The Ways of Holiness


Chapter Two

The Passion for Intimacy


Two Ways

The Book of Leviticus, like the Holy of Holies, is hidden behind a screen. In order to get past the screen, one must first complete a complex process of purification. Only after completing this process can one begin to perceive the light radiating from within this extraordinary book. Having penetrated to the core of enlightenment, the reader begins the second phase of a spiritual journey through Leviticus. If the process of purification is understood as a turning inward, the second phase is a turning outward. It ultimately leads to redemption, both personal and universal. The full process of turning inward towards the depths of the spirit and then returning to the world of action is like the ritual of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. This is the format of the Book of Leviticus.

I will refer to the two major blocks of text in Leviticus as the Inner Way and the Outer Way. They are placed symmetrically around the centerpiece of the book, Lev 19. In order to understand the notion that the text is like the path of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, consider Lev 19 as the equivalent of the Ark of the Testimony standing in the Holy of Holies. The general movement of the text follows the movements of the High Priest. It begins at the altar of burnt offerings, moves into the holy place of the incense altar and from there into the Holy of Holies. The ark represents the turning point.  After Lev 19, the text sets off on the outer way: moving away from the Holy of Holies, it retraces the High Priest’s path toward it. The difference between the two paths, the inner way and the outer way, is the perspective. The inner way faces toward the Holy of Holies, while the outer way faces toward the world outside it.

In order to understand the stages of the two ways, it is necessary to keep in mind the basic divisions of the Tabernacle. First, it is divided between a courtyard which is open to the sky and an area which is within a structure, the Tent of Meeting. The open space contains the altar upon which all burnt offerings were offered. This is a public area. All the Israelites are instructed to bring their burnt offerings to this area, which is also called “the opening of the Tent of Meeting.” The Tent of Meeting is itself divided into two parts, one within the other. The outer part, known as the Holy Place, also contains an altar, one which is used exclusively for burning incense. This space also houses the menorah, or candelabrum, and the table of the Showbread. The inner chamber is the Holy of Holies, containing the Ark of Testimony, which holds the tablets of the Decalogue. Leviticus uses these three well-defined spaces and the objects they contain as signposts. They serve to prevent the traveler (reader) from getting lost in the labyrinth of details contained in the book. Moreover, they actually define the precise stages of the journey. There are three stages in each direction, going in and going out, forming six major divisions in the text. A seventh division creates the central element which is topologically parallel to the Ark in the Holy of Holies.

The two ways are indicated by two different references to God connected with specific places. The book opens with God calling out to Moses from within the Tabernacle, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” This is the sign that we are about to begin the inner way. It is a call to draw inward towards God. The inner way is the path one must follow toward the voice of God calling from within. The second place-related reference to God is at the end of the book, where it is proclaimed that “these are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” This is the sign of the outer way, the path that leads out of the Tabernacle and into the world, the world that lives by God’s laws. The two ways appear to be not only opposite in direction, but more significantly, also opposite in value. The inner way begins with chapter after chapter of sacrifice and repentance, negation of the flesh by casting it upon the altar to be converted to something more spiritual: “It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord.” But at the other extreme, the end of the outer way, we find laws that deal with social economics: the period of a bondsman’s bondage, leases, and even the purchase of sacrosanct goods. To be sure, these are also God’s laws, no less than the laws of sacrifices. It is not the source of the laws that marks the distinction between the two ways, but rather the subject matter. Let us now look at an example of parallel texts illustrating the two ways.

Two Deaths

There are only two narrative sections in Leviticus, and both of them relate acts of blasphemy that lead to death. One, which includes the death of Aaron’s sons, takes place in the Tent of Meeting. The whole framework of this narrative is found in Lev 8-10. The second narrative is in the parallel section of the outer way, Lev 24. The incident parallel to the overzealousness of Aaron’s sons concerns the son of an Egyptian father and Israelite mother who “pronounced the Name in blasphemy.” There are many points for comparison between these two narratives. I will use some of these points in order to indicate distinctions between the inner way and the outer way. The fact that these are the only two narrative sections in the book implicitly “invites” us to make this comparison.


Chapter 10
 The Inner Way

Chapter 24

The Outer Way

[10] 1Now Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. 2And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. 3Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people." And Aaron was silent. 4Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, "Come forward and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp." 5They came forward and carried them out of the camp by their tunics, as Moses had ordered. 6And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, "Do not bare your heads [or dishevel your hair] and do not rend your clothes, lest you die, and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought. 7And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the Lord’s anointing oil is upon you." And they did as Moses had bidden.

10There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. 11The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses.  Now his mother’s name was Shelomith, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan. 12And he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. 13And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 14Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. 15And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; 16if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death. 17If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. 18One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. 19If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 20fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. 21One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. 22You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God. 23Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord had commanded Moses.

One of the perplexing questions associated with the case of the Egyptian man’s son is: why are we offered so many details about his parents? What does it matter who his father was? Why are we told his mother’s name? However, when we compare this incident with its parallel, we can immediately see that we should compare the fathers: Aaron, the High Priest, and a pointedly nameless Egyptian. Aaron was the highest official in the Israelite nation. As the High Priest, only he was empowered to enter the Holy of Holies. Not only was he part of the “inner circle” of power, but in terms of ritual he stood at the very focus. The Egyptian, on the other hand, was not even part of the community. He was a complete “outsider.” It seems that the text is directing us to compare an “insider” and an “outsider.” This analysis enables us to explain a difficulty with the opening words of the “outsider” incident.

