Revisiting the Holy and the Ordinary (Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

04/15/2015 06:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

This week's Torah portion includes, in the words of anthropologist Mary Douglas, a "hoary old puzzle from biblical scholarship." As Douglas put it, "Why should some locusts, but not all, be unclean? Why should the frog be clean and the mouse and the hippopotamus unclean? What have chameleons, moles and crocodiles got in common that they should be listed together?" What is the point of the detailed, elaborate and somewhat baffling set of prohibitions we find in Leviticus 11's listing of clean and unclean animals?

Beginning in 1966, Douglas studied the question of the purity laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, including the list of forbidden animals. Her work advanced the conversation about these laws among biblical scholars, helping them move beyond dismissing them as irrational superstitions or as primitive efforts at public health. Contrary to the ancient rabbis who often found the laws inscrutable and, for that very reason, excellent opportunities to show loyalty to God, she found meaning encoded in the intricate legislation. For the following four decades, she refined, extended and even changed her theories.

In her early work, Douglas stressed the human tendency to classify and to pass adverse judgment on that which does not tidily conform to our categories. What we deem abomination is that which does not fit into the compartments we set up. ("Dirt is matter out of place," as Lord Chesterton put it.) She argued that the list of animals in Leviticus 11 fit this mold. (The pig, for example is the only non-cud-chewing animal with cloven hooves.) Returning to this theme later, Douglas suggested that Israelites in particular "cherish their boundaries" and "want nothing better than to keep them strong and high."

Rather than deeming this idea intuitive to human nature in general, Douglas noticed that Israelite religion was particularly concerned with "clear, tight defining lines." She related this to another distinction, that between "two classes of human beings, Israelites and the rest." Douglas moved seamlessly from this observation to quoting the Jewish Havdalah blessing at the end of Shabbat, which expresses the importance of distinctions, praising God who "separates the holy from the ordinary, light from darkness, Jews from other peoples, the Sabbath from the six days of work."

Whatever one may say about the metaphysics inherent in the Levitical system (Douglas herself revised some of her ideas), the laws of kashrut have historically played a role in reinforcing separation between Jews and non-Jews. Today, however, among at least some Jewish communities, that distinction no longer seems as important or even appealing. A typical gathering in the synagogue to which I belong includes people who have two Jewish parents, people with one Jewish parent, people who have converted to Judaism, people who have partnered with Jews and people who just like to learn and celebrate with us. We mingle easily with one another and with guests of various backgrounds as we consume our eco-conscious, vegetarian potlucks. Ironically, strict observance of kashrut often serves to divide more and less traditionally-observant Jews from each other as much as it functions to set a boundary between Jews and non-Jews..

As the very idea of Jewish peoplehood evolves to respond to the rise of intermarriage and to the setting of post-ethnic North America, we are likely to find new ways to understand what it means to be a people set apart. We may need to look elsewhere besides dietary laws and practices for ways to affirm the meaning-making possibilities in distinguishing the holy and the ordinary.

Fortunately, Jewish tradition provides multiple paths for organizing life, food only one among them. Another path particularly presents itself as an excellent candidate for renewal in this moment. Just as matter needs to be properly categorized, so too does time. The Havdalah blessing itself, praising God for separating the holy and the ordinary, includes the distinction between "the seventh day" (Shabbat) and the others. Time, as well as matter, can be set apart as holy. This is a distinction that can have profound relevance for us today. From the 24/7 news cycle to the relentless barrage of electronic messages, our culture cries out for a saner way of ordering time.

Reflecting on Douglas' insights, we can still appreciate her lifting up the human need to confront the messiness of life with constructed systems that organize experience. Ritual, she argued, "...focuses attention by framing." A set of rules--like the food laws of Leviticus 11--create an ordered world. As Douglas put it, "holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal."

In a social psychology experiment on "mortality salience," researchers asked a group of subjects to think about their own death. Compared to a control group, these individuals subsequently showed a greater distaste for samples of modern, abstract art. Interestingly, those same people found the chaotic art more palatable when it was surrounded by a frame. As mortal beings, our need for meaningful distinctions remains; they make life meaningful and even pleasurable. Whether it is embodied and enacted in the sanctification of food, time, or new understandings of the Jewish people (or all three), a Jewish approach will continue to find and develop ways to give holiness a physical expression in the details and distinctions of our lives.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.