I sometimes feel very far removed from the people in the Bible, but this chapter shows we don’t always think as differently as it might seem. Here a bunch of people ask the exact same kind of question I’ve been asking. “But what if…”
In this case, it’s “What if we’re unclean and can’t perform sacrifices for Passover?” Does the necessity to Passover trump uncleanliness? Are they allowed to skip Passover? The answer is, “No, just celebrate it a month later,” which I was surprised to find out is actually something that some Orthodox and Conservative Jews still practice. This is what I get for having Reform friends in high school.
As a Christian, we tend to come in with a “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath attitude” — if following the letter of the law winds up resulting in a bad outcome, ditch the law. The traditional, rabbinic response, though, has been to stretch the letter of the law until it eliminates the bad outcome. Take, for example, the prohibition on carrying items outside of your house on the Sabbath. What about people who need to use canes or baby carriages to get to synagogue? The Christian answer is, “The rule doesn’t apply in those cases.” The response in Orthodox Judaism is the eruv.
Now, the part of me that didn’t get a decent bath of “respect other religions” in my college study tends to scoff at the way that orthopraxic religions tend to invent loopholes to get out of rules that inconvenience or harm them. And even the part of me that did get that bath would still argue that there’s a lot more flexibility and freedom in the viewpoint that laws are only good until they start hurting people.
But since I’m trying to think of this idea of community that’s so strong in these passages, I think there’s also a lot more structure and continuity in the viewpoint that laws are always good, you just have to figure out the right way to apply them. And this passage seems to hold up the idea that God is reasonable about this. If two of the laws conflict, there’s a way to follow both.
That idea of God’s reasonableness ties this first part in with the second half, where the Israelites sometimes spend months camped in one location until the cloud moves. You’d have to have a lot of trust that God knows what he’s doing, that’s there’s a rational basis of all of this, even if you can’t quite see it yet. And that goes in, maybe, to the faith that the law has reasons and makes sense even if it’s confusing or seems unfair.
That kind of trust is something I understand, but to me it feels like the eruvim answer places greater trust on the law itself than on God behind the law. God is to be trusted because God is good. Sometimes the law isn’t, and so as a Christian I doubt the law. Traditionally Judaism has tried to bend the law until it matches the good God behind it.
Why the difference in tradition? Well, I think it’s because in Judaism (again, traditionally) the law is the fullest revelation of God that there is. Even Jewish mysticism like Kabbalah and Hasidism derive from symbolic interpretation of the Torah.
But in Christianity, we believe the fullest revelation of God is Jesus, who had a very different perspective. And of course the freedom from the stricture of orthopraxy also placed us under the burden of orthodoxy, but I’ll think and talk more about that at some other time.
The Japanese: jogai suru “to exclude, to omit” (v 7), ikenie “(living) sacrifice” (v 11), hitoshii “equal, identical,” tekiyou suru “to apply to” (v 14), wazuka na “few, little, slight” (v 20).
It’s been fascinating how many words for “offering” and “sacrifice” there are in Japanese. Ikenie has two characters, one for “living,” and the other for an archaic term that I had to look up in my medieval Japanese dictionary that came with my pocket translator. Nihe is a really old word for food sacrifices.