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Shemini, Taboos and Shouts of Mazel Tov

When Susie and I were married, now over 25 years ago, Susie and I each broke a glass to conclude the ceremony.  The reactions this elicited from our guests were telling.  While we thought it was perfectly in keeping with our commitment to an egalitarian relationship, others were perplexed by this gesture and wondered (aloud) if we broke some ancient tradition.  Our arguments that the breaking of a glass at a Jewish wedding is only a custom and not law did not mitigate these concerns.  Our addition to the Jewish ceremony people had come to know and love was met with comments of “interesting” at best and “radical” at worst.  We had, in the eyes of many, broken some sacred taboo.

I have been thinking about taboos.  Not the game of course and not the breaking of anything more radical than a ceremonial glass, but instead the religious concept.  In any introduction to Religious Studies one learns that a taboo (and I quote from the Encyclopedia) is the prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too dangerous for ordinary individuals to undertake.  Our portion is framed by this concept.  It begins with details about the sacrifices to be offered in ancient days and in particular how to repair an offense with the sin offering.

It concludes with a list of kosher and non-kosher animals.  “These you may eat of all that live in water: anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales—these you may eat. But anything in the seas or in the streams that has no fins and scales, among all the swarming things of the water and among all the other living creatures that are in the water—they are an abomination for you.” (Leviticus 11:9-10)  This list certainly creates the impression that certain foods are permitted and others prohibited, and are in fact abominations.

Sandwiched in the middle is the story of Nadav and Avihu.  They are Aaron’s sons and therefore priests.  They die when offering a sacrifice. “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)  What was their sin?   

The Torah offers little explanation.  Rabbis are left to ponder.  Some read the text literally.  God had not explicitly commanded this sacrifice.  A number even write that they must have been intoxicated even though the story does not mention such an infraction.  The prohibition against priests drinking alcohol while offering a sacrifice follows soon after this episode.  And so a connection is made between the two.  The list of possible interpretations is endless.  The young priests were overly ambitious.  They sought to usurp their father Aaron’s and Uncle Moses’ jobs.

We read again the words: they offered an “alien fire.”  What is an alien fire?  Does it burn in an unusual way?  Or is it instead that they brought something foreign to the sacrificial altar?  The Torah suggests it is the latter.  They had broken a taboo.  They brought something to the sacred precinct that was forbidden.  Their punishment was death.        

Such was the world view of the ancients.  There is a line between sacred and profane, permitted and prohibited.  Cross it and you invite death.  Still I wonder.  What is foreign is of course a matter of language and labeling.  What I call alien you might call akin.  What you call foreign I might call sacred.  What was labeled by some as approaching blasphemy others still view as a step forward towards egalitarianism.  Who has the power to deem this appropriate and that inappropriate?  And now we have arrived at the essence of the struggle between generations.  “Why can’t I wear shorts to dinner?” asks the child.  “Because!” the parent responds. 

I continue to wonder has the very concept of taboos been turned on its head.  In an age when privacy and personal fulfillment are set as the highest of goals how can there remain a shared concept of what is forbidden and what is permitted.  It was the pressure of community that made for taboos.  It was the community whose language labeled this an abomination.  Community is no longer as compelling as it once was.  And so today far more is permitted.  Or is this the perspective of a graying parent? 

Recall this. Both Nadav and Avihu were priests.  They were supposed to offer the sacrifice.  And yet in this instance they slipped.  They performed one small step out of place.  The line between permitted and forbidden is often very near.   The line was thin then.  Perhaps it remains just as close now.

And we remain, as the Book of Exodus proclaims, a “kingdom of priests.”  Will we stumble and fall?  The power of language continues to rest in our hands.  The glass remains shattered.

And yet the congregation shouted in unison, “Mazel tov.”