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Leviticus 9:1-11:47: Aaron's Sons, Ben Azzai and Marriage Equality

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Last week, as the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding marriage equality for same-sex couples, I returned, as I do each year, to the Torah portion Shemini, with its cryptic report of the tragic fate of two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. This year, a chain of textual associations took shape in my mind, linking the mysterious story of these brothers in Leviticus to a contemporary issue of justice.

I invite you to join me on an interpretive journey from the Torah to the Talmud to the New York Times...

It was the big day for Aaron, the High Priest: the official dedication of the Tabernacle. Out of the blue, catastrophe struck. Before the entire community, a "fire came forth from the Lord" (Leviticus 10:2), consuming Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's eldest sons. An occasion for celebration turned into one of mourning. Why?

Some commentators insist upon the simple explanation of the text itself. The brothers, newly ordained as priests, had brought "strange fire" (Leviticus 10:1). They earned their fate by, as it were, "going rogue." Other readers, however, are not satisfied. They have tried to uncover a crime that more aptly fits the punishment. Searching textual references, however scant, generations of interpreters have applied their creativity to understanding the seemingly unjust killing of Nadav and Avihu.

Some have suggested that we see the young men's deaths not as punishment, but as consequence. As explained in next week's portion, Nadav and Avihu simply "drew too close to the presence of the Lord" (Leviticus 16:1). Their wish to be united with God was fulfilled, entailing the separation of their souls from their bodies.

Going back hundreds of years, some Jewish commentators have made a connection between this reading of the story and a famous legend involving the second-century rabbinic figure Simeon ben Azzai. The legend reports that Ben Azzai was one of four spiritual masters who "entered Paradise." Ben Azzai was the one who "gazed (peeked) at the Divine Presence and died" (BT Hagigah 14b). Like Nadav and Avihu, he got too close.

This is not the only parallel between the two brothers and Ben Azzai.

Leviticus 10:1 says of Nadav and Avihu that "each of them" took his censor. From this, a rabbinic commentator, Bar Kappara, concluded that Nadav and Avihu "had not taken counsel from each other" (Levitcus Rabbah 20:10). Although they were engaged in an exalted service to the Lord, they failed the very first step of brotherly cooperation. Bar Kappara offers this failure as one of four reasons why Nadav and Avihu merited their fate.

Ben Azzai's famous debate with Rabbi Akiba seems relevant here. These sages asked: What is the "greatest principle of the Torah?" Akiba responded with a verse from Leviticus: "Love your fellow as yourself." Ben Azzai countered with a verse from Genesis: "When God created humans, God made them in God's image (Genesis Rabbah 2:6-7; cf Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:41; Sifra, Kedoshim 4).

For Ben Azzai, Akiba's principle risked being too narrowly conceived. "Your neighbor" might be thought to refer just to your fellow Jew. What about the stranger? How about the enemy? Ben Azzai grounded his principle in the story of creation itself, leaving no room for exceptions. All must be treated as the image of God. His concern for human rights was rooted in the principle of universal human dignity.

If Bar Kappara was right, Nadav and Avihu were, like Ben Azzai, "big-picture" guys. Their gaze was so big, in fact, that they each missed the brother standing next to him.

Akiba would have reminded them to start with their own brother, then move on to their community, to all Israelites and so on. Ben Azzai, on the other hand, would have emphasized the need to continue to enlarge the circle, reaching to the most inclusive vision of humanity.

Last week, as the Supreme Court heard arguments involving equal rights to marriage for all citizens, I remembered yet a third parallel between Aaron's sons and Ben Azzai. While Ben Azzai never married, he made it clear that he did not recommend this path for others (BT Ketubot 63a). Similarly, one of the many alleged transgressions traditional interpreters have pinned on Nadav and Avihu is that they remained (due to their arrogance) unmarried (Midrash Rabbah 20:10).

These texts, like so many others within Jewish tradition, clearly reflect a preference for the married state. For many Jews, extending the reach of the institution of marriage seems in keeping with enhancing "traditional family values."

More importantly, as the conversation in and out of the Court unfolded last week, I heard the voices of both Ben Azzai and Akiba. Ben Azzai was there, touting the "image of God" as something that applies to everyone. Thus, human rights must be similarly applied. The law must take account of the big picture. It should not accommodate itself to the limitations of our powers of empathy. Our particular prejudices, even those enshrined in tradition, must give way to principles of justice that transcend our own experience.

But Akiba was there, as well, reminding us that it was precisely through experience -- through knowing gay and lesbian brothers, sisters and co-workers -- that so many Americans have seen their own views on this issue evolve. Abstract ideas about the definition of marriage gave way before the reality of the human beings in front of them, neighbors who wanted to make a commitment to their life partners, just as they did.

We need Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai. Together, they teach neighborly love and universal dignity, and all the levels in between. No skipping steps.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.