Torah Ecology: Shemini (Lev 9:1-11:47)

A Tale of Two Trees (Gen 2:4-3:24)

Relationship, as psychologists tell us, depends as much on separation between entities as it does on connection. The Torah is a story of two trees and three domains. Through the symbolism of the two trees, it tells us how the domains are similar, how they are different and how they relate.

Understanding the domains and relationships set out in the second and third chapters of Genesis is a foundation to understanding the book of Leviticus, in particular the portion this week, Shemini.

In the second and third chapters of Genesis/Bereishit, the Torah identifies three domains:

  • Transcendence/G-d
  • Creation/Nature (earth, air and water and the life in them)
  • Human

The story in these chapters tells us that Transcendence, although part of creation through free choice as when G-d walks in the Garden, is not controlled by the processes of creation.

The story also tells us that human beings become god-like with respect to moral reasoning and decision-making capability — but differ from G-d in that post “exile,” they are part of nature.

G-d tells Adam and Eve that if they eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden, they will surely die (מוֹת תָּמוּת). Instead, when the human beings eat from that Tree, not only they but all of creation become subject to the processes of nature. This tells us that human beings are like the rest of nature and all of nature, all creatures, every plant and every cell, differs from G-d in this critical way.

Adam and Eve do not eat from the Tree of Life and Death, and the expulsion from the Garden with keruvim (cherubs) guarding the entry against their return tells us they never will. Death is part of the life of every organism.

It’s tempting to say that while human beings are like the rest of creation in being subject to life and death, they differ from it in their capacity for moral reasoning. There is evidence to suggest that is the biblical point of view, and it is the ability for moral reasoning that privileges humans over the animal world. The symbolic evidence for this claim is Adam and Eve’s awareness of their sexuality as a moral, not an instinctual, issue.

While death is part of life for humanity, differentiating human beings from G-d, moral decision-making capability symbolized in sexual awareness differentiates humans from the rest of nature, specifically animals.

At the same time, this differentiation isn’t categorical, and an animal, the snake, is also accountable for the transgression in the Garden.  It is, perhaps, best to leave the boundary between humanity and nature less focused, noting only that humanity has a defined role with regard to Transcendence, nature and other living beings, which we discover as we read the rest of the Torah. The Torah describes correct human relationships with these other domains, tested with a local community  (Israelites) after the failure of globalism.

The Garden is an ideal world where all creatures live in harmony, and there is no bloodshed and no death. Adam and Eve share this space not only with the rest of creation but with Transcendence as G-d walks through the Garden. In exile, the boundaries between domains become sharper as relationships intensify and become more complex, centering around life, death, blood, food, sexuality and the capacity for moral reasoning.

G-d is not part of the cycle of life and death, but the rest of nature is; yet there are also divisions within the world of nature. In the new creation post-flood, humans are alienated from their environment, engaging in hard labor to reap benefits from an unyielding earth. Mirroring the divine-human relationship, the relationship with the animal kingdom is defined by life and death and who controls the boundary:

Gen 9:3-4: “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered.  Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all …” וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם, יִהְיֶה, עַל כָּל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל כָּל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם; בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל-דְּגֵי הַיָּם, בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ. כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה:  כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל.

Miscellaneous Notes on Genesis/Bereishit 

1) Food and eating (Adam and Eve eat from the Tree) generate the chain of events leading to boundary-setting focused around life, death, blood, food, sexuality and the capacity for moral reasoning.

2) Self-aware sexuality symbolizes the transition to moral reasoning and decision-making capability. Where G-d “creates” life, human beings “beget,” a function of relationship.

3) Humans in the post-deluvian world are permitted ALL living creatures for food. We know from Gen 7:2-3 that these creatures include those that are “impure:”

“Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the beasts that are not clean two [and two], each with his mate…of the fowl also of the air, seven and seven, male and female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth” (מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ. גַּם מֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, לְחַיּוֹת זֶרַע, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ).

This week’s portion, Shemini, brings in a host of dietary prohibitions related to “impure” creatures in the animal domain (land), the bird domain (air) and the domain of fishes (water). I explain these new instructions by pointing out that the prohibitions are delivered not to all humanity but to a local community, the Israelites, as part of instructions that define not only their relationships with creation and Transcendence but their task in the world.

Shemini Actualizes The Story

Shemini actualizes through regulations in a local community the relationships between domains put forward in the Garden creation story.

Leviticus 9 and 10 deal with the priests, who operate at the boundary between life and death, creation and Transcendence. Leviticus 11 deals with the Israelites as they come up against the same boundary with regard to animal consumption. In this portion, we see repeated use of the terms holy, pure and impure.

What do these terms mean? The explanation above of chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis helps with definitions.

Holiness. Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, gaining the capability of moral reasoning. The holiness regulations of Leviticus actualize the symbolism of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden story. Holiness in Leviticus is associated with morality, volitional issues. Now that the human being has the capacity for moral reasoning and is responsible to exercise it, holiness regulations show human beings how to choose correctly in exercising their capacity. The intent of these regulations is to transform the Israelites into a holy people, people exercising moral judgment in the real world beyond the Garden.

