15 January 2012

Leviticus (ויקרא‎)


It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Leviticus is all about animal sacrifice, laws governing cleanliness, food, leprosy, sundry laws and Day of Atonement.  With 859 verses, Leviticus (Tamil: லேவியராகமம்) is the smallest of the fives in the Torah (Pentateuch).  The word Leviticus is a derivative from Greek which means “regarding the Levites”, with Levites being the priestly tribe of the Jews. In Hebrew, it is called ‘wa-yiqra’ which means "And, He called" (*). 

            Like all the first five books in the Jewish Bible, book Leviticus is also attributed to Prophet Moses. And like all these five books, it is also a presentation of prophetic utterances, divine deliverance, commandments, sundry laws, forbidden and permitted, modes of worship and so on. Leviticus is also not a book of any great literary quality like the Psalms, Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. However, even this small book has something for us to learn about the past. I would like to bring to light on the practice of animal sacrifice in Judaism and then speak about a commandment which is not there in the original ten.
 
(1) Animal sacrifice

Ritual sacrifice of animals for pleasing god and deities exists in one form or the other, in many religions of the world. In some religions, the practice has become over the years redundant owing to increasing animal welfare reasons, while in a few it is still ardently practiced with due to respect to their religious decree. 

·         In Judaism, Jews are instructed to restrict their sacrifice only at the Temple, but even this practice has come to a standstill after the demolition of the temple in the first century A.D. But there are indications in the Jewish Bible itself of some of the Semitic Prophets going against animal sacrifice (Amos 5: 22; Isaiah 1:11; Psalm 40:6)

·         Animal killing is obligatory on the part of Hindu householders in some occasions like Shraddha (Vivekananda, Complete Works V 482.1) (Vivekananda, 1989). Though it formed an important part in ancient Brahminical Hinduism, this practice of sacrificing at the yājna’s has nearly stopped. In many Hindu religious literatures, often in the same work, we come across one recommending animal sacrifice and the other admonishing animal killing (see Manu Smriti 5:39 and 5:52). With ahimsa dharma becoming popular (non-injury) and birth of shramanic religions like Jainism and Buddhism, it is only natural that animal practice failed to receive the continued support of the priestly class. However, animal sacrifice still continues in many rural areas as part of local cult practices, particularly in Shaktism.  

·         In Islam, however, Qurbani (sacrifice) is not for atonement of sins or for pleasing God. Chapter 22 (Al-Hajj) in the Quran has the verses that make Islam’s position on animal sacrifice clear. Sacrifice during Pilgrimage is done at the House of Worship (22:33), slaughtered meat to be used for feeding beggars and the suppliant; and the flesh and food do not reach Allah (22:36). But ritual sacrifice is not restricted to the pilgrimage site alone, but performed by billions of Muslims all over the world during Idd.  In that sense, Islam is the only major religion where animal sacrifice is still prevalent and it appears to me that Qurbani is to stay as it is for all years to come by. 

·         Historically, it seems sacrifice symbolically moved from human to animals. Human sacrifice should have been considered the most pleasing to the gods or god than sacrifice using animals. The Bible has few references where God demands sacrifice of humans: "Take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will point out to you" (Genesis 22:1-18). “You shall not delay the offering from your harvest and your vintage. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me”  (Exodus 22:29). Having been brought up in a community where human sacrifice for gods was not uncommon, it is not a surprise for Prophet Abraham to have got the vision of being directed to sacrifice his son Isaac (in Islam, it is Ismail). We can say this event in the Judeo-Christian history marked the end of human sacrifice for God. If survival Abraham’s son Ismail (or Isaac in the Bible) is a symbolic full stop to the practice of human sacrifice, for the Christians the death of Jesus on the cross represents the culmination of any kind of sacrifice or burnt offerings in the name of God (Hamilton, 2011).
Jewish and Tamilian parallels

Ancient Tamils also made sacrifices to their gods. Akananuru mentions the sacrifice of a fat cow  and the sprinkling of the blood around the place of worship, exactly the same way we find in Leviticus. Not only is the act of sprinkling of blood mentioned, but also the fire place and altar where sacrifices were offered in ancient Tamil country! Here are the parallels between Jewish and Tamil practices of animal sacrifice:

தெய்வஞ் சேர்ந்த பராரை வேம்பிற்
கொழுப்பா எறிந்து குருதி தூஉய்ப்
புலவுப் புழுக்குண்ட வான்கண் அகலறை
(Akam, 309)

They sacrifice a fat cow
under the shade of a neem tree
where abides their deity;
They sprinkle the blood of the cow
on the neem tree,
and eat its cooked flesh
on the high and wide rock.
(Akananuru, 309: 4-6)
He is to slaughter the young bull before the LORD,
And then Aaron's sons the priests shall bring the blood
And sprinkle it against the altar on all sides
at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
(Leviticus 1:5)

அழலெழு தித்தியம் மடுத்த யாமை
நிழலுடை நெடுங்கயம் புகல்வேட் டாஅங்கு
(Akam, 361)

(Like a) tortoise that covets its wide tank
under the cool shade for its habitation,
When it was removed and irretrievably placed
into sacrificial pit of blazing fire,
As an offering to the celestials
of unfading garlands!
(Akananuru 361: 11-12)
And the priest shall burn them upon the altar:
It is the food of the offering made by fire
for a sweet aroma: All the fat is the LORD'S.
(Leviticus 3:16)
But ye shall offer an offering made by fire
Unto the LORD seven days: ……
(Leviticus 23:8)

