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April 15, 2013 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

This week’s Torah portion is another double portion.  The first half is mostly about sacrifices; the second is more about ethics.

One of the more uncertain parts of Acharei Mot is the commandment that “if anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord … bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man.” (Lev. 17:3-4).  Deut. 12 provides that Jews can slaughter animals for food without going to a sacrificial altar, as long as they avoid eating blood.

Is there a contradiction between these verses?  It could be argued that Lev. 17 means that no domesticated animal can be killed outside the Tabernacle, which essentially would prohibit a non-sacrificial use of meat and contradict Deut. 12.  Indeed, the talmudic sage Rabbi Ishmael took this point of view, asserting that the Torah originally forbade all slaughter away from the central altar and that Deut. 12 allows what had previously been forbidden (perhaps because as the Jews spread throughout the Land of Israel, the sacrificial altar was further away).

But Baruch Levine (author of the JTS commentary on Leviticus) points out that Rabbi Akiva disagrees.  Rabbi Akiva argued that the term “slaughter” in Lev. 17:3 (in Hebrew, shahat) is not meant to cover all killing of animals, just sacrificial slaughter.  In support of this view, Levine notes that there is another Hebrew word (nehirah) for ordinary stabbing.  Thus, Lev. 17 and Deut. 12 do not contradict each other: both allow non-sacrificial slaughter anywhere, but require sacrifices to be in holy places.

Both portions have provisions relevant to xenophobia.  Lev. 18:22 says that a male shall not “lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” Levine points out that there are two biblical narratives involving homosexuality (Gen. 19 and Judges 19).  Both involve the same situation: the men of a town seek to rape a male foreigner.  So perhaps the purpose of this provision is at least partially to prohibit xenophobic rape. This may explain why lesbianism is not mentioned in the Torah- to the extent it came up at all, it did not involve rape or xenophobia.

Similarly, the Torah generally prohibits misconduct directed against “a stranger” (19:33).  The Torah points out that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (19:34).  What sort of strangers might these be?  Levine points out that the term “stranger” does not mean the prior inhabitants of the land (who the Jews are commanded to wage war against); instead, it means “a foreign merchant or craftsman or a mercenary solider.”  Levine also notes that “most ancient societies had laws protecting foreign merchants, officials and others.”  In other words, here the Jews are not completely unique: other societies wanted to protect at least some foreigners.  How come?

It seems to me that it is in a commercial society’s interest to protect foreign merchants; if traders are mistreated, they won’t come to your town or nation, and your economy will be isolated and poor and have a limited supply of goods.   So to some extent, being nice to strangers is good business.


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