We also learn that holiness is a reciprocal process, a relationship. G-d makes the Israelites holy in the sense that G-d provides the laws, the path to holiness. Through their action, the Israelites sanctify G-d or make G-d holy. Following the death of Aaron’s sons, Moses says to Aaron: “This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified (made holy), and before all the people I will be glorified” (הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד).

Purity. Adam and Eve do not eat from the Tree of Life and Death. Their action and consequent expulsion from the Garden make all creation subject to the processes of nature, including sexuality for procreation, and death. The purity regulations of Leviticus and other sections of the Torah detail these processes to include child-birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions and leprosy (organic decay), all non-volitional matters, in the language of the Torah, purity issues.

The meaning of the Tree of Life and Death in Genesis is actualized in Leviticus in the purity regulations dealing with natural processes that generate temporary impurity. Purity regulations govern how to reestablish a state of purity to allow close contact with G-d. Following these regulations establishes a ritual space where, for a time, the Israelite is more god-like, temporarily pure and holy as G-d is both pure and holy.

While purity is not a moral issue per se, these regulations are an inextricable part of expanding the domain of holiness in the world. Our bodies which are subject to natural law differentiate us from Transcendence — but without them we would have no opportunity to transform ourselves into holy people, broadening the domain of holiness in the world.

We also see that as much as blood was absent from the narrative in Genesis 2-3, it continues a journey toward omnipresence in these three chapters that make up Shemini, occurring 6 times:

  • 3 times referring to purifying the altar
  • 1 time referring to the burnt offering
  • 1 time referring to the peace offering
  • 1 time referring to the missing goat of the sin offering

As the priests operate at the boundary between life and death and creation and Transcendence on behalf of the Israelites, blood is a boundary issue. It represents life, but outside of a living creature represents death. It purifies in a ritual setting but outside of cultic worship creates impurity.

In the symbolic shorthand of the Torah, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis tells us how human beings are like G-d. The Tree of Life and Death tells us how they are different from G-d. As a bloodless “meal” generates the events that led to this situation (eating from the Tree), blood-filled meals centered around the altar represent a path to repair. Since a human being generated the crack in creation, human life is due for the repair — but G-d substitutes animals for the Israelites.

The precariousness of this substitution is evident in the story of Nadav and Abihu in 9:23-10:20, a continuation of the narrative of Aaronide decline that began in Exodus 32. Just as many of the Children of Israel died at the hand of the Levites that day for the sin of the Golden Calf, so the sons of Aaron die on this day for the sin of “strange fire.” Just as the boundary-crossing action of Adam and Eve precipitated an irreparable rupture in the relationship between G-d and creation, Aaron’s action in leading the people in worshiping the calf precipitated irreparable damage in the relationship between the Aaronides, the priests who navigate at the boundary of life and death,  and G-d.

The careless, boundary-crossing action of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, reveals a familial flaw, and they themselves become the atoning sacrifice, a sin offering, as we learn when Moses tells their relatives to remove the ashes outside the camp just as they do the sin offering.

As fire comes forth from before the Lord and consumes the burnt offering and fat on the altar in Lev 9:24, fire comes forth from before the Lord and devours Nadav and Abihu. Again, the imagery of eating accompanies the fact of lives that include death:

Lev 10:2 – And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD (וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה).

Ex 24:17 – And the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel – (וּמַרְאֵה כְּבוֹד יְהוָה, כְּאֵשׁ אֹכֶלֶת בְּרֹאשׁ הָהָר, לְעֵינֵי, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל).

If the Tabernacle is the Garden, and the altar in the middle of it is the Tree in the middle of the Garden, the priests standing in for the people of Israel are Adam and Eve. Their “strange fire” parallels eating from the Tree, bringing about a cataclysmic result, this time suffered by the priests, not the Israelites whom they represent and not all of creation. Aaron understands the nature of this transgression and priestly responsibility in it as they represent and substitute for the people, even for all creation. He learned the lesson of the Calf and accepts the consequence, standing in silence when Moses tells him not to mourn his sons but to leave that to the Israelite community.

Priests in Shemini

“Shemini details two sets of laws, laws for the priests related to sacrificial worship and laws for the Israelites related to what living creatures they can eat. The rationale for the dietary laws is very explicit: “For I am the LORD that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי). Gen 11:45. From this we understand that the Israelites’ job is to become a holy people.

So, too, is the “job” of the priests explicit and the reasons for the regulations that apply to them: “that you die not…that you may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the impure and the pure…that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.” (Lev:9-11). The purity regulations preserve the lives of those who operate at the boundary, they provide the training and knowledge necessary to differentiate between the pure and the impure, and they prepare the priests to be Israel’s teachers as they take a leadership role in the transformation of the people.

