Textual Identity and the (Non)Genetic Code (Parashat Kedoshim)

The author argues that the Holiness Code described in this Torah portion established a lineage that was queer for its time, in that it was neither kin based, nor procreative. He also argues that the Rabbinic discourse on Jewish practice has changed through time for the same reasons that we reach back into antiquity for role models, ethics, and moral guidance.

May 2, 2008

By Noach Dzmura

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Parashat Kedoshim
Textual Identity and the (Non)Genetic Code
by Noach Dzmura on Friday May 02, 2008
28 Nisan, 5768
Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

Kedoshim (The Holy) starts with the admonition, “You shall be holy, for I, the lord your God, am holy,” and continues with a description of behaviors that characterize the “holy” in human relationships with the Divine and with one another. This Torah portion includes many of the commands central to Jewish practice, which are familiar to us from the Decalogue (the “ten commandments”) and from the laws of kashrut (kosher), that prohibit the mixing of certain things. Kedoshim also includes such lauded passages as verses 9 and10 in Chapter 19, which instruct growers of grain or grapes to leave the corners of the fields and the fallen fruit to feed the poor, and the uncharacteristically broad statement in verse 18 of the same chapter to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

I think one may understand Kedoshim and the larger Holiness Code (Leviticus Chapters 17-26) of which it is a part, as a constructed identity that differentiated the Jews from other Near Eastern cultures, and as a narrative that communicated cultural rather than biological identity. Kinship did not suffice to identify members of the extended Jewish clan. The Holiness Code established a lineage that was queer for its time, in that it was neither kin based, nor procreative. I suggest that the Holiness code provides the narrative parallel of the rite of circumcision for adult male Jews: like circumcision, the (non)genetic Code is a method for passing on Jewish cultural lineage, a type of non-reproductive procreation.

As a Jewish Studies scholar, I am used to thinking of the Rabbis who wrote the Talmud as the premier innovators in Jewish history. These Pharisaic Jews are credited with “saving” Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple by moving the ritual center of Judaism from the Temple to the home, and the ritual activity from sacrifice to Shabbat. When the Hebrews lost self-rule, the Temple, and the Land, the work of the Rabbis re-made Judaism such that the covenant might endure.

But if the Rabbis were amazing transformers of tradition, how much more so were the Priests who gave us Leviticus. If we were able to look at the text of Leviticus through time, layer upon edited layer, we might see at its root a Hebrew tradition that was not very different from the traditions that surrounded it in the ancient Near East: polytheistic with an almost divine king; traditions that valorized oracular insight and other forms of magic and required kin-based human sacrifice as a symbol of the covenant it established.

In contrast, the Priests of the Second Temple period used the same kind of document to do something radically different. Their religion established the kingship of a solitary Divine Being (with power unrelated to any human king), valorized the law over supernatural phenomena other than God, and (in Leviticus 12:3) required circumcision (rather than child sacrifice) as a symbol of the covenant.

In Leviticus as Literature (Oxford University Press, 2000), Mary Douglas writes that, distinct from other Near Eastern religions, the Jews had two modes of affiliation: procreative (blood) and non-procreative (circumcision). The first mode produced literal heirs to Jewish parents, the second produced cultural heirs to the Jewish covenant.

“Leviticus,” says Ms Douglas, “is an elaborate teaching of the difference between sexual and ritual reproduction. It opposes natural fertility to the ritual for making heirs to God’s promise. Descent by the seed of the loins on the one hand, and the cut and blood of the circumcised penis on the other, its laws keep the two bodily fluids, semen and blood, meticulously apart.”

While the Priestly aim was self-serving (to consolidate power in the hands of the priestly class during a time of continual civic unrest), the implications of “ritual re-production” to non- procreative people, non-biologically related families and first generation Jews (i.e., converts) of a covenant not based on kinship relations are self-evident. In Leviticus, cultural affiliation is made equivalent to blood affiliation, and circumcision represents a form of non-biological procreation that serves as a parallel to biological procreation. This queer act set Israel apart from the other nations, and made the people holy.

According to the documentary hypothesis (a scholarly way of thinking about historical authorship of sacred texts), the Holiness Code is a law code written by an earlier source (the H source), and then edited by the Priests (or, the P source, dated from the 7th to the 5th century BCE), and incorporated into the book of Leviticus. The reason scholars suspect the Priests of cribbing the text from the H source is that the Holiness Code (and, incidentally, the text of the Decalogue, or “Ten Commandments”) looks almost exactly like some very early legal codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who died in 1750 BCE.

Such codes are what remain to our view of contracts established between a conquering monarch and a subjugated people after a war. Like other Codes of the ancient Near Eastern religions, Kedoshim prohibited and offered punishments for certain behaviors (including incestuous sexual relations and anal sex between men—a repetition included in last week’s parasha, Acharei Mot, specifically in Leviticus 18:22). Unlike other Codes of the Ancient Near East, Kedoshim specifically prohibits a lot of things that were common practice in the neighboring city-states. These include oracles, divination, magic, healers, images of deities, demons, and ancestor worship. The prohibition against practices that were common to their neighbors (and in many cases also practiced by the Hebrews, too) had the effect of setting the early Hebrews apart from their neighbors. To be “holy” in the Hebrew root qof, dalet, shin, is to be “set apart.”

Why would the men who wrote Kedoshim have reached back to the older document in the first place, if their plan was to remove all of the elements that made the document recognizable?

They did so for the same reason we reach back into antiquity for role models, ethics, and moral guidance while seeking new ways to make meaning: to construct what is new on the basis of what is established that no longer works for us, to locate an authority in text and in ourselves that enables us to complete a difficult process of transformation, and to re-make our spiritual practice in such a way that the covenant of our ancestors might be enabled to survive.

So what’s my point, in bringing up this early Jewish reformation and comparing it to the later Rabbinic transformation? In both cases, the elements that most iconically represented the Hebrew religion of the day were transformed into their binary opposite to create a new form of Judaism. For the Rabbis, the move was toward democratization of Jewish practice. Centralized temple worship became decentralized worship in the home; a priestly class was replaced by a nation of priests. For the priests, monotheism supplanted polytheism, and a usually non-fatal ritual circumcision supplanted child sacrifice as the sign that a divine covenant was in force.

Transitions leave scars, and our Torah is no exception. Scars are not defects but part of the textual body of Torah. In its prohibitions and punishments, Kedoshim contains a lot of the scars that resulted from the Priestly transition from polytheism to monotheism.

Holiness is often understood as the norm against which queerness is defined. Queerness (in the word’s sense as “a disruption of norms”) was in fact the motive force behind the Holiness Code in Vayikra (Leviticus). The scars of at least two major transitions are borne in the textual corpus of the constructed identity we inherited from the Priests and the Rabbis. The scars, like Leviticus 20:13 in this week’s parasha, that on its surface prohibits anal intercourse between men in a repeat of Leviticus 18:22, might be viewed not as eternal descriptors of sinful behavior, but as vestigial imperfections that today cause human suffering.

Scars persist in bodies, whether they are flesh or text. To see the tradition, to “grok it in its fullness” (as the main character in Stranger in a Strange Land, one of my favorite Heinlein novels, might have said) is neither to avoid or omit the troubling bits, but to recognize simultaneously a Jewish practice that existed before, a practice that exists now, and a practice that will arrive tomorrow. When those three instants of practice shift and meld, and a prohibition against a particular behavior exists in continuum with a permission to perform some variation of that behavior as well as a commandment that obligates one to perform that same behavior,only then does one grok the true identity of a Jewish text.