Torah Reading for Week of April 26-May 2, 2020
“Purity and Danger”
By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D. ’10, Professor of Jewish Music History & Associate Dean of the Master of Jewish Studies Program
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
In her classic treatise, Purity and Danger (1966), anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that distinctions between sacred and profane were not only foundational to ancient cultures and religious systems, but also formed the basis of our modern, secular categories of clean and unclean. Douglas writes: “Our practices are solidly based on hygiene, theirs are symbolic: we kill germs, they ward off spirits…Yet the resemblance between some of their symbolic rites and our hygiene is sometimes uncannily close.”
This does not mean that the ancients possessed a sophisticated awareness of medical materialism-a term coined by philosopher William James for the tendency to devise medical explanations for religious taboos. For the ancients, all natural phenomena had supernatural causes: flood, drought, famine, abundance, sickness, strength, fertility, infertility, and so on. Being on the right side of the sacred-profane divide yielded positive outcomes; being on the wrong side had disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, the obsession with maintaining such barriers has not disappeared. Rather, as Douglas observes, they are expressed in modern “ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions.”
Parshat Acharei Mot (“after the death”) begins by recalling the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who “died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord” (Lev. 16:1). That incident, told in Leviticus 10:1-3, has long puzzled readers. No motive is given for the brothers’ unauthorized entrance into the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), nor is there any explanation for the divine response: a “fire came from the Lord and consumed them” (Lev. 10:2).
Some commentators, including Philo of Alexandria, interpret the brothers’ action benignly. Filled with youthful enthusiasm, they unthinkingly made an innocent (and fatal) mistake. Their offering was ill-conceived, but not ill-intentioned. Other interpreters are less forgiving. Deducing that Nadav and Avihu were unkempt or under the influence-conditions forbidden for priests engaged in ritual-they were punished accordingly (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 20:9).
Some contemporary readers see the brothers as religious zealots. Their overwhelming desire to be loved by God led them to disregard boundaries and leave their better judgment behind. This is what Rabbi Donniel Hartman calls “God intoxication”: a desire to be close to God that is so all-consuming that one becomes blind to moral and ethical demands (Putting God Second, 2016).
Read from this perspective, the episode speaks to the dangers of willfully ignoring separations between sacred and profane, clean and unclean. Filled with pietistic hubris, the brothers believed the rules did not apply to them. Surely, their devotion would protect them from any potential harm.
As if to emphasize their error, the parsha continues with a stream of regulations concerning the purification of the Tabernacle, permissible and impermissible sacrifices, and proper and improper behaviors, stressing: “you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things” (Lev. 18:26). Importantly, these verses address ritual, social, and individual defilement together, implying that separations between clean and unclean are not just ceremonial, but affect the entirety of our lives. Hence, Mary Douglas’ assertion that ritual cleanliness and conceptions of hygiene can be “uncannily close.”
Many of the regulations are relevant for this time of pandemic. For instance, Aaron and his successors were to approach the Holy of Holies only after taking a thorough bath and donning the proper garb. Specifically, this rite was performed on the tenth day of the seventh month, elsewhere called yom hakippurim (Lev. 23:27, 28; 25:9). Usually translated as “Day of Atonement”-the predecessor of Yom Kippur-the original sense was “Day of Decontamination,” as in decontaminating or sterilizing the sanctuary.
Today, we are all too familiar with the importance of washing, wearing the appropriate clothing (i.e., face coverings), staying alert to days when we should or should not leave our homes, and decontaminating ourselves and the things we touch. In our post-Tabernacle, post-Temple era, the divine presence is no longer centralized or contained in a single ceremonial space. Likewise, the entire world is now a place of sanctity, where divisions between sacred and profane, clean and unclean, must be preserved. Our very lives depend on it.
Yet, there are still Nadavs and Avihus among us. Filled with an intoxicating piety, they believe themselves immune from infection and set apart from concerns of “ordinary” people. Worse, they are convinced that their behavior will not impact others. Defying government orders and common sense, these modern zealots congregate in churches and synagogues, convinced that their dedication to God and God’s house will somehow protect them from the plague. The falseness of their conviction poses a threat to us all.