What's with All These Rules?

 Dear Rabbi:

Shemini has my mind going in many different directions because it has a variety of subjects worth exploring.
If I may encapsulate the first two aliyahs, there are sacrifices being performed by Aaron in the newly built Tabernacle which leads to something that became almost commonplace to the Israelites as they made their way out of Egypt and onto their journey in the desert, but the likes of which we have not seen since.
People go to the movies to see a wide screen show us technical marvels that we generally cannot see in real life. C.B. DeMille wanted his epic movie ”The Ten Commandments” to be greater in terms of visual effects than movie goers had ever seen before. The “splitting” of the Red Sea was the ultimate technical marvel of the film and was looked at with awe as it was shown on the screen. As technology has advanced so have the “spectacles” that might be shown on screen. If you want another semi-religious example, I refer you to the original Indiana Jones movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.
The point of this is, as Jews, we believe that what is depicted in the Torah actually occurred and was not some kind of technological trick. The latest example is Third Aliyah wherein Leviticus 9:24 we read the following:
“And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.”
To keep showing that he was in their midst, G-d sends down a heavenly fire and consumes the offerings on the altar. As an early example of those that do not follow history are doomed to repeat it, Aaron's eldest two sons, Nadab and Avihu, bring an unauthorized incense offering and a heavenly fire consumes them. Obviously they did not learn from the ten plagues that it was not a good idea to try and duplicate what the All Mighty did. It seems to me that the “wrath of G-d” is shown when mere humans have the audacity to think they can accomplish what is a miracle created by G-d.
Reading the Third Aliyah also reminded me of a statement made by Rabbi Herman to the effect that with all that he did wrong, like his involvement with the golden calf, Aaron seemed to escape punishment. When he said it, I pointed out that that there can be no greater tragedy than the loss of one’s children and Rabbi Herman quickly agreed and said that he had been wrong in his statement. There is something in the Third Aliyah as it pertains to Aaron and the loss of his sons that troubles me. It is what occurs in Leviticus 10:3, specifically Aaron’s reaction to Moses’ explanation of what happened:  “And Aaron was silent.” I read a commentary on this and it stated as follows: “You can imagine how sad this tragedy makes Aaron, but he does not say anything, he remains quiet and accepts G‑d's judgment.” How does anyone know how Aaron felt? Tragedy brings on many different emotions and just because Aaron did not cry out against G-d for what had happened, why does his silence signify acceptance? It could just have easily been explained as Aaron realizing he had done wrong in the past and this was payback, albeit with the greatest consequence, but it does not mean that he accepted it.
I reluctantly leave the Third Aliyah because it has other intriguing aspects for which questions could be asked and I go on to the Fifth Aliyah. In Leviticus 10:17 the following is stated by Moses in response to what was not done by Aaron and his sons with respect to not consuming a sacrifice:
"Why did you not eat the sin offering in the holy place? For it is holy of holies, and He has given it to you to gain forgiveness for the sin of the community, to effect their atonement before the Lord!”
To me, here we see the difference between what G-d commands and interpretations of what G-d wants given by mere mortals even those as great as Moses. Aaron responds in Leviticus 10:19 with the following:
And Aaron spoke to Moses, "But today, did they offer up their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord? But [if tragic events] like these had befallen me, and if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have pleased the Lord?"
Remember, it was Moses, not G-d that had asked why a command as stated by Moses was not obeyed, and the answer given by Aaron “pleased” Moses, which to me shows that Jewish law can be interpreted in different ways, which is why I like to study it.
To me this segues nicely into the Sixth Aliyah and what is kosher and what isn’t and what is supposed to be done and/or not done with respect to non kosher animals. Specifically in Leviticus 11:8, where it says the following:
“You shall not eat of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.”
When I read this I immediately thought of American football and the term used to describe the actual ball used as a “pigskin”. Does that mean quarterbacks of Jewish persuasion like Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman committed terrible sins when these great quarterbacks took the ball and threw it, which in the case of those that I described above led to championships for the teams they played for?
I did some research and found out that that when American football came to be played in the mid 1800’s, the ball was an actual pig’s bladder not its skin but that was overtaken by the rawhide of cattle and then rubber once the game progressed. So Messrs. Friedman and Luckman and all of the others that play or played the game are not in direct sin, but the other rules as it applies to being “kosher” as is found in the remaining aliyahs lead me to many different questions.
My problem with what I perused, specifically in the Seventh Aliyah, has more to do with what I did not read. Basically what is stated is what we do if non kosher foods come in contact with the vessels one uses to eat. The vessels are to be destroyed. This includes such things as stoves and ovens. The Torah then mentions the impurity contracted through coming in contact with the carcass of a kosher animal which was not ritually slaughtered. This leads to washing ones garments to become “clean” again.
My question from all of this is where do we get the “rules” as they exist today? This is rhetorical, of course, in that what we have today are rabbinic interpretations, which are followed by some but not by all. Rice during Passover comes to mind immediately.
My real problem with all of this stems from a joke told to us by Cantor Black that starts off with  G-d telling Moses that we as Jews are not to as it pertains to Exodus 23:19 wherein it is stated:  “You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk”, and Moses then saying he “gets it” and interprets this to mean having two different dishes and utensils for meat and dairy with G-d coming back and saying my commandment is “You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk”, which leads Moses to then speak of even more different dishes and utensils for Passover and G-d again saying that what he is saying is that “You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk”, which then has Moses saying it also means that we should have two separate ovens, with G-d finally saying, “OK Moses, have it your way.”
How does the clear language of what is considered kosher and not using a utensil that is touched by a non-kosher animal evolve into the “rules” that we have today?


