Leviticus made accessible

Engelberg brings a modern view to the ancient world of animal sacrifice, leprosy

Leviticus made accessible (photo credit: REUTERS)
Leviticus made accessible
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I had the pleasure of reviewing Rabbi Dr. Abba Engelberg’s two previous books in this series, The Ethics of Genesis and The Ethics of Exodus. This trilogy reviews a variety of classical and modern commentators’ approaches to ethical issues raised in the Torah.
Presenting the chosen source material in English provides maximum accessibility for the English speaker. Those who are able and interested may delve into the original Hebrew sources provided in the footnotes.
The author lists more than 50 source works and more than 60 individual commentators spanning from the first century CE to the 21st century. That is quite a feat to accomplish in one volume.
Engelberg is well suited for this task. He graduated from the Telshe Yeshiva and earned his undergraduate degree and rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University as well as a doctorate in operations research from New York University. He was a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force. He was a professor at the Jerusalem College of Technology for 47 years and was the founding director of its women’s division, Machon Tal, until his retirement in 2012.
As in the two previous books, Engelberg arranges the material in a well-organized fashion. In those books, he identified ethical questions in the verses and provided a range of answers. Here, apart from a question-and-answer section in parashat Shmini regarding the sin and punishment of Aaron’s sons, he instead reviews commentaries on key themes within each parasha (portion) of Leviticus.
The basic laws pertaining to sacrifices occupy the first two portions of Leviticus. Engelberg therefore begins with the well-known debate between Maimonides (Rambam) and Nahmanides (Ramban) about the reason for animal sacrifices.
Whereas Rambam in the Guide for the Perplexed argues that “bringing sacrifices is not seen as service to God, having intrinsic value, but rather as a remedy for a historically rooted malady,” Ramban insists they do have “intrinsic, and not merely historical, value,” providing “a means for human beings to come close to God.”
In his summary of this complex topic, Engelberg writes: “Many people view sacrifices as an ancient means of appeasing the gods. In Judaism, their purpose is quite different. Most of the personal sacrifices are associated with the concept of teshuvah (repentance), and they serve as a means of atoning for various types of sins. Others are used as a means of thanking God for memorable events in the supplicant’s life. Still others are used to help generate an environment of happiness and joy on the Jewish holidays. In addition to all of these purposes, many sacrifices were partially eaten by the priests, and thus served as an integral element of sustenance for those priests who were active in the Temple....”
In his discussion on the skin affliction called tzara’at in parashat Metzora, Engelberg writes that this term is “commonly translated as leprosy,” which is true. However, he does not mention that this is almost certainly a mistranslation.
The section on Metzora also includes this well-worded observation on the difficulty of refraining from speaking gossip or slander: “The Talmud metaphorically describes God as making every effort to limit man’s ability to slander, but to no avail.... Apparently, even God is at a loss as to how to control the tongue.”
In the chapter on Aharei Mot, in which the Torah outlines forbidden sexual relationships, Engelberg includes a thoughtful discussion on homosexuality, drawing on a wide range of Orthodox viewpoints and noting how such viewpoints have evolved. The overall tenor of this discussion is remarkably respectful of gay individuals and at the same time respectful of Halacha.
He notes that the Torah’s “prohibitions relate to performing homosexual acts, not to being homosexual, just as there is a prohibition to engage in an illegitimate marriage, but not to be the product of such. The Torah does not condemn people for being in a situation which is beyond their control.”
Engelberg’s main area of interest, ethical behavior, is the focus of parshat Kedoshim. An outline of the Torah’s prescription for achieving personal and national holiness is detailed from pages 194 to 229, ending with this succinct summary: “one may achieve holiness by observing the law, making logical and reasonable extensions which do not involve self-denial, enjoying the pleasures of life, and doing all of this in a communal context.”
The value of this excellent book is further enhanced by appendices on, for example, the different types of sacrifices; the mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor (including nonobservant Jews and gentiles); and the basics of Jewish history.
The latter includes a table of traditional and modern theories on dating historical events, citing fellow Kodesh Press author Mitchell First’s 2011 essay, “The Date of the Exodus: A Guide to the Orthodox Perplexed.” This is one of many instances where the author exposes readers to the remarkable breadth of contemporary scholarship.        
The Ethics of Leviticus is a worthy addition to the growing body of English-language insights into the weekly Torah portion. 