Routines & Rituals: Leviticus 19

The most quoted half-verse of Leviticus is here: 19:18b “Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord”. Rabbi Hillel cited it as essential to Torah, and soon after, Jesus is said to have done the same – as does Paul in Romans. This is the Golden Rule. Did you feel like you had to dig a lot for that kernel?

The ‘Ten Commandments’ are here, too. We know the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 6 versions, but the Decalogue is here, too: I/v4b, II/v4a, III/v12, IV/v3, V/v3, VI/v6, VII/v29, VIII/v11, IX/v16, X/v18. But removed from Moses’ two tablets, the skeleton gets flesh.

Laws of gleaning are a challenge to our economy: v9 says you always leave the edges and a corner of each field un-harvested, for the poor to forage, and v10 says you don’t pick all the grapes, but leave some for the poor. This is prior to the charitable gifts from the harvest.

Theft is amplified in v13 to include fraud, and delayed wages. Savour this text a moment, as it relates to white-collar crimes rather than smash-and-grab stealing. The tradition is already midrashic, intertextual conversation.

Abuse of power, complicity and collusion in injustice, and bias and prejudice are challenged in the remaining verses approaching the ‘Golden Rule’. For me, there’s a lot of fruit around that kernel of truth, and a beauty beyond reduction to immanent ethics apart from transcendence.

The second half of this chapter seems less sublime, and easier to ridicule. Prohibitions of cross-breeding cattle, or mixing two types of fabric seem indefensible from our perspective, the point of the rules lost in history, and maintained as ‘we’ve always done it this way’ routines. Yet the whole practice of Torah is to distinguish ‘this’ from ‘that’, from the first creation story in the Priestly voice in Genesis.

The law assumes social norms of slavery and patriarchy. It assumes that slaves have one set of rules to ensure social order by restraining who sleeps with whom, and who takes responsibility for children, and that those married and free have another set of rules. This boundary case beats death for adultery, but does provide a deterrent price for the man.

Restraint in early harvest of fruit trees, and restraint in eating anything with its blood, appears to repeat the rationales of sacrifice from earlier chapters. There is a rhythm, a routine, and rituals of norms around the basics of producing and eating food. We are not here to maximize production, but to live in relationship with the land, which will yield enough if we trust.

The prohibitions of divination or soothsaying remind me of the truisms that ‘my faith is your superstition’, ‘my mysticism is your magic’, ‘my religion is your cult’. Clearly, there were always competing traditions. Verses about shaving and tattoos are signs of those choices, ‘gang colours’.

Some readers link the ‘don’t make your daughter a prostitute’ to the prior verses about signs of choosing other cults, or intermarriage. I prefer the rabbinic traditions that deny parental rights to betroth daughters to old rich men without their consent. They are not to treat their persons as subject to use or abuse, sale or consumption – but as gifts to be shared, celebrated, and sacrificed.

Concerns for ethical and numinous, routine and ritual, are intertwined – with explosive implications in the coming weeks for politics and economics!

The concluding bits remind us to treat noncitizens, ‘ger’ among us, as if we remembered Egypt – and to use fair measures in trade – because, after all, God is God.

Leviticus 19

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

3 You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.

4 Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the LORD your God.

5 When you offer a sacrifice of well-being to the LORD, offer it in such a way that it is acceptable in your behalf.

6 It shall be eaten on the same day you offer it, or on the next day; and anything left over until the third day shall be consumed in fire.

7 If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an abomination; it will not be acceptable.

8 All who eat it shall be subject to punishment, because they have profaned what is holy to the LORD; and any such person shall be cut off from the people.

9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.

12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.

13 You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning.

14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour.

16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the LORD.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself.

18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.

19 You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.

20 If a man has sexual relations with a woman who is a slave, designated for another man but not ransomed or given her freedom, an inquiry shall be held. They shall not be put to death, since she has not been freed;

21 but he shall bring a guilt-offering for himself to the LORD, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram as guilt-offering.

22 And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of guilt-offering before the LORD for his sin that he committed; and the sin he committed shall be forgiven him.

23 When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; for three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten.

24 In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the LORD.

25 But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you: I am the LORD your God.

26 You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practise augury or witchcraft.

27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.

28 You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.

29 Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, so that the land may not become prostituted and full of depravity.

30 You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.

31 Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.

32 You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old; and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.

34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

35 You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity.

36 You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

37 You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the LORD.