Shmini – on the profane, on piety, on purification

Shmini means “eighth.” In this parshah it refers to the eighth day of the Tabernacle. There were seven days of training in which the tabernacle was erected and taken down each night. On the eighth day the practice was to end and the temple to stand. The eighth day is, then, the first day in many ways. For this parshah this matters because we are reminded about cycles. After the seven days of the week another week begins. After the seven days of training the eight day starts a new cycle. This reminds of how Jews traditionally have circumcised sons on the eighth day; after the full first week of life the child begins anew with this ritual (in the Humanistic and other progressive movements of Judaism, we offer baby namings for girls and those who choose not to circumcise so as to honour the birth of any child. Baby namings also often happen on the eighth day to retain that symbolism). Many of the important Jewish holidays are celebrated as eight days in the diaspora. Sukkot and Pesach, both seven-day long holidays (corresponding with the days of “creation” from the bible), each get an additional day to make up for the differences in the lunar cycle. Eight is also the number of days in Chanukah (not a biblical holiday). The cycle of the moon defines our calendar, the cycle of the week defines the structure to our lives. After Shabbat, the day of rest, we celebrate Havdallah, meaning separation. It is time to mark the transition between the sacred time of Shabbat and the ordinary time of the week. Some see Havdallah as more of a join than a separation – we bring the sacredness into the rest of the week by beginning the week with the lovely rituals of lighting interwoven candles, singing songs, and smelling spices.  

In Shmini, Aaron is told that the job of the Priests is to “distinguish between the sacred and the profane”. This dichotomy informs philosophy and literature. While many of us do not believe that ordinary life is “profane” and that religious observance is “sacred,” it is worth asking ourselves what is sacred for us in our own lives? What is meaningful? Is it useful to create separation, to reserve special time for reflection, to unplug from our electronic world, to stop working for a while, to rest? Is it useful to bring the sacred elements of our lives into the ordinary? This week maybe seven won’t be our lucky number. Instead let’s focus on eight. The day after the cycle of the week when we can reflect on what is extraordinary about our ordinary weeks and lives.  

We should hang onto some of those happier thoughts as we traverse Shmini. The challenge of Leviticus is sometimes to find meaning when the narrative and some of its messages are disagreeable. Shmini begins with a continuation of the commanding and performing of sacrifices by Aaron and the other priests. Two of Aaron’s sons, overzealous in their offerings, transgress the commandment. They burn an offering they were not supposed to. As punishment, God strikes them down right away. This is a reminder that the God-character of the bible is not the benevolent, loving God that some imagine. The JPS editors call the act of the offering “misguided super-piety,” a term I find striking. The mistake of Aaron’s sons is to go too far in trying to prove their faith in God, so far that they end up disdaining God by breaking his commandments. To me this resonates with people who make a huge show of prayer, attending religious services, or keeping certain religious commandments, but do not regard the morality or meanings behind those acts. Sometimes “super-piety” is indeed “misguided” because people spend so much energy trying to please God that they forget to be good to one another. Shmini is a reminder that the God-character demands to be served on his own terms. Humanistic Jews, believing that the concept of God is meant to serve human needs, and not that humans are meant to serve God, note this and the many other examples of the vengeful, wrathful God of the bible, as evidence for how religion has been used as a tool for control, not just inspiration, and how we can extract the meanings that make us fuller human beings without enslaving ourselves to the precision of the commandments. 

In Shmini the commandments that are extended to the whole community, not just the priests, are the kosher laws relating to the consumption of flesh. Some of these may seem abstract – why is it fine to eat animals that chew their cud but not ones that don’t? – but there is evidence that these laws were ways of encouraging the most hygienic eating possible based on the knowledge of the time. We can appreciate that our ancestors were interested in health and hygiene. Of course, our contemporary health and hygiene relating to the eating of animals is very different. I would certainly encourage those who choose to eat meat to eat local and organic meat before kosher meat. I would encourage people to consider the cruelty of factory farming practices, the environmental impacts of eating meat often, and the concerning rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other health problems that have been linked to a North American diet that tends to over-emphasize meat. Of course, we are all entitled to make our own choices over what and how we eat. In my view, however, the wisdom of the bible is that it can give us a reason to think critically about the consumption of animals. Some of us choose vegetarianism and some do not. But we should all make informed choices about how what we eat affects animals, ourselves, and the planet.  

The purity laws of Shmini extend beyond the eating of animals. We are introduced to the idea of a “wellspring” that can purify. This gives way to the Mikvah in which women and men dunk for purification. Most of the time the dunking has to do with cleansing after a woman’s period (speaking of cycles) or childbirth. Many Jewish feminists, therefore, have rejected the Mikvah. However, many women have chosen to “take back the waters” (Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has an article by that name). Before a wedding, after a birth, leading up to a holiday or significant event, the symbolism of purification – to help us distinguish or separate between the sacred and the profane or the ordinary and extraordinary, or simply the renewal of a cycle or the start of something new – can be a meaningful act.  

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