Friday, April 09, 2010

We are just one part of creation.....

היום עשרה ימים שהם שבוע אחד
ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is the tenth day, making one week
and three days of the omer
תפארת שבגבורה

A day of compassion in a week of strength

Yesterday I wrote of the new Koren siddur I'm using, for which Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain, wrote the introduction, translation, and commentary for this siddur. I've been receiving his weekly Torah commentaries for a couple of years. Through his writings, I often find new ways to look at the parshiot, which is the best you can hope to get from teachings.

This week's parsha, Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47, lays out the laws of Kashrut--what can be eaten, what shouldn't be eaten. I highly recommend reading Rabbi Sacks' commentary--you can find it here. He shows how the practice of kashrut serves as a reminder that humans are just one element of creation, not the center. He uses the description of creation contained in Job as opposed to the Genesis creation story to make his point:

Job is the paradigm of the righteous individual who suffers. He loses all he has, for no apparent reason. His companions tell him that he must have sinned. Only this can reconcile his fate with justice. Job maintains his innocence and demands a hearing in the heavenly tribunal. For some 37 chapters the argument rages, then in chapter 38 G-d addresses Job "out of the whirlwind". G-d offers no answers. Instead, for four chapters, He asks questions of His own, rhetorical questions that have no answer: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? . . . Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? . . . Does the rain have a father? . . . From whose womb comes the ice?"

G-d shows Job the whole panoply of creation, but it is a very different view of the universe than that set out in Genesis 1-2. There the centre of the narrative is the human person. He/she is created last; made in G-d's image; given dominion over all that lives. In Job 38-41 we see not an anthropocentric, but a theocentric, universe. Job is the only person in Tanakh who sees the world, as it were, from G-d's point of view.

Particularly striking is the way these chapters deal with the animal kingdom. What Job sees are not domestic animals, but wild, untameable creatures, magnificent in their strength and beauty, living far from and utterly indifferent to humankind:

Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? . . .
Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread his wings toward the south?
Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high? . . .
Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? . . .
Nothing on earth is his equal- a creature without fear.
He looks down on all that are haughty;
he is king over all that are proud.

This is the most radically non-anthropocentric passage in the Hebrew Bible. It tells us that man is not the centre of the universe, nor are we the measure of all things. Some of the most glorious aspects of nature have nothing to do with human needs, and everything to do with the Divine creation of diversity. . .

. . . We now understand what is at stake in the prohibition of certain species of animals, birds and fish, many of them predators like the creatures described in Job 38-41. They exist for their own sake, not for the sake of humankind. The vast universe, and earth itself with the myriad species it contains, has an integrity of its own.

I hear the vegetarians saying, "Okay, so shouldn't we just not eat other creatures-wouldn't that practice better serve the point?" Yes, but the reality of the situation, from thousands of years ago when this was written up through today, is that mankind will eat meat. So I can appreciate setting up a practice when one must be mindful of what is eaten. What this teaching adds for me is the realization that we need to remember to view the other creatures of the world on their own terms, not as subservient species.

Because the chanting of Shemini falls within the omer period each year, I have looked at the issue of kashrut and what that means on both a personal and group level each year. And each year I see these teachings from a different perspective. You can see those posts here and here. It's a good bet there will be another one next year -- it's just all a part of the joy of studying Torah.

UPDATE: I am happy to have such a knowledgeable group of readers. I received an email last evening gently correcting my statement that Shemini is read during the omer period each year. On leap years, in which an entire month is added to the Jewish calendar, the chanting of Shemini will happen before Pesach begins. Thanks to all of you for helping maintain the integrity of this blog.

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