Title: Holiness & Perfection
Text: Lev 19
Date: Feb 20, 2011
Author: Chris Gooding
What can we learn from the strange book of Leviticus?
I studied Jewish legal interpretation under a rabbi while I was at Duke Divinity School, and he would often cite one of the verses in our passage for today to teach us the most crucial aspect of modern Jewish attitudes toward the law: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the corner of your field, and do not take the gleanings of your harvest (Lev. 19:9).” “It’s all well and good for God to tell you not to reap the corners of your fields,” Rabbi Sager would say, “but what do you do if you don’t own a field with corners? What if it’s round? What counts as a corner?” These are important questions, but Rabbi Sager didn’t really want us to answer the question “What is a corner?” He was trying to make a point: no legal code can ever feasibly cover every imaginable circumstance. Even the 613 commandments of the Torah aren’t enough. For Jews, this is why the rabbinate exists—to apply the commandments to increasingly new circumstances. As Rabbi Sager put it, “there’s white space in the Bible.” That is the Jewish answer to the question, “What can one learn from this strange book?” You learn the right ways to fill in the white space.
Christians, on the other hand, tend to see Leviticus as a rather opaque, perhaps even useless, book. It starts off describing a process of animal sacrifice that is rather gruesome to modern Western readers (Chapters 1-7). It continues into odd classification schemes for various clean and unclean animals (Chapter 11)—including four-legged grasshoppers (11:22-23). It has a weird aversion to “mixtures”—you’re not supposed to mix different types of crops in the same field, you can’t sew garments out of two types of cloth, and you can’t interbreed two different species of animal (19:19). And then there are the commands about sending menstruating women and men with seminal discharges outside the camp that strike us as, well… a tad harsh (Chapter 15).
The traditional Christian way of answering the question “What can we learn from the strange book of Leviticus?” has been to divvy up the laws into “moral laws” and “ceremonial laws.” Moral laws are laws that have underpinnings in the laws of nature, and are therefore timeless. They are always and everywhere applicable. Many of the commandments given in the passage today are usually taken to be moral laws: don’t steal (19:11), don’t lie (19:11), don’t give unjust judgments (19:15), don’t show partiality (19:15). Ceremonial laws are those dealing with certain ritual observances, and are subject to change. They can pass away, especially when the religious structures that support them (the temple or the priesthood) pass away. The food laws, the sacrificial laws, the festivals, the laws on mixing—the weird laws—are usually taken to be ceremonial. The key to interpreting Leviticus, on this view, is to determine which of the laws are moral and which are ceremonial in order to figure out which to follow and which to ignore. There is some (admittedly meager) support for this view in Jewish circles—parts of the latter section of chapter 19, the stuff that wasn’t included in the lectionary reading for today—are sometimes referred to as the khuqqim. Khuqqim is a Hebrew word that means something like “stuff we do that makes absolutely no sense.” [Actually, it means “statutes,” but the force of the label is to demonstrate that such laws have no rational justification. The king orders them, and you do them, end of discussion.] The Khuqqim include the laws on mixing and the laws on haircuts. It has been tempting for Christian interpreters to argue that the existence of an external rational justification is the only thing that determines whether a Levitical law is still in force or not. In that way, Leviticus is purged of its strangeness. But once we’ve reached this point, the text ceases to inform moral judgments—it can only act to confirm what we already know. The answer to the question, “What do we learn from the strange book of Leviticus?” is “Nothing.” Leviticus gives us no new information in and of itself.
Further complicating the issue, some of the items labeled moral laws are clearly connected to the items labeled ceremonial laws. In our text for today, shortly after the instruction not to reap the corners of your field, we come across this directive: “Do not round off the hair on your temples or destroy the corners of your beard (19:27).” The directive on haircuts mirrors the directive on leaving crops for the poor: “don’t reap the corners of your field… don’t destroy the corners of your beard.” The Jewish man is supposed to bear marks of his duties to the poor on his body. “How is a field like a Jewish man’s face?” sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke, but it is what the text wants us to ask. The distinction between moral and ceremonial laws obscures this connection.
The truth is, Leviticus gives us no rationale for any of its commands. The author of Leviticus thinks that the only incentive for following commands is this: “I am the LORD.” It resists chopping up the text according to any rubric. Yet no one, Jewish or Christian, at any time in history, has ever held that the entirety of Leviticus should be performed exactly as the text describes. Everybody agrees that many of the laws are time- and context-specific, but surely, not all of them. So where does that leave us?
