. Yes, you can talk about whether or not Torah has a key verse or two, and yes, Lev 19:18 might really be the one.