Archive for 3. Leviticus

Emor: Immediate Needs

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

“None shall defile himself for any person among his people . . “ (Vayikra 21:1)


At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read a set of laws which keep the kohanim, or priests, in a state of ritual purity and away from the ritual impurity of death. Thus, the verse above teaches that a kohen will not touch a dead body, and the verses which follow offer some exceptions for immediate family members. Yet things are not so clear cut, and Rashi brings an close reading from an earlier text which illustrates an important ethical principle:

none shall defile himself for any person among his people. . .

[this means] while the dead one is among his people. It excludes one who has no one to bury him.

Let’s unpack what Rashi means: he’s reading the phrase “among his people” to mean that if there is a family member or somebody else (that is, there are people around)  to bury the body, then the priest should not come into contact with ritual impurity. Yet Rashi says the priest must bury the met mitzvah, literally the “corpse which is commanded,” that is, someone with no family or “people” to arrange the funeral. It’s a mitzvah, or commandment, to attend to such a person, even for the priest.

OK, so far we’ve learned that the priest has to step in if nobody else is around, but I don’t think this is just about burials- though it’s also certainly true that it is a profound act to honor the dead by attending funerals and making sure that even those without family have dignified interments. Having said that, let’s take a step back and look at the general idea: even one with strict rules and boundaries and responsibilities, such as the priests of ancient Israel, had to step out of their customary role to attend to the immediate need of someone who had no one else.

Seen this way, the text applies not just at the end of life but throughout our journeys. How often is there someone in emotional, financial, spiritual or practical need right in front of us? Yet it’s all too easy to “not defile ourselves” with people’s challenges  and problems, retreating into our roles and jobs and schedules and errands and emails and myriad distractions, instead of attending to others when the need is urgent. Even the priest had to attend to the dead if themitzvah was unavoidable; should the rest of us do less for the living?

Shabbat Shalom,



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Kedoshim: Love and Justice

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot- Kedoshim

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:18)

Greetings from the relatively calm Hudson Valley.

As I write this, the city of Boston is on lock-down as the police search for one of the suspects in Monday’s terrible Boston Marathon bombing. The images from the Bay State greatly sadden me, if for no other reason than I recognize some of the areas now filled with armed police. (I lived in the Boston area for several years before coming to Poughkeepsie.)  It’s almost impossible for me to understand how a soul can be twisted and deformed to the point of terrorism. Leaving a homemade bomb in the middle of families and bystanders is an act beyond moral comprehension or ability to imagine.

Violence and cruelty have always been part of the human experience, but they are not the whole of the human experience. Love is also definitive of humanity; one need only think of the utterly brave and selfless responders (both professionals and ordinary folks) who rushed towards the explosions in Boston and Texas, ready to give of themselves to save and comfort the injured and frightened. We read in this week’s Torah portion that an aspect of kedusha, or holiness, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. As Rabbi Joe Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis pointed out earlier this week, our “neighbor” may be the person nearby who all of a sudden needs our love and compassion, though we have never met before.

Rabbi Akiva famously taught that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the great principle of the Torah, but its application requires effort and reflection. The Torah Temimah, an anthology of rabbinic references to Torah verses, notes two separate texts from the Talmud where “love your neighbor” is used to clarify that the execution of criminals is to be done in the swiftest way possible. In other words, love does not set aside the demands of justice, but guides us in the application of justice. This, to me, is quite profound: the Talmud recognize that even a criminal deserving of death is, in a very real sense, our neighbor, and not exempted from our moral obligations and sensibilities. We do not call for bloody retribution, but for justice, tempered not by mercy, as such, but by a concern for retaining our own humanity in the face of cruelty and murder.

If the Boston bomber is taken alive, let him be tried and punished fairly, precisely to show him, the world and ourselves we are never who our enemies say we are. Love- for the stranger, the neighbor and even the one deserving of severe punishment- will be our redemption, and is, I believe, stronger than any bomb or weapon. The love demanded by the Torah is neither foolish nor naive; it is, instead, our light and guidance in navigating a sometimes cruel and painful world.

With prayers for a Shabbat of healing and hope,




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Shemini: Shouting and Singing

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

David whirled with all his might before the Lord; David was girt with a linen ephod. Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and with blasts of the horn. (2 Samuel 6:14-15)

Good afternoon! It’s good to be back on this beautiful day after a Pesach break.