In the Torah universe, when one approaches G-d, one must be as “like” G-d as possible. G-d is holy, and the Israelites have the potential for holiness. G-d is pure, that is, not subject to the processes of nature, to birth and death. While nothing that lives can escape impurity, subjection to the processes of nature, impurity is a temporary and changeable state except for certain animals who are permanently impure for reasons I’ll examine below. Ritual is a mechanism that allows a person to be pure for a space in time. Time (often 8 days), water, blood and changing to special garments effect the transformation to a state of purity.

But like the two Trees in the Garden, holiness and purity are inextricably linked. Without a body subject to impurity, there is no opportunity to exercise moral decision-making capability that leads to holiness. Without moral decision-making capability, a human being has only instinctual awareness of life and death and no need or ability to transcend that dimension through ritual. In a cost-benefit analysis, a human being can as well be the sacrifice as any other animal.

Torah aims to bring the Israelite close to G-d by transforming the Israelite into a god-like being, both holy (making right moral decisions) and pure (temporarily beyond the processes of birth and death and decay). This transformation places the worshiping Israelite temporarily back in the Garden, a frame where all of creation lives in harmony and co-extensively with G-d and the rest of creation. The ritual frame actualizes memory, generating the energy to extend the domain of holiness in the world.

As I seek to understand the mechanism of sacrifice, I find it difficult to understand the idea of activating the harmony of the Garden with its co-extensive domains and bloodlessness on the basis of a blood-filled sacrificial ritual. As the paradox that sustaining life requires taking life is insoluble, perhaps too, there is no resolution to the paradox embedded in these rituals other than to recognize them as part of a struggle toward extending the boundaries of holiness in the real world in which we live beyond the Garden.

Animal Food in Shemini

While the choice of what to eat is a matter of holiness (volitional), the state of being in creation generates impurity and is a matter of purity (non-volitional).

Some creatures are impure by definition, and the Torah specifies them by class defined by domain or environment, earth, air and water. These creatures are forbidden to the Israelite as food in this new set of prohibitions related to meat-eating.

  • Lev 11:1-8 – earth creatures you can eat and 4 exceptions
  • Lev 11:9-12 – water creatures you can eat and those you cannot, including swarming creatures in waters
  • Lev 11:13 -19 – air creatures (fowl); Lev 20-25 swarming winged insects with 4 exceptions
  • Lev 11:26-28 – earth creatures you cannot eat including swarming things with specifics

Generally the Torah detests “swarming” creatures, whether on the land, in the waters or in the air. I have the thought that “swarming” suggested chaos and lawlessness, generating horror in the Israelite imagination.

Water creatures are the most vague, the only category without specific examples to illustrate it. In “Food Regulation in Biblical Law,” submitted to the Harvard Law School, Wendy Ann Wilkenfeld summarizes the many theories offered through history about the meaning of these dietary prohibitions. In that paper, she reports Jacob Milgrom’s comments that the ancient Israelites had limited knowledge of fish and their habits since they did not have a lot of access to fish for geographic and cultural reasons.

While the lists of forbidden earth and air creatures (birds) are more specific, there are no category specifics offered for air creatures except for insects. The birds mentioned, however, are all birds of prey (Lev 11:13-19).

Similarly, animals on paws of Lev 11:27 and animals without the dual traits of chewing their cud and cloven feet are either carnivores, omnivores or while technically herbivores, occasionally eat other creatures (Lev 11:4-11:8).

It’s tempting to say the guiding principle is that impure creatures and thus the creatures forbidden to the Israelites for consumption are those which eat other creatures and the animals permitted for consumption are herbivores.  This observation connects again to the second and third chapters of Genesis where all creatures, including humans, were vegan.

I think, though, that creatures are permitted or forbidden based on whether or not they eat blood, which a predator, omnivore, carnivore or occasional carnivore does. Blood is forbidden for all humanity, not just Israelites, since “the life is in the blood.” In a further elaboration for Israelites striving for holiness, animals who eat blood are impure and prohibited to them. The blood prohibition, then, is a paradoxical statement of reverence for life.

My intuition tells me that much of the cultic system is a framework for dealing with the fact of bloodshed in the world including the blood shed involved in eating other living creatures. It deals with the central paradox of life that incontrovertibly includes death, that in eating, we take life, a fact that requires atonement, a restoration of balance and harmony between domains.

The dietary regulations present a measured approach to conscious choice eating rather than a totalitarian approach. This measured approach is, perhaps, a statement of some humility before the mystery and paradox of life in which sustaining life requires taking life. There is no escape from that paradox, and atonement for the inevitable sins against life we commit in being part of nature is necessary.

On the larger scale, the atonement is for the human action that created this situation for all creation, and human life is what is due as repayment, making animal sacrifice an act of compassion toward G-d’s people. This act of compassion preserves in life those whose job it is to enlarge the boundaries of holiness in creation, creating an ever-larger framework for a harmonious relationship with the rest of creation and Transcendence.

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