The Book of Leviticus is known in the Jewish tradition as Torat Kohanim – literally, the priestly Torah (law), and the name Leviticus means relating to the Levites, as the priests in the Biblical conception are to be of the tribe of Levi. The Book of Leviticus is concerned with priestly matters – such as sacrificial offerings, and spiritual notions of holiness as well as purity (cleanliness) and impurity (uncleanliness). Most of the laws of the Book of Leviticus are connected to the Tabernacle, the center of ritual and sacrificial worship of the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness before entering the land of Israel (and that continues to be a center of ritual and sacrificial worship after the Israelites enter the land of Israel until replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem of Solomon), characterized by sacrificial offerings in which the main form of ritual practice was the performance of animal sacrifice by a heredity priesthood (the central leaders connected with the Temple cult). With the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in the 1st century CE (the first Temple having been destroyed in the 6th century BCE by the Babylonians), most of the laws of the Book of Leviticus have no practical relevance in the contemporary Jewish world – with the notable exceptions of laws of permitted and forbidden foods, permitted and forbidden sexual relations, and the delineation of holy days.
I want to address a question concerning the Book of Leviticus in general here in light of the fact that most of the laws of the Book of Leviticus are no longer applicable in traditional Judaism without the Tabernacle or Temple. There is a tradition in traditional Judaism that children are to begin their education by being taught the Book of Leviticus. This seems strange as the Book of Leviticus deals with priestly law that is not only not applicable in our day without a Tabernacle or Temple, but also contains detailed law that is difficult to understand for an adult. The Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) contains hardly any law and is filled with stories that are interesting to both children and adults. So, why then should the education of Jewish children begin with the Book of Leviticus?
Before responding to the question, I want to give some background about traditional Judaism. The term Judaism is not found in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature. In speaking about Judaism, the Talmudic rabbis use the term Torah (תורה) – a term from a Hebrew root (הוראה) that means instruction or guidance, and the central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term Torah has a number of different usages ranging from law, the 5 books of Moses, the Bible as a whole, the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible (Judaism), to wisdom of a universal nature.
According to the Jewish tradition, there are two aspects to Torah that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction (Torah) – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – and to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible and forbidden. Such material establishes permissible and forbidden behavior as a matter of external authority, and demands obedience to its authority in terms of behavior. Just as in any modern nation state, citizens do not establish law for themselves and there are authoritative law makers and interpreters of law – so, too, we do not establish law for ourselves in traditional Judaism, and it is the authority of rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Halacha (law) to teach and establish law.
Aggadah, which means story, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah (Judaism) that relates to issues of good and bad (right and wrong), and truth and falsehood. Such material is not a matter of external authority and obedience, but is a matter of internal autonomy based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and heart). Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach words of moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance (Aggadah), and there is no obligation to agree or identify with such material even if taught by rabbis. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah. Thus, the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception. Law (Halacha) is only one aspect of Torah (Judaism), and an external aspect – and, the internal, spiritual aspect is Aggadah.
Rashi, the great commentator of the 11th century, opens his commentary on the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) by citing a famous midrash (rabbinic commentary) in which Rabbi Isaac asks regarding the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) “What is the reason it opens with the account of the Creation?”. Rabbi Isaac suggests that the Torah should have opened with the first mitzvah (commandment) given to the people Israel as a nation, which is, according to the Jewish tradition, the establishing of a calendar on the basis of the verse “this month is for you the beginning of months” (Exodus 12, 2) – and, although there are several commandments (such as to “be fruitful and multiply”) given prior to this in the Torah, they are not given to the people Israel as a nation. Rabbi Isaac’s suggestion assumes (in my eyes mistakenly) that the Torah is in essence a book of law (of the Jewish people), and thus he cannot understand why the Torah opens with the story of creation.
In my view, the reason the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) opens not only with an account of the creation, but with a series of stories in the Book of Genesis, and the story of the exodus in the Book of Exodus, before the first laws are given to the people Israel as a nation, is that the Torah is not in essence a book of Halacha (law) merely demanding obedience (even though the Torah does serve as a legal constitution of the Jewish people). Rather, the Torah is in essence a book of Aggadah (moral and spiritual guidance) demanding that we be people of moral conscience and principle. In the plain meaning of Scripture, Aggadah (moral and spiritual guidance) precedes Halacha (law) in the Torah not just chronologically but also in terms of importance.
Halacha (law) is part of, and an expression of, the Aggadic, moral and spiritual, guidance of the Torah in general, which is the essence of the Torah. The observance of law and commandments (mitzvot) is in the context of, and an expression of, the fulfillment of the moral will of God, as we learn from the Book of Deuteronomy in which it is written “You shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18), and in the verse immediately prior to this moral demand it is written, “You shall diligently observe the commandments of the Lord, your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6, 17) – indicating that the observance of law and commandments is an expression of the righteousness and goodness that God demands morally and spiritually as the true service of God and essence of religion.
If we return to the tradition in traditional Judaism to begin the education of children with the Book of Leviticus, I want to suggest that such a tradition is symbolic of the natural psychological development of human beings. Children in their psychological development are first capable of being obedient in a heteronomous (external) sense of obedience to external authority, and capable of distinguishing between permissible and forbidden – even at an early age when they are devoid of moral conscience (incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad). Animals are likewise capable of being obedient, and can be trained to be obedient to external authority. So, too, children even before they have the ability to distinguish in an autonomous way between true and false, and right and wrong, are able to be obedient in a heteronomous sense of obedience to external authority in which they can distinguish between permissible and forbidden. Only later do children develop autonomous reason and moral conscience – the capability of distinguishing in an autonomous (internal) sense between true and false, and between right and wrong, good and bad.
I want to emphasize and make clear that observance of law – of commandments (מצוות), statutes (חוקים) and judgments (משפטים) – is without question a very important aspect of a religious life, according to the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), and legal material accordingly occupies a large portion of the Torah. However, the religious ideal of the Torah is not heteronomous obedience to external authority. Obedience to law and authority in the Torah is not for its own sake as an ideal in and of itself, but for the sake of larger moral and spiritual ideals of peace, justice, compassion and equality. There are, of course, also, many laws of a ritual nature in the Torah. But, it is a consistent theme of the Torah and Hebrew Bible that moral takes precedence over ritual, and that ritual has no significance amidst rampant social injustice and immorality (and ritual is to be symbolic of moral and spiritual ideals). Obedience to authority and observance of law then are primarily for the sake of establishing a well ordered society characterized by peace and tranquility, and are an important part of a religious life in fulfillment of the moral will of God. The religious ideal of the Torah is a humanistic ideal of personal autonomy within a framework of observance of law and obedience to external authority in which one most importantly lives a moral life.