RIGHTS & RITES: Leviticus 19-25

Last week, we began to refer to the religious dimension of our language of human rights as ideals in writ. Rights to procedural justice, of due process or natural justice, reflect another dimension of the ideology of our age and culture, at what some are presumptuous enough to call ‘the end of history’. The conversation here is the ‘how’ of justice.

The historical alternatives to procedural rights are usually dismissed pejoratively as autocracy or theocracy, surpassed by the ‘rule of law’ where principles rather than persons are claimed to be less arbitrary. What is the punishment, and who is the judge? Politicians and soldiers are subordinated to judges and lawyers – and priests are dismissed and derided as perverted fools.

Leviticus doesn’t share our assumptions of procedural justice. Capital punishment, or banishment from the community, and the qualifications and disqualifications for priests, are related to another worldview. Is the shape beginning to emerge for you yet, as we surrender to a second month together as ‘Glib Liberals Reading Leviticus in Tory Times’?

For the last couple of thousand years, Leviticus’ code has been treated more seriously, and interpreted and applied to the point of death and banishment and exclusion. Rites and rituals, forms and formalities, honours and offices, heroes and hero-worship, have ruled the day, in cultures of honour and shame, rather than utilitarian calculation of how we use and abuse one another in production and consumption.

Have we evolved to something so much higher or better? Who are our heroes? Who are our demonized and excluded categories of humans? What if we just learned the laws of gleaning, for instance, instead of maximizing production at all costs?

Is religion primarily about ethics, or transcendent, numinous, aesthetic experience? When we reduce the holiness code to procedural ethics, or dismiss it as ritualistic superstition, we’re echoing and mirroring ourselves, but not the tradition in its integrity.

Monday, we finally get to the one half-verse we all know: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, cited by Hillel, Midrash, Talmud, Jesus, and Paul. We get the ‘ten commandment’ reruns, but also a worldview of leaving ‘gleanings’ in the field for the poor, giving fair measure, but not treating your daughters or the land itself as commercial commodities.

Tuesday, we recite the capital punishment due for the worst of crimes, which include a catalogue of sexual taboos, hotly contested in our generation and culture. These are matters beyond simple fines through sacrifices on the altar, which pose existential threats to a minority community – like idolatry.

Wednesday’s recitals of consequences are less severe, though banishment, infertility and poverty are powerful threats outside a first-world welfare state.

Thursday, we’re back to the priesthood ordained a couple of weeks ago. They are to be particularly tied to avoiding ritual uncleanness, and to maintain order within the cult, to preserve a sense of sanctity.

Friday, hereditary priesthood challenges our myth of meritocracy, and our scruples about what disqualifies a priest born to the role. Over millennia, what has it meant to be born a Cohen?

Saturday, there’s a pragmatic setting of limits on what ‘dependents’ can rely upon a share of the priests’ share of the sacrifices. In our culture of ‘disinterested’ religious charity, who shares the benefits of our organization as employees or ‘dependents’? Who are the ‘truly needy’, and what’s ‘good enough’ to give to God?

See what you make of a week of ‘Rights and Rites’!