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Leviticus: How Do we Deal with Difficult Texts?

I sit on a fence between curiosity and determination (some who know me might say stubbornness). When I feel challenged or angered it tends to light a fire in me. I want to dig in, to think about it, to be…well, curious. A million questions start to flood into my mind. Why am I bothered, why does it matter? What am I missing if anything? How can I understand this, how can I think about this differently? What is this trying to teach me? To tell me?

This is why I think I am so intrigued by Leviticus. It is a text that lights those fires, it is both awe-inspiring and deeply cutting and hurtful. It is in many ways the root of what ties us together as community and what tears those ties apart. I recognize that not all people feel this way about Vayikra and so today on our blog, I thought we could spend some time sitting in this range of reactions and feelings and think about some tools we can take with us as we prepare to head into this book.

The book begins with the parasha of the same title Vayikra which means “and God called”. Leviticus is a book of laws and directives. God tells the Israelites how exactly to govern themselves, how to properly sacrifice and worship God, how to treat each other. It is the map, the playbook on how to become a distinctive nation. Though for some, even the mention of the word Leviticus can be painful. Marginalized people know that with these sets of laws that “god calls” us to do, to help us build a lasting relationship, a close relationship with God and our community, also comes some of the most difficult passages to hear and understand. Leviticus also brings us laws about slavery, sexual violence, and homophobic laws around relationships. For some Leviticus can feel like a weapon used to dehumanize, trigger, and delegitimize their identities and experiences. All of these experiences with Leviticus are valid and let’s take some time to think about ways we can approach this, and other challenging texts.

1. Check in:

First thing when approaching a difficult text is I think, to check in with ourselves. Sometimes we may not be in a headspace to be listen or process the information without have a reactionary response. It’s ok to say I can’t look at this today. If you are ok to study, prepare yourself. Take a deep breath and begin.

2. Interrogate the challenge:

Ask yourself what exactly is challenging me about this text? Is it the language? The concept? The relationships represented? How might the interpretations you know inform how you view this text? What exactly is coming up for you in this text?

3. Context:

How might the context of the text help you think differently about it? It might not, but it’s worth it to think about. Where are the Israelites in their journey? What were communities like in the time of the bible? Where does this text/story fit in Torah a larger sense?

4. Interpretation and Commentaries:

Think about interpretations and commentaries you may already know about this text. How have those influenced your understanding? Is there another way to look at this text? Is there a different interpretation you might not know? What do commentators both classical and modern have to say about this? Reading how other people may have dealt with this text may help you process and look at a text in a way you haven’t been able to see it before.

5. Accept/reject:

Sometimes a text just never becomes less challenging, hurtful, or easier to contextualize and that’s ok! When you study a text, you may not come out of it feeling any better, but you will understand why it affects you. It’s ok to end up still feeling challenged, still feeling hurt, upset, or angered by a text. Going through this process of study and learning means that you get to own that feeling. You know the answer to the question we began with –why does this text challenge me? And ultimately Torah study is as much about learning the text as it is about claiming and reclaiming narratives, to be able to see ourselves in text, or to know why we don’t.

These are just a few questions and tactics I have found helped me remain curious and open to learning when I encounter a difficult text and I hope they will help guide you as we begin Leviticus and beyond!


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