The key to a different sort of approach to the book seems to be the verse our passage for today begins with: “Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” This statement introduces what is called “the Holiness Code,” the central portion and (for some interpreters) the climax of the book. Jesus repeats this refrain in his teaching on loving your enemies from our passage in Matthew for today: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Imagine for a minute what it would mean if Leviticus was not about “moral” and “ceremonial” laws, but about holiness. Discerning which creatures can be eaten and which cannot is about holiness. Discerning which mixtures are okay and which are not is about holiness. Loving neighbors is also about holiness. What would that mean?
“Holiness” is a term that conjures up a lot of baggage for us. It often sounds utterly judgmental. Holiness is about separation, and usually a separation that entails that one thing is superior to another. We often conceive of holiness as a personal thing, a form of status, an attribute that sets you above the rest. Holiness is about not sullying one’s hands with impure things. Even the phrase “holier-than-thou” suggests a sense of arbitrary self-righteousness. As such, personal claims to “holiness” or “perfection” can be quite off-putting. Some of my seminary friends who are Methodists—which is itself part of the “holiness” tradition—believe in “entire sanctification”: the idea that it is possible to reach perfection within one’s lifetime. Apparently, some of them even know pastors who have announced from the pulpit, “I have reached a point in my Christian walk where I no longer knowingly sin.” What a smug proclamation. But lest we think that Mennonites are above such sorts of superiority complexes, I recently had an interaction with a woman who claimed that she was run out of a Mennonite church because the church had a similarly vaunted sense of holiness. She described them as “white, NPR-listening, Nalgene-bottle-carrying, free-Tibet-bumper-sticker-having professional Mennonites who read Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry” who strutted around with a sense of holiness that telegraphed the message, “You are welcome for the privilege of being in my morally superior presence. Now I will graciously serve you.” This woman ran into Mennonites who believed in a sort of separation from the world, but one that came across as patently patronizing. And this separation did nothing to convince the world that it was profane, rather, it convinced the world that Mennonites were not humble. Some might argue that if we focus on holiness and separation, this will always be the case, since focusing on holiness always suggests a hatred of that which is profane. Is the attitude of this group of Mennonites in the spirit of the holiness that Leviticus calls its readers to?
“Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Leviticus frames holiness in terms of call and response. One commentator suggests that holiness is not so much a static attribute of God, but rather, a way in which God has chosen to relate to creation. “Holiness” names the way God approaches the world with God’s whole being, and “holiness” also names the wholehearted response of God’s creatures. It is true that holiness is about separation, but it is about separation from one thing in order to be joined to another. It is a separation so that one might give oneself over entirely to another, and grant life in the process. Discernment and separation of clean and unclean animals is about separating yourself from one thing in order to draw closer to God. You are not to become holy for your own sake, but for the sake of God and the sake of your neighbor. Our Psalm for today highlights this fact: obedience to the law is not performed to gain status, but rather, to bring life (Psalm 119:36-40). The discernment of clean animals from unclean animals is not an act of blind legalism or an attempt to evoke ceremonial awe, but a way of breathing life into the created order. In Genesis 1, God first gives form to creation, then separates it. God gives form to darkness and void, then separates light from darkness, night from day, land from sea. To separate is to participate in creation.
Leviticus challenges our view of holiness as superiority in that many of the codes create distinctions that are ultimately undone; they are not the fixed and timeless dictates of some “natural law.” God draws limits that are both given and overcome simultaneously. For example, the laws concerning mixtures prohibit wearing a garment sewn from two kinds of cloth (Lev. 19:19), but a blanket sewn from two kinds of cloth is a perfectly permissible covering for the Ark of the Covenant. The mixture itself is not unholy, and God can mix what humans cannot. Some commentators have suggested that this is because humans would be tempted to disorder creation by overcoming such distinctions for their own personal gain. But whatever the reason for it, the apostle Paul plays with this idea in the book of Romans when he compares the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God to wild olive branches that are grafted unnaturally to a natural olive tree. This doesn’t describe a particularly effective farming technique, but it does describe a likely violation of the Levitical laws concerning the mixing of plants. God has brought together that which was made distinct—Jew and Gentile—without thereby nullifying the distinction.
Jesus plays with this idea of God mixing that which is distinguished in his teachings on enemy love from our passage in Matthew. “You have heard it said,” Jesus tells the crowd, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matt. 5:43-45).” Here, Jesus is offering an elaboration on one of the laws from Leviticus read today: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD (Lev. 19:17-18).” Jesus extends the admonition of love not only to neighbors, but to enemies as well, and he frames it in terms of a mimicking of the grace of God, who draws near to those who are wicked and unrighteous. This explodes the barrier between neighbor and enemy that mandates separate treatment for each, yet maintains the realistic distinction between neighbors and enemies. And yet, it requires still another form of separation. Holiness (or “perfection,” to use Jesus’ term) is about a rigorous separation from the ways of a world that loves neighbors only and hates enemies bitterly. Do not do what tax collectors do, Jesus says, go further. Do not do what Gentiles do, go further. Yet this rigorous separation is one that is simultaneously for the benefit of the world.
