Last night, after all those days of practically living in the synagogue, we met for Torah again. I hadn't really had time to do justice to these portions of the Torah because of Yom Kippur and the tons of papers I was grading, am still grading... . And these were such rich and important sections of the Torah, parts that affect our lives all the time because fundamentalists insist on reading them literally and applying them across the board.
These were the holiness code sections of the Bible, the places where the priestly scribe, channeling God, instructs the people how to behave. These parts of the Torah are particularly important since the Temple has ceased to exist. When the Temple was there, the High Priest and his assistants could petition God for the people, could carry out all the meticulous instructions on how to make the connection with God and purge all contagion from the vicinity. But now that there is no temple, that has changed everything. It has democratized the community, and made us all responsible for our own connection to God and to the community.
In the past, reading the tiny details about how the temple was to be built and how sacrifices were to be carried out, we all developed an idea of the temple as a stifling, odiferous, and generally overstimulating place, rather like the grotto of the Greek oracle, who swooned over fumes from a deep crevice in the earth, delivering wisdom to the masses. But with these portions, I realized that the Temple was the communal slaughterhouse. That was rather stomach turning. No one was permitted to slaughter animals privately. All were to be taken to the temple, so the priests could take their cut (literally). This was not only to keep the priestly class going, but to avoid the practice of fertility cults, where, as the Torah commentator remarks, eating, sex, and religion are intimately tied together. Thus, during pagan rites, animals were sacrificed, perhaps after a bout of bestiality, and an orgy ensued. So Judaism developed its own way of tying these areas of life together. The sections of Torah we discussed last night, barely touching the surface of such rich mines of ideas, passes freely between laws relating to sexual relations, rules against incest (except for father/daughter relations, which are never mentioned, the only kinds of familial relationship to be omitted from the discussion), religious practices, and dietary codes. It is stunning to realize how central Torah's distinctions and values have entered our culture and our lives, even if we do not consider ourselves religious. We have embraced and incorporated so many of the distinctions made by these ancient texts, without even realizing it.