Who doesn’t love reading Leviticus?
Well, most liberal Jews it seems, for while that section of the Torah does contain some gems like loving thy neighbor (19:18) and laws commanding social justice and compassion, much of the rest is instructions for the ritualized handling of animal innards and the spattering of blood, diatribes against gay sex, and cringe-worthy verses about skin diseases, menstruation and un-kosher organ meats.
Even as Eugene’s Rabbi Maurice Harris maintains a deep respect and love for Torah, he also acknowledges in his introduction that Leviticus may be “the most avoided book in the Bible,” and that “No biblical book can match Leviticus in its ability to repel and bore its readers.” Yet, in his latest work, “Leviticus –You Have No Idea” (Cascade Books, Eugene, Oct. 2013), he makes these passages both fascinating and surprisingly relevant to 21st century readers – even to those who, like himself, are committed to progressive values.
With the same combination of sophisticated wit and erudite humor exhibited in his previous book, “Moses: A Stranger Among Us,” Harris once again charms us by making material that we’ve assumed was familiar (and occasionally repulsive) into a learning experience that is unquestionably pleasurable. This he makes clear from the very first chapter: “Being Pro-Gay and Hanging in There with Leviticus.” In this and later chapters, Harris, like the progressive Reconstructionist movement he is a part of, “celebrates Judaism as a living, dynamic system” that “takes tradition seriously while also maintaining an openness to creative, constructive change.”
In other words, without deeming the Bible irrelevant, “We can (and must) leave behind the misguided elements of Leviticus that spoke to people living within a narrow, ancient historical moment.” At the same time, Harris sees value in “Leviticus’ mandate of always seeking to bring greater holiness into the world …” and “the notion that we make a space for the Divine presence by living in a way that expresses love, justice, courage, compassion, integrity, and unselfish deference to the needs of others.”
On his journey through the good, the bad, and the ugly in Leviticus, Harris addresses present-day societal issues such as factory-farm meat production, our criminal justice system,
incendiary religious extremism, maintaining a just government and same-sex marriage. While no one is suggesting the Torah scroll should be
reworded, “Leviticus – You Have No Idea” makes some of the Bible’s most archaic passages far more relevant to contemporary times and well-nigh inspirational.
Joseph A. Lieberman is a globe-trotting Eugene photojournalist who recently co-authored Jesus: First-century Rabbi (Nov. 2013, Paraclete Press), about the Jewish roots of Christianity, with Rabbi David Zaslow.