Jesus elaborates the law not only through his teaching, but his life and obedience unto death ultimately demonstrate the shape of holiness. In Jesus, God brings his entire being to creation. In Jesus, a human being obediently responds to God’s gracious act by separating himself from the world’s way of violence and hatred. Not to avoid that which is defiled, and not to assure himself of his own status, but to bring life to the world. That is what holiness is. Jesus gives us not only the elaboration we need on the law (he not only fills in the white space), but he also gives us a way into the holiness code of Leviticus—which is especially important to those of us who are Gentiles, who come to the wonders of the law as aliens and sojourners.
Being a disciple of Christ calls for all sorts of separation. It requires separation from forms of violence—perhaps by the refusal to serve in the military or to serve as a magistrate, perhaps by the refusal to cooperate with regimes that silence the oppressed. It requires separation from forms of retaliation—whether they be verbal, legal, or economic. It requires separation from forms of lying—perhaps by refusing to swear in front of courts, perhaps by refusing to tell “white lies” in situations the world deems socially permissible. But perhaps holiness requires that a mental check be performed any time we do separate ourselves out from the world. Perhaps we need to ask the question, “Am I separating myself from the way of the soldier because I think soldiers are dirty and profane, and I wish to prove to myself I am not like them? Or am I separating myself from the way of the soldier in order to bring all soldiers to life, whether they fight for me or against me?”
 The Rabbinic answer, for those who are curious, is 1/60th of what is harvested: Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Hersh Goldwurm, Vayikra/Leviticus, Volume II, p. 342.
 Even the discernment of clean and unclean animals seems to be about proper and improper mixtures. For example, Leviticus allows for the eating of animals that both (1) have cloven hooves, and (2) chew the cud, but not the eating of animals that only have one of these two characteristics (11:3-4). This is why pigs are unclean: they have cloven hooves, but do not chew the cud (11:7).
 This distinction between moral and ceremonial laws goes back to Origen of Alexandria, though the employment of the distinction I describe here is more akin to the way it functions in Thomas Aquinas’ work.
 Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, p. 213-214.
 This insight isn’t mine, it comes from a lecture Ellen F. Davis gave on Leviticus on 9/17/08.
 However, even this resulted in differences of interpretation; even here, there is “white space.” Some Rabbis held that the sideburns simply could not be shaved off entirely (thereby giving the hairline a “rounded” appearance), some held that the entire sidelock above the ear must be kept intact, and that to remove even two hairs from this area violated the command. Similarly, some held that the face had five “corners,” [again, what is a corner?] and the hair of the beard could not be removed only from the corners, others held that this prohibited shaving the beard entirely, though not trimming it. For a good discussion of the differences in Rabbinic interpretation, see Scherman and Goldwurm, p. 353.
 Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 186-187.
 Radner, p. 201.
 Ibid., 202.
 Ibid., 215.
 Ibid., 214-215.
 During the discussion following the sermon, I was asked to elaborate my views on the current applicability of the Mosaic Law. I take it that not much changed for Jewish Christians after Christ’s resurrection as far as legal observances go, with the exception of participation in the sacrificial cult, which the sacrifice of Christ had made obsolete (and which was done away with by all Jews on the planet when the Temple was destroyed in 70AD). However, the early church debated over how much of the law was binding upon Gentile followers of Jesus Christ. The canonical witnesses seem to be agreed that the majority of the food laws, festivals, and the circumcision laws were not binding upon Gentiles, and that the majority (though certainly not all) of the law’s mandates concerning sex, idolatry, honesty, greed, theft, anger, and envy were binding upon Gentiles (e.g. no one was okay with Gentile Christians visiting prostitutes, engaging in pedophilia, having drunken orgies, or worshipping false gods, despite the fact that Jews of the time believed—correctly—that these were all characteristically Greek things to do). However, compromise positions to ensure the preservation of table fellowship between the two groups were common in the early church. For example, the resolution of the Council of Jerusalem found in Acts 15 mandates that Gentiles Christians follow the prohibitions against drinking blood and eating meat that had been strangled. The reasons behind all of these decisions are often difficult to discern, and are certainly up for debate. However, one thing is certain: the New Testament authors portray Jesus as providing a unique and entirely new way to enter into the law without thereby ceasing to be Gentiles. Jesus “Judaized” Gentile followers rather than “Gentilizing” Jewish followers. He did not abolish the law, though this has been a common position throughout the history of Christian theology due to a particular (and in my mind quite narrow) reading of the Pauline Epistles. Rather, as Matthew says, he fulfilled it.