Radical Vegetarian Priests

Radical Vegetarian Priests

640px-Fruit_still_life_with_shellsYou could say it’s a downer month in the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Week after week of animal sacrifices. Daily offerings, celebratory offerings, court-ordered criminal atonement offerings, purification offerings; offerings for grieving, healing, birthing, house restoration, holidays and more.

Did everyone in ancient Israel enjoy the butcher show at the altar?

I don’t think so. In this week’s Torah reading, I see a story of resistance against animal sacrifice. My interpretation is not traditional, but found it using traditional methods

Parshat Shmini describes a terrible national tragedy on the opening day of the mishkan, the traveling wilderness tabernacle. The initial offerings and communal blessings go according to plan.

But two young priests, Nadav and Avihu, decide to improvise.

They prepare their fire-pans with fire and incense. They come forward and “offer in the presence of God a strange fire, about which they had not been instructed. Fire comes forth from the Presence of God and consumes them, and they die in the Presence of God” (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Why do Nadav and Avihu die? Torah does not tell us explicitly. So traditional commentators have looked for hints in nearby verses. Thus, they conclude:

Nadav and Avihu mean no harm, but get a little overly passionate about the occasion. After all, Moses eulogizes them with a compliment: they are “intimates of God” (Leviticus 10:3).

They party too heartily. Drink a few glasses of wine too many and lose focus. That’s why, after their deaths, God tells the High Priest Aaron, “Drink no wine…when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die” (Leviticus 10:8).

They take too much initiative, adding creatively to Moses’ instructions. After their death, God says, “Giving instructions for the rituals is in Moses’ hands!” (Leviticus 10:11).

But I have discovered a new theory. One that emerges in the light of contemporary eco-kosher consciousness.

Nadav and Avihu are protesting animal sacrifice. In solidarity with the animals, they throw themselves into the flames.

After their deaths, Moses reminds the priests to eat the meat offerings. “This is your portion of God’s offerings,” Moses says (Leviticus 10:13). But the priests still refuse to eat meat. High Priest Aaron says, “Given all that happened today, do you really think God would like us to eat this?” (Leviticus 10:19)

Moses backs down, but still wants to have the last word. So he reminds everyone: you can eat meat from animals with split hooves who chew their cud (Leviticus 11:1-3).

You know, I’m relieved to read hints of priestly discomfort with so much animal-killing. It would be odd to not to find it in Torah. The Hebrew Bible begins with appreciation of vegetarian eating: Adam and Eve are told to eat fruits, seeds, grains and greens (Genesis 1: 29-30). And towards the Bible’s end, vegetarianism is celebrated again: Daniel and his three vegetarian friends are healthier and smarter than their meat-eating colleagues (Daniel 1:10-17).

If I had broad authority, I would declare the week of Parshat Shmini “National Jewish Vegetarian Week.” Without that authority, I can only suggest: Honour  Nadav and Avihu this week with a vegetarian meal. Don’t let their act of protest go unnoticed!

For more reflections on Parshat Shmini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) click here.

Adapted from a dvar Torah I offered at Or Shalom Synagogue in 2011. Image: Balthasar van der Ast (1593/4-1657).

  1. Two thoughts:

    a) Isaiah 66:

    3 “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man;
    he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
    he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood;
    he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
    These have chosen their own ways,
    and their soul delights in their abominations;

    4 I also will choose harsh treatment for them
    and bring their fears upon them,
    because when I called, no one answered,
    when I spoke, they did not listen;
    but they did what was evil in my eyes
    and chose that in which I did not delight.”

    Now, this is an attack on the whole sacrificial cult, not just meat-eating. For that:

    b) There’s recent article, which I can’t find, that talks about a group of Orthodox rabbis who argue:

    . . . Less meat-eating would make a better world.

    I thought it was in the Forward, but “search” comes up empty.

    I’m not sure if I can go along with Nadav and Avihu self-immolating in sympathy with their sacrifices. They were, after all, used to a shepherding culture — “take good care of the animals, and once in a while, eat one.” But I’m a literalist . . .

    . Charles

    1. Great comments! Great references in Isaiah. I’ll look at the context. I’m not sure about the self-immolation either, but I chose it over suggesting that they misjudged the amount of oil for offering only incense.

  2. To me, the story of Nadiv and Avihu are the culmination of a lot of lessons and examples of Lfe & Death, the cycle, the fragility, the sacredness, the cusp….. I’ll have a vegetarian meal in honor of this d’var, tho.

    1. Beautifully said, Al. A story on the cusp of fragility and sacredness, for sure. Thanks for the kind words and I hope you enjoy your meal!

  3. This is a sharp and thought provoking reading, made even more interesting to me because my bar mitzvah student for this week suggested this idea and I applauded his creativity and then proceeded to talk him out of it!
    I think it stands beautifully as a drash. One thing that deepens the question for me is the ambivalent at best feeling toward vegetarian sacrifice. Is it a coincidence that Cain was the one whose offer of fruit was rejected in favor of Abel’s meat? There it is Abel who finds himself on the altar so to speak.
    While vegetarianism, which I don’t practice, had many important benefits that may outweigh any biblical preferences, my take is that animal sacrifice is a bow toward the animality of our passions. It is extremely controlled, but viscerally bloody to leach away some of the excess violence that might otherwise go toward each other. And it worked very well /sarcasm/!
    But as lot to think about and a bar mitzvah to apologize to! Shabbat Shalom!

    1. Thanks, Michael, for reading, thinking and engaging! Kudos to your bar mitzvah student for a close read, and to you, his teacher!

      I don’t believe that we need to find a consistent message in multiple stories; for me, their presence documents the tensions and debates that are normal in a community or society. Among Christian historical biblical scholarship, much has been made of tensions between farmers and ranchers.

      Sometimes I accept the standard interpretation about limiting our violence. It certainly resonates with a widespread practice today of eating meat only on Shabbat, or only when someone else serves it. And it fits the verses which suggest all meat must be prepared at the Temple. But, in tension with that, I also worry about the chaos and waste that must have happened around the Temple at least sometimes. That would be the antithesis of limitation.

      Shabbat Shalom!

  4. What a brilliant and beautiful inspired elucidation of the text: That Nadav and Avihu were acting in protest. I can hear your voice as our teacher throughout this reading. And I hear them relieved at being at last understood. However, I don’t see them as “throwing themselves into the flames” (quite the opposite) but as waging protest. May the day come soon when those who love life and love animals and lift us up to truly care for animals and their souls in the image of the Divine with dignity and love will not be burnt up but listened to and celebrated. Shabbat Shalom!

  5. Thank you so much for making me feel less lonely as I wrestle with Torah. Thank you also for the reminder that creative interpretations are both possible and acceptable. Until today, I thought the story of Nadiv and Avihu was a lesson in the importance of obedience, To me, it said “Thou shalt obey to the letter of the law, or you will be severely punished.” And yes, taken together with agricultural sacrifices as less pleasing than blood and the fragrant smell of meat, I have found it troubling that we accept killing and consuming flesh based on the clovenness of the hoof . I love Michael Bernstein’s comment that “it may be a way to leach away some of the violence that might otherwise be directed against another human being.” A beautiful teaching that has already led to fresh and meaningful interpretations of text. Shabbat Shalom to you all.

    1. Thank you so much for this comment. I’m so glad you found it both reassuring and invitational. And yes, kosher laws seem especially arbitrary as the Torah never explains why!

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