In one of the 18 minor works in Tamil, there is also a reference to the sacrifice of goat and sprinkling of its blood as an offering to Lord Murukam (“மறி ஈர்த்து உதிரம் தூய், வேலன் in Ainthinai Aimpathu - ஐந்திணை ஐம்பது, 20). Animal sacrifice is either not popular or does not exist in the two religions of Persian origin, namely Zoroastrianism and Baha’i faith. Of the two great religious traditions that evolved in China, animal sacrifice was practiced in Confucianism but not in Taoism. From India, Buddhism and Jainism revolted against animal sacrifice in Brahminical Hinduism, as evident from their basic tenets of these religions.  

I lay no wood, brahman, for fires on altars,
Only within burneth the flame I kindle.
Ever my fire burns, ever composed of self,
I, perfected, fare the Brahma-faring.
As load of fuel surely is pride, O brahman;
The altar's smoke, anger; thy false words, ashes;
The tongue's the priest's spoon; and the heart the altar;
The flame thereon—this is man's self well tamed.
(Samyutta-Nikhaya,  i. 169.)

Not surprisingly, there is also a complete Jataka Tale (No. 543: Bhūridatta Jātaka) devoted to educate Brahmins who indulged in animal sacrifice and burnt offerings during the days of the Buddha. Tamil moralist Thiruvalluvar has said Better than a thousand burnt offerings is one life un-killed, un-eaten” (Kural 259) (அவிசொரிந் தாயிரம் வேட்டலின் ஒன்றன் உயிர்செகுத் துண்ணாமை நன்று). So also Buddha: “Better is the reverence to one soul than a hundred years of sacrifices with a thousand offerings” (Dhammapada, 106). So also Prophet Hosea: “I desired Mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God is more than burnt offerings” (Bible-Hosea, 6:6). So also in the Hebrews, one of the books of the New Testament: “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin you did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (Bible-Hebrews, 10:8). All these sayings only go on to show  that animal sacrifice in the name of God, for whatever reason it may be, had become an admonishment in various cultures and religious traditions. 

(2) Love your neighbor as yourself

To me, one of the most important statements in Leviticus is the following one, where Jews are commanded to treat even foreigners as their own countrymen and to love them as themselves. This dictum has ramifications in the current uncertain political scenario involving Jews and Muslims in Palestine. This golden rule of reciprocity has many a parallel across various religious traditions of the world. 

The stranger who resides with you
          shall be to you as the native among you,
          and you shall love him as yourself;
For you were strangers in the land of Egypt:
I am the LORD your God.
(Lev 19: 34)

உங்களிடம் தங்கும் அன்னியர்
            உங்கள் நாட்டில் பிறந்தவரைப் போல் இருக்க வேண்டும்.
உங்கள் மீது நீங்கள் அன்புகூர்வதுபோல்
            அவர் மீதும் அன்புகூருங்கள்.
ஏனெனில், எகிப்தில் நீங்களும் அன்னியர்களாய் இருந்தீர்கள்;
நானே உங்கள் கடவுளாகிய ஆண்டவர்!

This dictum reminds me very much of the ancient Tamil slogan யாதும் ஊரே; யாவரும் கேளிர்” which when translated into English, reads: “Every country is my native and everyone my kinsmen” (Puranānūru, 192). This was proclaimed sometime during 100 B.C. to 200 A.D., at least a couple centuries after Jewish Torah was formally recognized as a scripture. This was only a beginning, as we see this basic essence of treating strangers as your relative continuing to emanate from various sources.  The 16th century A.D. Kannada poet Sarvajnamoorthy declared that “All are my kith and kin, of every street, entire town” (ಊರೆಲ್ಲಾ ನೆನ್ತಾರು ಕೇರಿಯೆಲ್ವು ಬಳಗ). The 18th century A.D. founder of Bahai faith Baha'ulla declared that The earth is but one Country, and mankind its Citizens” (Gleanings). Roughly during the same period, English author and intellectual Thomas Paine said “The world is my country. All mankind are my brethren”.

While the first message in the above Biblical verse from Leviticus is to regard even strangers as your native, the second line asks the Jews to go a step further and love them as themselves. This was mentioned already once in Leviticus itself (19:18), but strangely it did not find a place among the Jewish 10 commandments. This phrase “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” occurs at least six more times in the Bible (apart from Leviticus, also in Matthew 19:19, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8). Since most of these occurrences are in the New Testament, we can deduce that this commandment is more significant to Christianity than Judaism. More so because, one of these references reiterates in clear terms: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). However, Christians cannot patent this saying as that of Jesus, for this ethic of reciprocity was already there in the Old Testament.  There is even a Thirukkural on similar lines: “தன்னைத்தான் காதல னாயின் எனைத்தொன்றும் துன்னற்க தீவினைப் பால் (Kural 209). It means a “If you love yourself, refrain from causing ill of any degree.’’

References:

·         Hamilton, J. 2011. There is no role for animal sacrifice in Christianity. The Guardian. Thursday 15 December 2011
·         Vivekananda, Swami. 1989. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta. 9 Volumes.
·         Gleanings from with Writings of Baha'ulla. No. 117. p. 250

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