Sunday, April 02, 2006


Beginning the Book of Leviticus

This past week was the beginning of the reading from the Book of Leviticus in the Jewish yearly/three-yearly cycle of Torah readings.

I thought I would remind y'all of my words on the subject regarding, in part, what Levitical morality is and is not. I would also like to remind people of the subject of the quality of judgment as an ideology: remember the debate as to whether the judgment of Bush & CO or their ideology is worse? My answer to this is that bad judgment is part of their ideology (earlier follow up).

So what is the connection between all of these posts?

A critical aspect of any legal system is the interpretation of laws: i.e., judgment done by judges. This is explicitly stated in Deuteronomy and was, in general, a key concern of the D-school (as they intended to create a living culture based on common laws and mores) and their Rabbinic successors.

OTOH, most of those who want to establish "Biblical law" in this country, including "Levitical law" regarding sexual mores, really are not, as a matter of principle, interested in legal interpretations and judgment -- even as they want to establish "God's law", they somehow believe that law can never be adequately followed by man, so they have no motivation to ensure the law is followable: e.g., that, once the law is implimented, it doesn't result in everyone just being thrown in jail.

Consider the following situation. Suppose the legislature decided, in its infinite wisdom, to make sleeping on the side of your road a crime (e.g. to discourage vagrancy). Suppose you are stuck for hours in traffic and decide to pull over (when it is safe) to take a nap so you are safe to drive once the traffic clears. Now, if you are arrested and tried under the new law, you could explain to the judge (if not the arresting officer) the situation -- you either would have had to drive unsafely or break the law -- and the judge, using judgment would hopefully throw the case out (if not to rule the law as null and void until an exception for tired drivers could be worked in). However, the judge's ruling, would have to involve certain notions about judgment -- e.g. that some laws and principles (not driving while half-asleep) are more important than others in certain situations.

This is what Rabbis do all the time and have done throughout history -- intepreted the Law of Torah in order that people can actually live under this law. And some would argue that, e.g., if Hillel could be lauded for the Prosbul, then we can even, in seeming contradiction to Leviticus, have gay marriage in our religion and still be in concordance (and some, like me, would argue we must have gay marriage to be in concordance) with God's law. This is not, however, the position of many who want to institute "Biblical law" in this country: to them, in the situation described above, the only response the judge could have would be to throw his hands in the air and say "well, you're going to jail ... if you would have driven tired and hit someone, you'd go to jail -- but we don't expect anything else: it is futile to even think you could live under the law and not transgress it severely. fortunately, I'll send my son to jail for you in your place, so long as you have the proper system of beliefs": for a judge to do anything else would be "activist" (hence the right's dislike of "activist" judges -- it goes against their view of "morality" for a judge to actually try to make law work!).

Forget about how bizarre of a legal system that would be. What kind of moral system is that? What kind of system of values cannot tell you which values are more important? What kind of system of values surrenders when faced with the complexities of life? How is such a system that has such absolute and un-comparable values in which nothing is ok any different than moral relativism in which everything is ok?

And yet people with such "moral systems" are the one's our society (or at least our media) claim are the guardians of our morality?

Leviticus may be full of arcane laws and statutes, but at least there is an Oral Tradition that explains how we can live with them. Those who would cherry-pick all the fun, sexual stuff from that book (and ignore the important stuff about land use) all the while denying the importance of interpretation in any legal system, have no legitimate claim to wanting to legislate morality.

So why do these people who don't, at some level take their own morality seriously, get their "morality" taken so seriously by the media, one political party and people who want another political party to win more "religious" votes?

Sweet are the uses of perversity, for the bible thumpers at least. The use of sexual guilt, of making every single person feel shame and fear over one of the strongest, universally experienced mental states has always paid off for despots and their clerical thugs. Just as universally the military caste has been exempted from most of the sexual taboos. And the aristocracy and quite often the priestly class have had more flexible rules for themselves too. That leaves them to deprive only the hoi pol of any joy.
I suspect the shame and fear and differences in caste rules gives rise to the real sexual sins, using it as a means of enforcing power, depriving women of their rights, manipulation and cruelty. It was when I read about the use of rape on those defeated in battle that the scriptual prohabitions on same sex relationships made any sense at all. One suspects that in the hypercharged atmosphere of sex as a tool of power and violence that a joyous sexual relation between consenting adults would have seemed very odd if it was considered at all.

