The problem with the Torah is that it is not a book of history, neither is it a book of science, neither is it a book of poetry or a collection of legends. It is all of this, and maybe more.
Consider the diversity of its books. Genesis, the first book, is the story of a family, of the dynamics, of the relationships between parents and children and the sons and daughters, and of the conflicts internal to each generation.
In Exodus we find the beginning of the Israelites history: the escape from slavery, the confrontation with the oppressors, the birth of the Jewish civilisation, with the Giving of the Law on Sinai. It is the story of a people.
The Hebrew name of the book of Exodus is Shemot, “names”. It is the Book of Names; it lists the names of the many Jewish families.
And then we have Leviticus, whose Hebrew name is Vayikrà, “and He (namely God) called”. Where does the name Leviticus come from? It is a Latin word, which means “addressed to the Levites”.
In early Rabbinic times the book was known as Torat Cohanim, Torah for the Cohanim and for the Leviim who worked in the Temple. Hence the name Leviticus, because it was expressly written for them.
The problem is that these instructions are useless for the most of us, those who are not descendants of the Leviim or of the Cohanim. And even nowadays for the Cohanim and Leviim, these instructions are useless. Description and prescriptions for sacrifices compose large parts of every Torah portion of the Leviticus. But these sacrifices are to be performed only in one place, the Temple in Jerusalem, which is no more. So, speculating about the nature or the procedure of these sacrifices was, and still is, a purely theoretical exercise.
It is, let’s face it, quite an embarrassing and difficult topic. It always has been. Nowadays the idea of pleasing God by killing animals is justly looked upon by the majority of Jews as an abomination.
And it is not only a matter of animal rights.
Claude Montefiore, a great scholar, who was also one of the founders of Liberal Judaism, found the Book of Leviticus particularly uninspiring. He envisioned a time when Leviticus would not be read in Synagogue but rather replaced by passages from the prophetic literature, readings which are much more inspiring, according to Montefiore and his circle.
This may seem a very radical idea, but it is not that different from the very respectable academic theory according to which the book of Leviticus had been written in the seventh century BC, during the Kingdom of Judah, while the other book of the Torah came from a different source and is written in a very different style. So it is not weird to assume that Leviticus is somehow out of place in the Torah.
Probably the main problem with Leviticus is that one of its themes is purity, and we don’t like to talk about purity. A whole section of the book teaches the Israelites how to avoid uncleanliness, by observing certain rules on sexual behaviour, family relations, etc. and in this way to be ritually pure and perform sacrifices. It is difficult for us to see anything spiritual or inspiring in these rules about menstruations, and bodily excretions. So probably Montefiore was right, Isaiah and Jeremiah are more inspiring.
But classifying the nature in “pure” and “impure” is a universal human tendency. As I discovered in interfaith events, Islam has a system of classification of the reality very similar to Judaism: certain places are to be avoided, certain parts of the body needs to be ritually purified prior to the prayer, just like we do netillat yadaiim, before touching kosher bread, at least in the major holyday). Our Christian friends looked to us Jews and Muslims with a strange sense of superiority as if our religious practices were just superstitions; but we pointed out that, the categories of pure and impure were present in their culture too, for example they were clearly uneasy in talking about menstruation, while Jewish women and Muslim women usually were much more open, when meeting among themselves and men were not around.
In the last Century, totalitarian ideologies, such as Communism, aimed to replace religions with their ideology and looked at the Jewish concepts of purity and impurity as a superstition, a relic of the past, a source of frustrations and neurosis. But then, look at what happened? They tried to replace the human beings, the real people, the men and women with an abstract new kind of humanity, the homo sovieticus, deprived of religion, loyal only to the Party, (and not anymore to the family or to his people). In the life of the homo sovieticus the only culture was the Soviet culture, and every connection to any other culture (including the yddishkheit) was a sabotage of communism, and a crime against the State.
The homo sovieticus, this new human being created by the Communist system, and to keep the Communist system alive and functioning, was the Communist idea of purity. And every human being who did not conform to such an idea, to such a pattern, to such a model, was impure. Locked away in an asylum or sent to Siberia, in order to be re-educated. That was, as you probably remember, the fate of the Zionists under communism. They dare to feel a connection to Judaism, and therefore they were labeled as “impure” human beings and had to be re-educated.
You see: we cannot get rid of purity and impurity. They are probably categories rooted in the human psyche, as they are universal. We found them even in communism, an ideology whose purpose was to banish and to abolish “superstitions” of that kind.
As Jews we are blessed of having a Book where rules of purity and impurity are exposed. And from this Book we have developed rules, to cope with parts of human experiences that universally are a source of anxiety: births, death, and fertility. In difficult times, the practice of Judaism is an extraordinary source of comfort and support. Do you want proof? There are no homo sovieticus around anymore, while we Jews have endured for 2000 years.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 5 Nissan 5777