Dear Mordecai,

There certainly is a lot to discuss in Shemini. You write, “The point of this is, as Jews, we believe that what is depicted in the Torah actually occurred and was not some kind of technological trick.” I often think about how movies do serve as a kind of replacement of the Torah for the secular person. That is because movies capture the imagination and so does the Torah. The difference is that movies also satisfy the imagination, which is unlike the Torah, which requires one to contribute one’s own imagination to gain a sense of satisfaction from what one has read.
I find your take on Nadab and Avihu remarkably original. You write, “Obviously they did not learn from the ten plagues that it was not a good idea to try and duplicate what the All Mighty did. It seems to me that the “wrath of G-d” is shown when mere humans have the audacity to think they can accomplish what is a miracle created by G-d.” I would not have thought of that as the cause of their deaths.
Indeed, silence may be understood in various ways. I also tire of the pious commentaries, which offer an interpretation that fits in with a predetermined notion of what being a faithful Jew and believer in G-d means.
I enjoyed your exegesis of the fifth Aliyah, but I wonder whether you think any downsides exist to the variety of ways that Jewish law can be interpreted.
I found your discussion of the “pigskin” and Jewish quarterbacks amusing and humorous. It touches upon one of the subjects I know you love, which is sports.
You ask a large question about where we get the “rules” as they exist today. Effectively, you’re asking about the origin and development of the rabbinic enterprise in its entirety, and a great deal of literature exists on the subject. What comes to mind, though, is the following: The Rabbis knew the entire Tanakh by heart. In addition, many of them knew the trope as well. When you take these two factors into account, I think you can gain an inkling of how they developed their interpretations and why their interpretations do not make apparent sense to us. Their knowledge – in these respects – was much broader and readily at hand than ours, allowing them to make intuitive leaps of which we would never conceive.
You conclude with Cantor Black’s joke, which touches at the heart of our tradition. Where does G-d’s word end, and human interpretation begin? Anyone who thinks they can find that line is humoring himself. That’s why most people take extremes: 1) It’s all G-d’s word. 2) It’s all a human construct. Exploring the issue of where His word ends and our interpretation begins is the heart of Conservative Judaism, so I know, once again, that you are in the right movement.