By Shlomo Riskin
The two main subjects dealt with in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini seem to be totally removed one from the other. First, we read of the tragic death of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, on the eighth day of the consecration of the Sanctuary and then we read all of the details of the laws of kashrut including detailed lists of animals, fowl and fish that are forbidden. It seems to me, however, that there is a powerful connection between these two issues.
Let us begin with kashrut. The Bible itself concludes its food prohibitions by declaring the following rationale: “Because I am the Lord your God and you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Most of our commentaries define ‘holiness’ as the ability to separate oneself from one’s physical instincts and drives, an inner discipline which enables the individual to rise above the physical and to come closer to the spiritual.
However, the roots of kashrut express an even deeper idea and ideal. The introduction to the Five Books of Moses is the story of the Garden of Eden and the first sin of Adam and Eve. This transgression of the first two human beings was a breach of the laws of kashrut. The Almighty commanded Adam, “From every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it” (Gen. 2:16-17). Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and were banished from the Garden of Eden. But why was that fruit forbidden? After all, the Bible itself testifies that the fruit was “good for food” … “a delight to the eyes” … “desirable as a source for wisdom” (Gen. 3:6). Why was it prohibited?
The serpent explains the reason: “Because God knows that on the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing what is good and what is evil” (Gen. 3:5). The serpent, symbolizing the forces of evil within the world, is expressing the fundamental struggle which takes place within the heart of every individual: who decides what is good and what is evil? Is it the subjective individual or is it a more objective outside system or Being whom we call God?
What God is setting down at the very dawn of creation is the fundamental axiom of a religious lifestyle: the final arbiter in the realm of good and evil must be the Divine Will rather than individual desire. The forbidden fruit is evil because God calls it evil. The ultimate source of morality must be a system that is higher than any individual.
Many years ago, I was told by a congregant – whose husband had been considered a pillar of their community – that her husband had established a second residence with another woman several miles away with whom he had even fathered a child. When I confronted the husband, he didn’t even blink an eyelash. He confirmed the facts of the case, but insisted that he was acting out of the highest standards of morality. The only way he could continue his marriage to his wife – who he insisted could not live if she was a divorcee – was if he was simultaneously receiving satisfaction from this other woman, and that he had rescued this “second wife” from committing suicide. Not only did he not consider his act of adultery a transgression; he truly believed that he had rescued two women’s lives by having this extra-marital relationship.
Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, maintains that when it comes to rationalization and self-justification, every human being is a genius. We can always find cogent reasons justifying to ourselves acts that we would readily condemn in others. It is for this reason that the subjective individual can never be the ultimate arbiter as to what is proper and what is improper. Our Bible gives the Divine imprimatur to what is right and what is wrong. Although many of the laws of kashrut are guided by ethical sensitivity and the basic moral ambiguity involved in eating the flesh of creatures that were once alive, these laws are basically the paradigm for our deference to God in the realm of morality. Hence, our Ten Commandments are not merely options.
Religious commitment demands humility of the individual who is required to bend his knee before a higher Divine power, both in terms of our ethical and ritual lives as well as in terms of our acceptance of tragedy that often seems absurd and illogical. Aaron the High Priest stood at the zenith of success with the consecration of the Sanctuary in the desert. Then, his two sons performed an unsolicited religious act which expressed their profound appreciation of the Divine “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them” – inexplicably and even absurdly (Lev. 10:2 and Rashi ad loc.). The Bible records Aaron’s response in two Hebrew words: “And Aaron was silent” (ibid, 10:3).
Apparently, we learn from this that when one individual acts unjustly towards another, we must speak out and act. But when a tragedy occurs which is not of human making – and when a Divine law insists upon human discipline – we must submit to the ultimate will of a god whom our Bible guarantees is “a God of compassion and loving kindness,” even though it may be beyond our subjective understanding.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.