Our Torah reading this week, Shemini, deals with the laws of priestly offerings and the inauguration of Aharon and his sons into the priestly service. Two of his sons die while offering a “strange fire” upon the altar; this episode has elicited much commentary. This frightening intersection of holiness and mortal danger is echoed in the haftarah, which tells the story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem: a man named Uzzah accidentally touches the Ark and is struck as were Aharon’s sons.

So that’s one connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah. Yet the haftarah goes on to tell not only of Uzzah’s death but also of the joyous parade into Jerusalem; as in the verse above and other verses, David and all the people were dancing, shouting, playing music and eating festive foods along the way. While this behavior seems to get David into a spot of trouble at home, the people rejoice with him.

Perhaps in choosing this text for the haftarah, the ancient rabbis meant us to see a balance between the detailed religious laws of our Torah portion- and the priestly rituals in general- and the spontaneous, emotional outpouring of David’s joy before the Ark. He was honoring God and symbol of the covenant, and danced and sang without regard to decorum or status or self-consciousness- this, too, has always been part of the spirituality of Judaism.

Sometimes we need a fixed practice to bring us into a contemplative or grateful or humble stance, but sometimes we need to shout and dance because that’s the only proper response to the gift of life itself. Sometimes we need a composed prayer because the words won’t otherwise come, but sometimes we need to express the content of our souls, whether it be joy or gratitude or lament or praise. If even a king can dance and shout before the Divine, how much more the rest of us!

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayikra: Getting our Attention

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

“The Holy One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting . . . “ (Vayikra/ Leviticus 1:1)

Good morning!

The very first words of the book of Vayikra (and the first Torah portion of the same name) are unusual: God usually “speaks” to Moshe (vayidaber) but here God first “calls” to him, and then speaks to him. (Another unusual feature of the first verse is the small aleph at the end of the first word- see here for more on both themes.)

Now, it’s not the first time that God “calls” to Moshe; commentators note that the same word appears in connection with the burning bush (Ex. 3:4) and when Moshe goes back up Mt. Sinai after initial revelation (Ex. 24:16). You can find other interesting comparisons of who gets “called” (and why) here, but for today let’s note that both verbs- calling and speaking- connote communication, so perhaps the first is a matter of getting Moshe’s attention and the second is relaying specific content.

This is, of course, very common: we often call out to friends or family or complete strangers, to let them know we want their attention, and then begin to tell them something in its particulars: “hey you! move your car!” or even what I like to call the “Jewish intercom” of shouting across the halls to somebody in another office. Yet Moshe wasn’t navigating the streets or working in an office; he was already near the Tent of Meeting, which was filled with the Divine Presence. (See the end of the book of Exodus.)

In other words, humans are so distractible that even the greatest prophet, standing near the place where the Divine Presence was experienced by the camp of Israel, needed to be brought to attention before he could attune to the sacred (to paraphrase Michael Fishbane.) So if even Moshe- who knew the Holy One face to face (as it were)- had to be called, or perhaps focused, before he could hear or discern the voice from the Tent of Meeting, it reminds me how much more I have to focus myself before Torah study, prayer, mitzvot, acts of lovingkindness and the myriad other ways we experience that Presence in our day. To wit: while writing the two paragraphs above, I answered several other emails and instant messages which came in and then I came back to the task of writing a Torah commentary on the need to have more awareness of the sacred!

Moshe is us: we are all called to pay attention to the spiritual experience we might have in the very next moment. For us, there is no one Tent of Meeting at the center of the camp, so it’s up to each of us to find those places, people, moments, practices and texts which grab our attention, turn us away from the trivial and towards the things which most deeply ground us in a life that matters. As earthly beings, we will always feel pulled towards the next distraction (and there are millions more than in Moshe’s time) but as spiritual seekers we also have the possibility of hearing a quiet call, asking us to experience the Sacred and act accordingly.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Behar: A Radical Experiment

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month — the Day of Atonement — you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:9-10)

Greeting from the sunny and beautiful Hudson Valley! It’s been a busy week, to Albany (see the post-script below) to NYC and back over the past few days but we’re still three hours ahead of last week’s commentary.

I almost never use the weekly commentaries to respond to current controversies* but recently a prominent Jewish pundit said something which deserves to be looked at in the light of Torah.  A few weeks ago, shortly after President Obama voiced moral support for same-sex marriage, a great advocate for the Jewish people, Dennis Prager, wrote that  marriage equality is  “the most radical social experiment in modern history”- and let’s be clear, he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

While others have pointed out the absurdity of Prager’s claim regarding “modern history,” I’d rather cast my glance even further back, to the Torah itself, which certainly could not envision marriage equality but contains much more radical social experiments, such as the Yovel  [Jubilee year], described in the verse above from this week’s Torah reading. Every fifty years, indentured servants were set free, debts were forgiven, and land was returned to the families who originally owned it- now, that is a radical social experiment in an ancient world quite comfortable with rigid economic castes and inescapable social hierarchies.

