Thursday, March 22, 2012

Between Afghanistan and Toulouse: VaYikra as Dorian Gray

It’s been a tough fortnight: Last week, a US soldier, SSgt Bales, sent to Afghanistan by my country, cold bloodedly massacred 16 Afghanis in their homes. This week a French Al Qaeda supporter cold bloodedly killed 4 of my people, of them 3 children. These two acts sear the mind and break the heart. Horror, shame, grief and fear have been coursing through the heart this week. Out of those emotions, though, ethical questions are raised: Do I bear a modicum of responsibility for the actions of SSgt Bales? Do the deaths of French citizens I have never met relate to me more than other deaths this week?
Cast largely, these events raise the basic questions of solidarity and collectivity:
Towards whom do I owe collective responsibility? Regarding whom do I feel collective grief? In other words: who is my we?

Turning to the Parasha to serve as a sounding board for these questions, one might be disheartened: it is the opening of the book of VaYikra (Leviticus), that antiquated collection of priestly laws. But “Blessed is the Lord who gave us Torah, and who gave us Scholars to interpret it”, for Prof. Jacob Milgrom, the pre-eminent scholar of Leviticus, comes to the rescue. As a teenager in Jerusalem, I used to fix Prof. Milgrom’s Commodore 64 computer. He in exchange would teach me VaYikra.
For Milgrom:
Values are what Leviticus is all about. They pervade every chapter and almost every verse. Underlying the rituals, the careful reader will find an intricate web of values that purports to model how we should relate to God and to one another.
Anthropology has taught us that when a society wishes to express and preserve its basic values, it ensconces them in rituals. How logical! Words fall from our lips like the dead leaves of autumn, but rituals endure with repetition. They are visual and participatory. They embed themselves in memory at a young age, reinforced with each enactment. (Introduction to Leviticus: A Continental Commentary)

Using our knowledge of Mesopotamian religion, Milgrom contrasts Leviticus’ Priestly theology with the basic tenets of pagan religion:
Israel’s neighbors believed that impurity polluted the sanctuary. For them the source of the impurity was demonic. Therefore, their priests devised rituals and incantations to immunize their temples against demonic penetration. Israel, however, in the wake of its monotheistic revolution, abolished the world of demonic divinities. Only a single being capable of demonic acts remained – the human being. […] Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans by pagan society. Not only can one defy God but, in Priestly imagery, one can drive God out of his sanctuary. In this respect, humans have replaced demons.

Milgrom unpacks the ritual of the Purification offering (קורבן חטאת, described in Vayikra 4) in which “purging blood” is sprinkled, not on the sinner, but rather on the sanctuary altar. Milgrom contends that:

The rationale of the purification [חטאת] offering [is that] the violation of a commandment generates impurity and, if severe enough, pollutes the sanctuary from afar. This imagery portrays the Priestly Picture of Dorian Gray. It declares that while sin may not scar the face of the sinner, it does scar the face of the sanctuary. In the Priestly scheme, the sanctuary is polluted (read: society is corrupted) by brazen sins (read: the rapacity of the leaders) and also by inadvertent sins (read: the acquiescence of the “silent majority”), with the result that God is driven out of his sanctuary (read: the nation is destroyed). [Leviticus: A Continental Commentary, pg. 31-32]

Milgrom and Leviticus offer us powerful imagery, laden with value-assumptions, with which to reframe the question of collective responsibility. A “priestly reading” of this week’s news would suggest that SSgt Bales’ actions polluted the American sanctuary, thus implying our collective responsibility towards his act. An obligation ensues for myself and my fellow American to contribute towards purging the altar.
In discussing this question, a Bronfman alumna reminded me this week that we must be careful in discuss our blame and shame of Bales’ actions. In questioning our share of the responsibility for his actions, we must neither clearing SSgt Bales of his own responsibility, nor fall to stereotypes of “unhinged” servicemen. The act of purging for Bales’ deeds might include increasing support for the families of US soldiers and support for Veterans (through lobbying and philanthropy), as well as celebrating the daily courageous acts of soldiers, not just their rare shameful ones.

The confluence of the murders in France and Afghanistan served as a reminder that as opposed to the Israelites in the desert, camped around the sanctuary, we live in a world of complex interlocking and competing identities. Each identity asserts a different communal “we”. We don’t have just one sanctuary towards which we are bound, and which collects our polluting and purging acts. We have many: personally I have a Jewish sanctuary, an Israeli one, an American one, a human one, a male one, and on and on. To some I feel strongly connected, donating my half-shekel loyalty tax annually and going on pilgrimages that strengthen my connection to it. Others I struggle with, only remembering that I am connected to them when acts of extreme shame or pride occur.
“Words fall from our lips like the dead leaves of autumn, but rituals endure with repetition.” Today we have no sanctuary rituals. All we have are the images and metaphors that our texts have bequeathed us, and our repetitive reading of them. In those texts, we can find powerful vessels through with to test our ethical behavior, and the way in which we identify with others. The image of the sanctuary accumulating our collective misdeeds reminds me that life is not just about surviving the “news cycle”, but about creating a holy community.
It is traditional to end Divrei Torah with a touch of redemption. I’m tempted to call for the messianic rebuilding of the sanctuary, but more relevant would be the traditional verse said at the end of the week of shiva mourning:
“Death shall be destroyed forever; and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…” (Isaiah 25:8)
בִּלַּע הַמָּוֶת לָנֶצַח, וּמָחָה אֲדֹנָי ה' דִּמְעָה מֵעַל כָּל-פָּנִים

Dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Sandler; Aryeh son of Jonathan Sandler, Gavriel son of Jonathan Sandler; Miriam Montsengo; as well as (as reported online): Mohamed Dawood son of Abdullah; Khudaydad son of Mohamed Juma; Nazar Mohamed; Payendo; Robeena; Shatarina daughter of Sultan Mohamed; Zahra daughter of Abdul Hamid; Nazia daughter of Dost Mohamed; Masooma daughter of Mohamed Wazir; Farida daughter of Mohamed Wazir; Palwasha daughter of Mohamed Wazir; Nabia daughter of Mohamed Wazir; Esmatullah daughter of Mohamed Wazir; Faizullah son of Mohamed Wazir; Essa Mohamed son of Mohamed Hussain; Akhtar Mohamed son of Murrad Ali. 

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | VaYikra 2012 | Text and the City