Finding Meaning in Ancient Rituals

How the sacrificial system lives on.

Commentary on Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Numbers 19:1-22

Elizabeth Ehrlich was once a comfortable “cultural Jew.” The practice of Jewish religion held little attraction for her. Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir (1997) is Ehrlich’s report on a year spent learning from her mother-in-law, Miriam, a Polish Holocaust survivor, the details of domestic religion-the laws and the lore. As the year passed, Ehrlich grew increasingly interested in becoming a ritual specialist in her home. She wanted to “infuse the minutiae of everyday life with something more.” She recognized that someone would have to make this a “priority mission,” and that that someone would be her.

We can draw an arc from Elizabeth Ehrlich’s kitchen back to the Torah portion before us. Many contemporary Jews find this portion among those that make their eyes glaze over. Reform theologian Rachel Adler reports that when she was growing up she never heard the word “ritual” without it being prefaced by the word “meaningless.” Likewise, Arnold Eisen, a scholar of contemporary Judaism, for many years kept his sights on so-called higher things (like faith and covenant) in lieu of studying the sacrificial system (Taking Hold of Torah, 1997, p. 71). If the rituals of sacrifice in the sanctuary (Leviticus 6:1-7:48) seem to be of little interest, the elaborate rites for ordaining priests (Leviticus 8:136) appear to be both archaic and problematic in their exclusion of women from spiritual leadership.

Over the years Adler, Eisen, and many others have come to appreciate the power of the rituals described in this parsha. As we learn about ritual as a human phenomenon, we come to understand it as a language of its own, uniquely meaningful. To do justice to the sacrificial system, we need to contextualize Israelite sacrifice with the help of anthropology, sociology, comparative religion, and even neurobiology. We can ask also how this ritual of sacrifice was transformed in Christianity and in Judaism. When we consider the Jewish transformation of the sacrificial system, the question of gender, power, spirituality, and leadership can emerge in a more nuanced light.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas, who has been called “the mother of ritual studies,” shows that Leviticus has a specific way to approach the subject of spirituality and the body in relation to sacrifices.

Christianity transformed sacrifices by bringing sacrifices’ symbolism right into the heart of its worship service. Priests prepared and congregants ate and drank the Eucharist, the body and blood of the ultimate “lamb” of God. Carolyn Walker Bynum documents that although women were marginalized, in the Middle Ages nuns and upper-class lay women found their way into this system of sacralized food through rituals of fasting and in ecstatic feasting (Holy Feast and Holy Fast, 1987).

After the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple, the Rabbis replaced the sacrificial system in two ways. The first was to commune with God through prayer and study. The second was via a system that maintained sacrifices in a new form, hinted at in Leviticus 7:22-27. The whole complex of laws and rituals around preparing and eating food became another way in which the sacrificial system lived on. With this change, women became the ritual specialists for what was once temple sacrifice in its domestic transformation — because women in traditional Jewish society, as in many cultures, control food resources.

The Talmud says that the table upon which we eat is like the altar of the Temple (BT B’rachot 55a). We are bidden to wash our hands before breaking bread not simply to cleanse them, but because the priests washed their hands before they offered a sacrifice.

When making bread, the baker takes a small piece of the dough (challah) and burns it to represent the sacrifice. On the Sabbath, the challot represent the show breads sacrificed at the Temple.

Guarding the traditional food taboos, taking challah, preparing the home for holidays and for the Sabbath (literally “making Sabbath”), and distributing food to the poor-all of these are areas in which women have controlled and executed significant ritual functions. There is an old saying quoted by Hayim Soloveitchik: “A yidishe bale-baste (Jewish home-maker) takes instruction from her mother only.”

Susan Starr Sered, an anthropologist of religion, conducted a study of illiterate Kurdish Jewish women who were living in Jerusalem. That research led her to challenge preconceptions about the nature of spirituality and the holy. In her book Women as Ritual Experts (1992), she reports that these women developed religious culture alongside the Judaism of text and synagogue practiced by the men. As she notes, what anthropologist Robert Redfield calls the “little tradition” was based in the home, where women were the ritual experts. The domestic religion used many of the same symbols and ideas of the “male” Judaism but applied them to sanctify the daily tasks of the women, in the domain that they controlled. In Sered’s study, food preparation loomed large, from maintaining the laws of kashrut in the home to distributing cookies at the graves of ancestors after prayers had been answered.

These women had developed what she called a “devotional autonomy.” During the Holocaust, some Jewish women who were interned in Terezin compiled a cookbook from memory. The Terezin prisoners recalled and wrote down their recipes for chocolate torte, breast of goose, plum strudel, and other traditional dishes while surviving on potato scraps. Their effort was a kind of spiritual revolt, an act of resistance against brutality, calling to mind the everyday world they had known and presided over. These half-forgotten recipes, scribbled on scraps of paper, became the texts that helped them to transcend their situation. Decades later, their book found its way to the daughter of one of the authors who had died in the camps. The book was published as In Memory’s Kitchen in 1996 by Cara de Silva.

Elizabeth Ehrlich — the kitchen apprentice to her mother-in-law — learned something surprising about spiritual leadership. This is not to say that women today should accept exclusion from the realms of study or politics and retreat back to home and hearth. Rather, as we seek lives of spiritual integrity, we would do well to widen our gaze beyond the so-called higher things, to recall the power of the home through which Jewish women — against great odds — have powerfully continued connection to God and community across generations.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

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