Of course, ancient Israel also had social classes- the priests and the kingship, to name two obvious examples- but the larger point is that the Torah begins to actualize the idea that every person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image. (Cf Bereshit/Genesis 1.) In this week’s parsha, the law of the Yovel points towards a larger ethical concept: that there should not be permanent classes of rich and poor, and to that end, human dignity may be sometimes more important than property rights.  Again, that’s a far more radical concept even in contemporary times than marriage equality could ever be.

I would even say that although the Torah itself could not envision monogamous, egalitarian same-sex relationships (see more on this here), the Yovel can be interpreted as a step towards a more inclusive concept of human society, one in which all participants are given a more fair chance at productive participation. There are certainly passionate  religious arguments for and against various forms of marriage equality, but it seems to me that a basic teaching of the Bible is that all people matter, a basic teaching which gets expanded over time throughout Jewish thought, and that this larger moral concern affects how we interpret specific verses or traditions.

Properly understood, Judaism, evolving over time and enlarging  its world of ethical concerns, is perhaps the most radical social experiment of them all, because it asks us to live as if we might meet the Divine in any and all people, if we seek to live with openness, justice and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,


*an assertion to which some will doubtless respond: “what? never?” To which I say: “hardly ever!”

P.S.- Regarding that trip to Albany, you can see my invocation to the NY Senate here, in the first few minutes of the session. Senator Saland has some nice things to say afterwards.

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Emor: This Very Day

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portioni: Emor 

 On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations  . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:21)

Dear Friends: 

So sorry for my absence these past few weeks- glad to be back! 

This week an entire chapter of the Torah portion Emor is devoted to the Jewish calendar: Shabbat, the agricultural holidays, the counting of the omer,  Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur

The holiday of Shavuot is celebrated after a 7 week-period of counting; it is the festival of the first-fruits of summer, and also understood in later Judaism to be the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Note the verse above: after listing the various Temple rituals of Shavuot, the Torah tells us  that “on that same day” you will have a festive and sacred occasion. This phrase, “on that same day,” [b’etzem hayom] could mean “this very day,” or “that same day,” but the phrase is superfluous: we already know Shavuot is the fiftieth day of counting, so why tell us “that very day” is the same one as the holiday? 

It turns out one other holiday is celebrated b’etzem hayom

You shall not perform any work on that very day, for it is a day of atonement, for you to gain atonement before the Lord, your God.” (ibid 23:28)

Shavuot and Yom Kippur are linked by a short phrase which seems to indicate some immediacy or urgency to the experience of the day. One line of interpretation (found in Itturei Torah) compares these two holidays to other Jewish holidays like Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukkah, each of which commemorates a past event. The two holidays celebrated on “that very day,” however, can be seen as experiences of the present: Shavuot is the holiday of accepting the Torah- not as a text, per se, but as a framework for living Judaism, while Yom Kippur is about accepting responsibility for the moral content of our lives and repairing relationships as necessary- always an immediate concern! 

Seen this way, the acceptance of Torah on Shavuot is something affirmed not just every year, but every time we choose or “do Jewish.” It’s not about what happened then but what happens now, for Torah is a living inheritance, something we have to encounter and make alive, b’etzem hayom, on this very day. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Vayikra: Knowing to Return

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: VayikraShabbat HaHodesh

“When a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord by dealing deceitfully with his fellow in the matter of a deposit or a pledge, or through robbery, or by defrauding his fellow, or by finding something lost and lying about it; if he swears falsely regarding any one of the various things that one may do and sin thereby —  when one has thus sinned and, realizing his guilt, would restore that which he got [through deceit] . . . . .” (Vayikra./ Leviticus 5:21-23)

Greetings on this beautiful afternoon! 

Sorry about last week, we’ve been having education director candidates visiting TBE all month and it’s been a bit crazy around here. 

But we’re back with everybody’s favorite book of laws and rules in the Torah-Vayikra– which of course is largely concerned with priestly offerings and rituals. These can be quite confusing in their details, especially since none of us has ever seen most of these rituals ever practiced; they were suspended when the ancient Temple was destroyed almost 2000 years ago. 

