When I Entered A Holy Covenant: A Dvar Torah on Parshat Shmini (Lev. 9:1-11:47)

Four years ago this week–at least by reckoning of the Hebrew calendar–my friend proudly displayed to me a cake she had made for a party I was hosting. “Today, you are a man,” it declared. She was excited to celebrate my “Boozy Bat Mitzvah,” a party celebrating not my actual Bat Mitzvah, but my conversion to Judaism. Just two days before, on Thursday, March 24, 2011, I had immersed in a mikveh on the upper west side of Manhattan and become part of the Jewish people. The ritual commemorated nearly two years of study, eight years of my relationship with a nice Jewish boy, and a lifetime of searching for my spiritual home.

When I first made the decision to convert to Judaism, I admit that I underestimated the impact it would have on my life. How much would change, really? I had fallen out of practicing Christianity; there was no need to dive headfirst in something totally new. My family was still Christian; I expected I would continue to celebrate Christmas and Easter with them. My fiancé was Reform; surely he wouldn’t place any strict demands on my observance. Yet as the parsha (Torah portion) this week teaches, becoming part of the covenant with Adonai, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, is not easy. It is hard. It is demanding. It is even dangerous. But it must be so, for, as Lev. 11:45 states, “For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Holiness is not easily achieved. The ancient Israelites attempted to reach holiness through a series of precisely performed sacrifices, requiring animals without blemish, separation of their body parts, and the careful spreading of blood on the altar. Play with fire, however, and you can get burned. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, who offer so-called “alien fire” to the LORD, are immediately consumed by a divine fire and killed. Neither Moses nor G-d has any words of comfort or explanation for Aaron upon the death of his sons. All Moses can say is, that this is what the LORD meant when He said: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” The holiness of the LORD is powerful, dangerous, and defies explanation. All humans can truly know is to be careful.

Today, as in the wilderness our parsha describes, one way we attempt to reach holiness is through the laws of kashrut. These laws include the prohibition of eating animals that chew cud but do not have true hooves, or vice versa; animals that live in the water, but do not have fins or scales; and animals that have wings, but also walk on all fours. The anthropologist Mary Douglas explains that all of the injunctions regarding food can be understood in light of G-d’s command to the people in Lev. 11:44: “Be holy, for I am holy.” Holiness, in this context, “is exemplified by completeness. Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class in which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused” (Douglas, 53).  Douglas connects the taboo against creatures that cross classes, such as shellfish, to the Genesis creation narrative. Genesis establishes a “three-fold classification” system, “divided by the earth, the waters, and the firmament” (Ibid., 55). In the Levitican worldview, for an animal to belong in the water, it must have scales and fins. If it does not, it does not fully fit in the category of water animals–it retains elements of creatures that live on the land or in the sky. Thus, it cannot be holy. As Jews, we are permitted to consume only holy animals, for in doing so we, ourselves, become holy.

When I converted to Judaism, I did not fully realize that I was committing myself to a people and a system that strives in every moment, in every act, to be holy, for our G-d is holy. I did not realize that I, too, would be moved by some unknowable force to kasher my kitchen, to learn Talmud, to pray in synagogue on Friday nights. I did not realize the power my words, deeds, and thoughts would have in making myself and my community holy—or how hard this would be, and what demands it would place upon me. But I realize it now, and I am so grateful I do, and so grateful that I made the choice to become a Jew.

 

Douglas, Mary. “The Abominations of Leviticus.” In Purity and Danger, 41-57. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., Publishers, 1966.

Image used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.

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