Last night we discussed a part of Judaism one would believe did not have much to do with us today: those sections, Vayikra and Tzav, where the intricacies of animal sacrifice in the temple are described. There are rules there for what should be sacrificed, how, for each purpose.
We had all been taught that modern, Rabbinical Judaism had purged these barbarisms from the faith, and taken Judaism in a more rational direction, but we learned that this is not really so.
It seems this part of Judaism is very much alive in the symbols and ideas of the modern faith. Of course we were repelled and amazed by the amount of blood these sacrifices involved, blood that had to be dabbed on the priests' right ears, right thumb, right big toe and splashed against the altar. We discussed a commentary's reading of this: it connects to the purification of the sense of hearing, the work of the hands, the action of the body, and also how, if the temple actually existed as described (since this is not at all certain), the sensory overload for those present must have been incredible. The incense, smell of blood, noise of the people and animals, screams of the dying creatures, smoke of burning meat must have been incredible, enough to bring on religious visions or induce fainting spells, rather like the Greek oracle and her noxious fumes, but here, everyone present must have been affected.
We discussed how this system of sacrifices was a sort of confession to the community, since even if everyone were not present when the animals one brought were sacrificed, in a small town like the community in the desert, one year after the Exodus from Egypt, everyone would know, depending on the kind of offering they saw you bringing to the temple, exactly what you had done wrong. That took us to a discussion of Yom Kippur, a collective confession, and of course, Catholic confession.
Strangely, we found all sorts of connections here, not only to our own lives and what we had been taught (about the laws of kasruth, for example, and the taboo against blood), but also to Christianity. One can see exactly where the practice of indulgences came from in Catholicism, straight out of this section of the Torah, and the symbology of Jesus as the Lamb of God, since a whole animal, a sheep or a goat, was sacrificed whole for the sins of the community in the temple.
I also got an insight about the holiday of Chanukah, which, I realized after reading this, is meant to remind us about the two great temples that were destroyed by invading powers, but which lurk behind many of the symbols and practice of modern Rabbinical Judaism.
Next session we will delve into the laws of kashruth, but we dabbled in those even last night. I had always thought that the taboo against blood (koshered animals are drained of it and menstruating women are strictly forbidden in Orthodox communities to touch men, and this leads to an elaborate system by which men cannot touch any woman, and women are separated in synagogues from men, in case they might be menstruating or otherwise tainted) centered on the notion that women and their blood were unclean, but the torah put me straight on this: it is all about power, the power of life women share with God.
It reminded me of a memory I am not sure is a real memory. When I was 11 and began menstruating, I remember my mother slapping my face, hard. I am not sure it actually happened, but there is a tradition of doing that when a girl gets her first period. Of course, there was great shame connected with that. It probably did happen. Another woman at the table also remembered her mother doing it, but her mother had prepared her for it, and interpreted the act (a tap, in her case, rather than a slap) as a way of being sure that the roses always remained in her cheeks, now that she was a young woman.
I do remember for sure that even though my mother had prepared me by giving me books about the reproduction system to read I, had a visceral reaction when I saw that red red blood--I screamed that my insides must be falling out. I was terribly afraid. Of course, I was very young, not the teenager that many girls are when they get their first periods. I was alarmed at the signs of puberty, which made me a kind of freak among the young, flat girls, unburdened by sanitary napkins and still able to run shirtless down the driveway in the rain.