The second half of Exodus and the first part of Leviticus form a carefully structured narrative. The Israelites are commanded to construct a sanctuary. They carry out the command. This is followed by an account of sacrifices to be offered there. Then, in the first part of today's sedra, the cohanim, the priests, are inducted into office.
What happens next, though, is unexpected: the dietary laws, a list of permitted and forbidden species, animals, fish and birds. What is the logic of these laws? And why are they placed here? What is their connection with the sanctuary?
The late R. Elie Munk (The Call of the Torah, vol. 2, p. 99) offered a fascinating suggestion. As we have mentioned before in these studies, the sanctuary was a human counterpart of the cosmos. Several key words in the biblical account of its construction are also key words in the narrative of creation at the beginning of Genesis. The Talmud (Megillah 10b) says about the completion of the sanctuary, that "On that day there was joy before the Holy One blessed be He as on the day when heaven and earth were created." The universe is the home G-d made for man. The sanctuary was the home human beings made for G-d.
R. Munk reminds us that the first command G-d gave the first human was a dietary law. "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." The dietary laws in Shmini parallel the prohibition given to Adam. As then, so now, a new era in the spiritual history of humankind, preceded by an act of creation, is marked by laws about what one may and may not eat.
So it may not be the faith in faith schools that makes them different, so much as the communities that build, support and sustain them. But this fact too should give us pause for thought. For is this not one of the great functions of faith, that it preserves values and institutions that would otherwise be swept away by the tide of time? One way or another, the critics should reflect on this simple question. If faith schools are so bad, why do thoughtful, often secular, parents think they are so good?
Why? As with sex, so with eating: these are the most primal activities, shared with many other forms of life. Without sex there is no continuation of the species. Without food, even the individual cannot survive. These, therefore, have been the focus of radically different cultures. On the one hand there are hedonistic cultures in which food and sex are seen as pleasures and pursued as such. On the other are ascetic cultures - marked by monastic seclusion - in which sex is avoided and eating kept to a minimum. The former emphasize the body, the latter the soul. Judaism, by contrast, sees the human situation in terms of integration and balance. We are body and soul. Hence the Judaic imperative, neither hedonistic nor ascetic, but transformative. We are commanded to sanctify the activities of eating and sex. From this flow the dietary laws and the laws of family purity (niddah and mikveh), two key elements of kedushah, the life of holiness.
However, we can go further. Genesis 1 is not the only account of creation in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. There are several others. One is contained in the last chapters of the Book of Job. It is this that deserves close attention.
Job is the paradigm of the righteous individual who suffers. He loses all he has, for no apparent reason. His companions tell him that he must have sinned. Only this can reconcile his fate with justice. Job maintains his innocence and demands a hearing in the heavenly tribunal. For some 37 chapters the argument rages, then in chapter 38 G-d addresses Job "out of the whirlwind". G-d offers no answers. Instead, for four chapters, He asks questions of His own, rhetorical questions that have no answer: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? . . . Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? . . . Does the rain have a father? . . . >From whose womb comes the ice?"
G-d shows Job the whole panoply of creation, but it is a very different view of the universe than that set out in Genesis 1-2. There the centre of the narrative is the human person. He/she is created last; made in G-d's image; given dominion over all that lives. In Job 38-41 we see not an anthropocentric, but a theocentric, universe. Job is the only person in Tanakh who sees the world, as it were, from G-d's point of view.
Particularly striking is the way these chapters deal with the animal kingdom. What Job sees are not domestic animals, but wild, untameable creatures, magnificent in their strength and beauty, living far from and utterly indifferent to humankind:
Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? . . .
Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread his wings toward the south?
Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high? . . .
Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? . . .
Nothing on earth is his equal- a creature without fear.
He looks down on all that are haughty;
he is king over all that are proud.
This is the most radically non-anthropocentric passage in the Hebrew Bible. It tells us that man is not the centre of the universe, nor are we the measure of all things. Some of the most glorious aspects of nature have nothing to do with human needs, and everything to do with the Divine creation of diversity. One of the few Jewish thinkers to state this clearly was Moses Maimonides:
I consider the following opinion as most correct according to the teaching of the Bible and the results of philosophy, namely that the universe does not exist for man's sake, but that each being insists for its own sake, and not because of some other thing. Thus we believe in Creation, and yet need not inquire what purpose is served by each species of existing things, because we assume that G-d created all parts of the universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings . . . (Guide for the Perplexed, III: 13).