Yet while not currently practiced (which, as a vegetarian of 31 years, I’m quite OK with), the laws of the priestly can be studied for their ethical and spiritual content, since humans still have the need to celebrate, repent, and atone. Above we have verses which deal with sins against others in matters of deceit, especially in the realm of money and property. What’s interesting about these verses is the implication that at some point after a person tells a lie or does something deceitful, there can be some sort of internal reorientation towards reconciliation and restitution. 

The translation doesn’t really help matters here: can it be that one would lie or steal and not know one’s guilt? Well, sure- people can deceive themselves as well as others, if not better. Our friend Rashi, on the other hand, doesn’t think this means that one didn’t know one was guilty all along, but rather that at some point there is a recognition of the possibility and need for t’shuvah, returning and reconciliation. Then, after one has had a change of heart, as it were, then one can make restitution according to the laws as cited in the verses above. 

Of course, the point of the verses above isn’t about restitution in tort law, it’s about how a human heart is not restricted by past mistakes. At any point, any one of us could realize that there’s something we for which we need to do t’shuvah-  not because we didn’t “know” via intellect of our imperfections, but because emotionally, we had not yet felt the desire to reawaken ourselves and reinvigorate our spiritual commitments. That’s the point of these verses: t’shuvah happens inside first, and can lead to actions which bring wholeness to ourselves, our relationships and communities. The ritual is the outward affirmation of an internal change that’s already begun to unfold. This idea- that a desire for change arises in the heart and properly channeled can change the world- is a core principle of Judaism, then as now. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Bechukotai: Water from Within

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

Good afternoon!

The Torah portion Bechukotai is difficult, with its overt promises of earthly reward for the righteous and corresponding terrible consequences for the wicked and disloyal. Most adult observers of the human condition realize that life is not so simple: the good often suffer, and nasty people sometimes live long and prosperous lives. (Whether those lives are fully lived is a separate question.)

Fortunately, we do not read Bechokotai alone: we read it with an accompanying haftarah [selection from the prophetic texts], which at first glance seems to reinforce the image of God as stern judge, convicting the guilty:

“I the Lord probe the heart,
Search the mind —
To repay every man according to his ways,
With the proper fruit of his deeds. . . . . .” (Jeremiah 17:10)

Yet in the same passage, the prophet offers a strikingly different image of Divinity:

“O Hope of Israel! O Lord!
All who forsake You shall be put to shame,
Those in the land who turn from You
Shall be doomed men,
For they have forsaken the Lord,
The Fount of living waters.” (17:13)

The Hebrew is poetic in the original, so where the JPS translation, above, suggests that those who turn from God are “doomed men,” but more literally, the verse says something like “those who turn from you will be written in the land.” Perhaps this refers to burial, or perhaps simply contrasts a static, fixed inscription in the earth with the “fount of living waters,” which suggests a dynamic, sustaining, growing, flowing sense of the Holy. In other words, the Biblical texts do not only suggest that God is the judge- an anthropomorphic image- but also a well of water, the source of life itself, something to be drawn upon, something which rises up from within.

The contemporary Jewish theologian Art Green famously contrasted “vertical metaphors” for God- that is, a God Who is “up” or “out” or “above us”, coming “down to the mountain” – with the images in the Torah that suggest an indwelling Presence: wells, rivers, living water. This, in turn, suggests a spiritual experience that unfolds from the inside out, which makes the stern Judge of Bechokotai part of our own inner reality. If God is like water- welling up from deep places- then the consequences of sin, as such, are not externally imposed punishments, but a drying up of the soul, cut off from its deep sustenance.

This comes back to our haftarah, which offers another image of life-giving water:

“Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.” (17:7-8)

That’s the point, I think: digging a bit deeper, into the place of transcending the ego, the narrow self, is what allows us to bring forth the fruit- that is, to bring forth our deeds of compassion, patience, and justice. Biblical images of judgment evoke a deep sense of accountability, and are entirely appropriate at times, but the prophet’s image of God as the Living Water remind us that it’s what we bring forth in our actions which is the true test of faith.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Kedoshim: Rise Up

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Kedoshim

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. . . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:32) 

Shalom again, after our Passover break!

This week we read the Torah portion Kedoshim by itself- usually it’s doubled up with its preceding portion, Acharei MotKedoshim has both ethical and ritual laws, including some of the most beautiful principles of Judaism, among which is the verse quoted above, which teaches us to respect, in word and deed, our elders. In our youth oriented media culture, that itself is an important ethical norm, but the ancient rabbis go deeper than manners in understanding this commandment. 