DAS, I'm ashamed to say that this is the first time I've been here. It is obviously a must read blog.

You are the one who gave me (then, EPT) that fritter recipe. I'm going to try them again. Maybe I'll get it right this time.
And the aristocracy and quite often the priestly class have had more flexible rules for themselves too. That leaves them to deprive only the hoi pol of any joy. - olvlzl

Thank you for coming.

This is an interesting point you make, although sometimes (e.g. historically in much of India -- in theory if not in practice -- and in ancient Sparta), the opposite holds: the priestly and/or aristocratic caste sets up for themselves stricter rules than are set up for the populace at large. This too can be a problem due to the hypocrisy it engenders as well as because, to approximately quote a Rabbinic saying, if the rich think they can survive on vegetables without meat, they'll think the poor can survive on stones.

OTOH, not all priestly castes are aristocratic. For instance the Osu of the Ibos and possibly originally (given, e.g., the origin story for those tribes as being punished for actions relating to, was it, Dina or Tamar? I should know this but I don't) the Levites (and Simeonites) of the Hebrews are priestly in the sense of their role in performing religious rituals but were outcastes and untouchable. One interpretation of Leviticus is that it represents, as part of the centralizing purpose of collecting the Hebrew mythos into the Torah (btw -- the Torah text assumes a familiarity with Hebrew myth and legend that we simply don't have today nor did even the Rabbis of the Talmud!), the effort to change the Levites from a caste of local untouchable priests assisting in worship at local sites as well as being considered "unclean" in part because they had the role of caring for contageous sick people into a network of assistants for a centralized system of worship based in the Temple.

In this context, the pairing of wealth redistribution with the priestly code makes sense (as well as it does in the more traditional Jewish view): the Levites were part of the poor who needed to be supported by society: perhaps when we interpret the Book of Leviticus as being about keeping a "clean" society, we are wrong. The point of Leviticus is integrating the "unclean" castes (e.g. sanctifying the priesthood, curing the lepers) into society and helping those who are outcaste become part of the community of God -- indeed the unclean priestly role of being physicians and visiting the sick becomes an honorable profession (and later Rabbinic teaching continues this trend in making visiting the sick one of the Talmudic 10 commandments -- see my previous post -- and we all know how Jewish mothers today feel about "my son the doctor" ;) ). I.e., the real message of Leviticus is one of inclusion not exclusion, and those who use this text to exclude people (e.g. gays) are missing the Spirit of the Law.

Jesus, himself possibly of priestly ancestry in spite of the geneology given in the New Testament, was probably speaking, in spite of his usual affinity with the "J" parts of the Torah, to this tradition (as well as to sectarian Jews of this tradition who, e.g., called themselves "the poor") when he declared "the poor in spirit" to be fortunate "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" as well as in doing the priestly duties of healing the unclean sick (e.g. lepers).
Which fritter recipe, btw? I don't remember this: it's been a while since I've made fritters of any sort. But now I'm craving them.

Hmmmm ... maybe next weekend, my girlfriend and I will have a special Sunday brunch?
Sephadic fritters. It was a couple of years ago on Eschaton.

The Spartans didn't seem to consider the helots as people so one doubts that they would have cared what they did among themselves as long as it didn't have an effect on the Spartans. It was certainly true that in other parts of Greece the taboos tended to be concerned with making certain that future citizens weren't penetrated.

Rules seem to have a way of being more flexible for upper classes. This can include priestly classes. Look at the Catholic clergy. Even when the hierarchs knew that they were breaking their vows they covered up for them. An interesting case of this is William O'Connell. It was widly known that he overlooked the marriage of his nephew, a priest who was a memeber of his inner circle, because his nephew knew that he had stollen money while the Archbishop of Portland, Maine. Also possibly because O'Connell had had numerous gay affairs. Cardinal Spelman is another such rule bender. And for no one more than himself. While strict adherence to the rule book has its uses, especially in nasty inter-clerical politics, the record of priestly sinning and hypocrisy is too strong to not see a trend.

I accept that in some societies, in some periods that the rules were strictly kept.

An interesting case is the case of James the brother of Jesus who according to sources strictly kept the rules for a priest of the Temple and who is even said entered the Holy of Holies. This would tend to support your point about Jesus. I'm suspicious though. When it comes to the Temple rites I'm with Isiah.

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His mother, she wanted him to be a doctor.

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