Consider how vast are the dimensions and how great the number of these corporeal beings. If the whole of the earth would not constitute even the smallest part of the sphere of the fixed stars, what is the relation of the human species to all these created things, and how can any of us imagine that they exist for his sake and that they are instruments for his benefit? (III: 14)
We now understand what is at stake in the prohibition of certain species of animals, birds and fish, many of them predators like the creatures described in Job 38-41. They exist for their own sake, not for the sake of humankind. The vast universe, and earth itself with the myriad species it contains, has an integrity of its own. Yes, after the Flood, G-d gave humans permission to eat meat, but this was a concession, as if to say: Kill if you must, but let it be animals, not other humans, that you kill.
With His covenant with the Israelites, G-d invites humanity to begin a new chapter in history. This is not yet the Garden of Eden, paradise regained. But, with the construction of the sanctuary - a symbolic home for the Divine presence on earth - something new has begun. One sign of this is the fact that the Israelites are not permitted to kill any and every life-form for food. Some species must be protected, given their freedom, granted their integrity, left unsubjected to human devices and desires. The new creation - the sanctuary - marks a new dignity for the old creation - especially its wild, untamed creatures. Not everything in the universe was made for human consumption.
If faith schools are so bad, why do thoughtful, often secular, parents think they are so good?
Credo – The Times April 2009
Faith schools – so their opponents argue – are divisive, retrograde, narrow, insular, hostile to science and the critical mind, unable to teach their pupils tolerance, and fundamentally opposed to the values of a free society. These claims are not made lightly, nor should they be lightly dismissed.
But if they are true, there is an obvious question. Why do so many parents want to send their children to such schools? Do they passionately want their children to be narrow and insular? Is their deepest ambition to raise offspring who will have no truck with tolerance? Do they secretly long for the next generation to lead society boldly back to the Middle Ages? Maybe there are such people, but I haven’t met one yet.
Here is the paradox. We are living in what is possibly the most secular age since Homo sapiens first set foot on earth, and Europe is its most secular continent. Yet faith schools are the growth industry of our time. More and more people want them, and are prepared to go to great lengths to get their children admitted. This applies to parents who are not themselves religious. What is going on?
The simple answer is that faith schools tend to have academic success above the average: so, at any rate, the league tables suggest. But why should this be so, if faith inhibits critical thought and discourages independence of mind? This is a question worth serious reflection.
My tentative suggestion is that faith schools tend to have a strong ethos that emphasizes respect for authority, the virtues of hard work, discipline and a sense of duty, a commitment to high ideals, a willingness to learn, a sense of social responsibility, a preference for earned self-respect rather than unearned self-esteem, and the idea of an objective moral order that transcends subjective personal preference.
The parents I meet worry about the breakdown of discipline in many schools. They read about violence and drugs, promiscuity and teenage pregnancy, dysfunctional families and feral teenagers. They are concerned about the sheer numbers of children who leave school without the most basic skills of numeracy and literacy. They recall the 2007 UNICEF report that found that British children were the most unhappy in the developed world. They sense that something is going wrong and they don’t want to expose their children to that kind of risk.
These phenomena are not the fault of schools. To the contrary, they are the result of our culture as a whole, to which children are exposed through television, video games, the Internet and the sheer materialism and shallowness of contemporary society. The parents may not be religious themselves – often they aren’t – but they sense that faith schools preserve values, disciplines and habits of the heart that are elsewhere being lost.
I say this tentatively. I may be wrong. Of one thing I am convinced, that all schools and teachers are trying their hardest, but they often feel desperately unsupported by parents, the local community and the media. How can they mend what they did not break in the first place? Too often we expect schools to do the impossible. Teachers deserve our highest respect. They are the guardians of our civilization, the trustees of our collective future.
But just as – in the words of the African saying – it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a community to sustain a school, and communities are hard to find these days. A community is held together by shared beliefs, traditions, rituals, stories, conventions and codes: the regular enactments of a sense of shared belonging. Communities last longer than any individual, so they preserve a respect for the past and responsibility toward the future. Nowadays it’s hard to find a genuine community outside the world of faith. Lifestyle enclaves, fanclubs, and virtual networks linked by Twitter and Facebook, yes; face-to-face communitas no.