Saturday, March 29, 2008

Spirituality - Pfui!

This week’s parsha, Shmini, opens with the dedication of the Kohanim. At the end of the ceremony, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav & Avihu, in an excess of religious zeal, caught up in the excitement of the moment, brought two shovels-full of burning incense as an offering, and were struck dead by God for the favor.

Why? Seems pretty harsh. And the Torah doesn’t even explain exactly what went wrong until three parshiyot later, in Acharei Mot, where it gives the proper procedure for entering the Holy of Holies – the Yom Kippur Divine Service. If one wants to enter the Holy of Holies, a kohen has to do the whole Yom Kippur service, with 10 washings and immersions and changes of clothing, goats, bulls, confessions, Azazel, the whole shebang. It’s so involved that I doubt anyone ever did it other than on Yom Kippur when it was ordained as proper.

So why wait so long? We noted that the end of the parsha was about kashrut, permitted and forbidden animals, prefaced with instructions how the priests are to eat different types of sacrifices, characterized over and over again as “choq”, arbitrary rules. The whole set of laws dealing with the Temple are basically chuqim, arbitrary. We aren’t expected to understand them, we probably can’t understand their rationales (even if in many cases we can ascribe hermeneutical meanings after-the fact). And in fact, every law in the Torah has an aspect of choq – we are to follow them, even if we don’t personally understand them. God is laying the ground rules for dealing with law and life – you gotta do what you gotta do (to quote Toranga Leela).

The following parshiyot cover a wide range of tumah-taharah issues: childbirth, metzorah (leprosy), metzorah of the house (mildew), zav zavah and niddah (discharges from the organs of generation) –all of which are not just bodily functions that occur in or out of normal time, but also convey tumah, a condition of unfitness to enter the Temple, and the prescribed arbitrary rituals for purification from same, and restoration of taharah, fitness ot enter the Templ.

Only after two parshiyot of all this do we get the third parsha, of Acharei Mot (After the death of these saints, the sons of Aaron). Here we are given the rules for entering the Holy of Holies, id est, the entire Yom Kippur Avodah. Only afterward do we get more rules about sanctity, such as how to shecht (slaughter), which sexual relations are acceptable or not, and finally in the next parsha, Kedoshim, what R’ Ed Feld calls “the Holiness Code”, a set of ethical rules to govern our interpersonal relations, to set us apart socially and ethically from the other nations that do not have the Halacha, the Divine Law. Why the interlude? Why only then can we be given the rules about personal probity?

What was the flaw in Nadav and Avihu’s actions? Lawlessness. They acted out of pure personal will, with no aspect of Divine will. They were swept up by the spirit of the moment, and in an expression of their personal spirituality, they did for themselves what they saw Papa and Uncle Moshe doing, figuring that this was the Right Way to Go. But they had missed a crucial detail: everything Moshe and Aaron did in the dedication of the Kohanim was By The Express Command Of God. Why was this personal expression of spirituality then forbidden, if it was just a copy of what Moshe and Aaron were doing? Why was it answered with death?

We have to reenact the learning process of Bnei Yisrael to get to the answer. Look at the ensuing material. Permitted and forbidden animals (described as tahor and tamei, parallel to fitness for Temple service). Purity and impurity for Temple service. Distinctions between the usable and the unusable. Judaism is all about distinctions. They had to be educated about distinctions in food. They had to be educated about distinctions in fitness and unfitness of their own bodies. Then fitness or unfitness based on outside factors, in the home. Basic bodily processes related to life (childbirth) and potential life and its loss (menstruation and zav/zavah). Only then, once they understood the breadth of distinctions necessary to comprehend the arbitrary distinctions in the Temple, could Bnei Yisrael understand that Religion and Law Walk Hand in Hand. That extensive procedures, based on emphasizing distinctions between sin and righteousness, life and death, exaltation and commonality, were necessary to approach God, the ultimate distinction, between the supernal Unity of God and the multiplicity of the physical universe.

Spirituality, the inchoate yearning for Something Higher, can be a good thing, if it leads to Torah and Mitzvos, which in turn bring us closer to God. But unfettered Spirituality, the inchoate yearning made flesh in totally self-willed acts of trying to get close to God, ultimately denies God and elevates the personal will to a pseudo-Divinity. That is why Nadav and Avihu lost their lives. In their self-willed drive to approach God, they lost sight of the most important thing – that only God can tell us how to approach Him. Without the two-way relationship, we are running into a brick wall, and can lose our way and our lives. It is a cautionary tale, that while all people may approach God, they may only do so in the way He prescribes, through Torah and Mitzvot. Any other path elevates our will above His Will, and misses the mark.

This talk was delivered by my beautiful brilliant wife Debbie Baker to her parsha group here in Flatbush. We worked it out together last night, and she gave it over (this is my understanding; I expect her presentation was somewhat different) this afternoon.