First, we note how the verse above, like many of the verses in this Torah portion, has the phrase “I am the Lord” [ani Adonai] appended to it. There are various interpretations of this phrase, and its variants, attached to different verses, but in this case, at least one ancient source understands this as God saying, as it were : “You shall rise before the aged and show deference do the old, and fear the Holy One, as I, the Holy One, have also done.”

 More explicitly, this midrash* imagines that God is saying: I mention Myself because I was the first to do the mitzvah of rising before an elder. This refers back to Avraham, who was visited by three angels in his tent as he was recovering from his circumcision. 

Now, on the one hand, this is a wildly inventive midrash, if for no other reason than our notion of mitzvah as “commandment” in the sense of having a “commander” is quite altered by imagining that the commander observes the same mitzvot that we do. Leaving those theological issues aside, however, we can still take this image another way: thinking of the Holy One “rising” before Avraham, as it were, also imagines that the most exalted One is also the most humble One. The philosophers posit God as the First Cause, or the Ground of Being, but for the ancient rabbis, God was the One who exemplified the path of humility, care, compassion and fierce commitment to justice. 

To put it another way: in a consumer culture, we value people by what they produce, we notice people by what they consume, and we’re always looking for the next big thing. Torah turns that on its head: we value people because of what they might teach, and revere those who came before. When the rabbis imagine God rising before Avraham, they imagine a world in which we, too, see all people as made in the Divine Image, and must act accordingly. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


*This text is from the Jerusalem Talmud, but I found it in the anthology called Torah Temimah. 

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Metzorah: The Cycle of Return

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzorah

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘This shall be the ritual for the metzorah on the day of his purification. . . . ‘ “ (Vayikra/ Leviticus 14:2)

It’s good to be back at my desk after a week away, but I do wish I had an easier Torah portion with which to re-start my commentaries. The portion Metzorah and the previous portion, Tazria (the two are usually read together), are difficult sections of the Torah because the laws and ideas of ritual impurity are so seemingly foreign to a modern sensibility. The ancient rabbis saw ritual impurity- tumah– as indicative of a moral flaw or failing, but the Torah itself doesn’t seem to condemn the ritually impure person. This impurity separates a person from the holy areas of the Israelite camp, or the entire camp itself, and comes about through contact with death, or bodily fluids, or outbreaks on the skin. Yet in the biblical period, these things seem to happen as part of the cycle of life and death, birth and bleeding, without connection to sin, as such.

Please note: I am not saying the ancient rabbis are wrong when they connect tumah with ethics. There are layers upon layers of interpretation, but for today, it’s enough to note that the laws of the metzorah describe a cycle of separation and reintegration, rooted in a holistic conception of body and soul and community, which strikes me as an important corrective to more ethereal conceptions of spirituality. The metzorah is a person who hastzara’at, or a scaly skin outbreak. He is not a “leper” as we understand the term- this is not about disease. If it were, the Torah would warn us that many who are so afflicted would die of their condition.

The Torah doesn’t say the metzorah may die. Instead, the Torah teaches us that the metzorah will go through a ritual of separation from the community and then reintegration back into it, just as other ritually impure individuals will. I understand tzara’at not as disease, but as symbolic of an intense, embodied experience which dislocates a person from ordinary life. I believe most of us have had such experiences: perhaps a close encounter with danger or death; or fear so deep we feel it in our bones; or a jarring realization that brings sweat to the skin; or perhaps even the feelings of awe and humility which seem to shrink us where we stand.

These experiences are deeply both body and soul- there is no separate “spiritual” experience which we don’t have as creatures of flesh and blood and skin and sweat. Sometimes that puts us ill at ease  in the ordinary give-and-take of daily errands and work and relationships, and what our Torah portion reminds us is that this is natural.

Sometimes what unfolds in our lives requires us to separate, to meditate, to reflect, to integrate ourselves so that we can fully rejoin the bustling world which can seem so strange at times. Sometimes we are part of the infinite web of life, and sometimes we feel apart from it- this feeling, expressed in our bodies, is how I understand the idea of the metzorah.

To put it another way: the metzorah is not the “other,” the yucky one, who is cast out. The metzorah is any and all of us, at different times in our lives, when we are out of sync with the our surroundings and need to brought back. That cycle is ultimately about return: to community, to self, to the Sacred center of our lives, which is always awaiting us.

Shabbat Shalom,


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