There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.” “Came out” from where? The Hebrew word translated “there came out” is the first word in this pericope and has no antecedent. Nothing that follows it seems to connect to it. Basically, it adds nothing to the narrative. Furthermore, what could possibly be meant by “came out among”? However, once we have made the distinction between “insider” and “outsider”, the action of the outsider going out becomes a parallel to the insider going in. Aaron’s sons were the insiders, and their sin was to go inside the holy place at their own initiative. Let’s look a bit closer at the events.

There is a whole series of parallels between the narratives. First there is an act of blasphemy. Then the offender is taken out of the camp (dead or alive). After that Moses delivers a set of instructions that were inspired by the incident. Finally, the people do as Moses has instructed them. In both cases, the offenders die. Each of these parallels presents an opportunity to compare the inner way to the outer way. Aaron’s sons’ sin can be viewed as excessive spirituality. They are inspired to make a private incense offering before God in the holy place. Each takes his fire pan and goes in to offer the incense. They are killed indoors, in private, by a fire that comes from the Lord and consumes them. In effect, they are consumed by the fire of their own religious enthusiasm. Their sin, if it is a sin, is before the Lord. The parallel of the Egyptian’s son specifically takes place in public, “in the camp” to which he has gone out. He is apprehended and brought to Moses by the people who hear him blaspheme and utter God’s holy name. He is then taken out of the camp and stoned to death by the entire community. He has committed a public sin and is executed by the public. The distinction between the inner way and the outer way, as illustrated by these incidents, is that the inner way is focused on the individual before God, while the outer way focuses on the community. This distinction is supported by one of the other parallels between the incidents.

In both cases, Moses delivers instruction. In the private matter of Aaron’s sons, Moses speaks to Aaron and his remaining sons in private about personal concerns: “And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, ’Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die.’” These instructions come directly from Moses, without any divine intervention. The public crime engenders a totally different type of instruction. Moses consults with God, whose response has two parts. First, He instructs Moses about the immediate case: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” God then proceeds to deliver a series of laws that cover both capital offenses and torts: “And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death. If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it, etc.” All these laws are delivered to the whole community and are to be enforced by the community. The laws delivered in the outer- way narrative are part of a social and legal framework originating with God, while the laws delivered in the inner-way narrative are personal, applying only to Aaron’s family. How does this last point connect with our earlier distinction between the insider and the outsider and their blasphemy?

Both the inner way and the outer way carry dangers. The text exemplifies these dangers in the narratives of the insider and outsider, while at the same time defining the limits of normative behavior for each of them. The insider, the individual who dedicates his actions to drawing closer to the source of holiness, must take very seriously the negation of the self which is associated with spirituality. The holy is not a place for self-expression. When Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons regarding the proper mode of mourning, he indicates that they must avoid the signs of private loss. The instructions come directly from Moses, a family member, not from God, because they involve self-denial, which is appropriate for the inner-directed insider. The outsider finds himself in a state of friction with his surroundings. While the insider suffers a loss of self, the outsider suffers from an excess of self. He is overly iconoclastic, placing himself beyond the limits of the socially acceptable. Moses turns to God to instruct him how to deal with the outsider within the confines of socially regulated actions. In effect, since the outsider has removed himself from the fold, God must create the means for society to deal with him. At the same time, God directs Moses and the community as to how they should judge their fellows. The rule seems to be that socially destructive acts are to be dealt with by society.

The two narratives have enabled us to begin to explore the two directions of Leviticus. I have attempted to limit the discussion to the events as described in the Torah. The alternative would be to read the events as examples of universal principles. While I do think the Torah is dealing with more than the particulars of personal histories, I am wary of drifting off into speculative fantasies. In other words, I will try to determine what the text means without reading meaning into it. If I have succeeded in producing depth of meaning from the narratives while remaining close to their literal sense, it is because of the overview I have developed. The overview provides a system of checks and balances for interpretation by creating a broad context and placing each unit within that context. I would now like to bring another example of how the Torah forces us to compare and connect two separate blocks of text, Lev 18 and 20. Here we will see how the broader context of the inner and outer ways helps us solve a textual problem.

Two Faces of Desire

Chapter 18

Chapter 20

6None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord. 7 Your father’s nakedness, that is, the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover; she is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness. 8Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father. 9The nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s, whether born into the household or outside, do not uncover their nakedness. 10The nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, do not uncover their nakedness; for their nakedness is yours. 11The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, who was born into your father’s household, she is your sister; do not uncover her nakedness.

10If a man commits adultery with a married woman, committing adultery with another man’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. 11If a man lies with his father’s wife, it is the nakedness of his father that he has uncovered; the two shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them. 12If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed incest; their bloodguilt is upon them. 13If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them. 14If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is depravity; both he and they shall be put to the fire, that there be no depravity among you.


The obvious problem with Lev 18 and 20 is that Lev 19 falls between them. Chapter 18 lists forbidden sexual unions. Chapter 20 lists the punishments for the sins of chapter 18.  Chapter 19 does not appear to be connected in any way to the subject of forbidden relationships. Why has the Torah separated two chapters that fit together hand in glove? The similarity of Leviticus 18 and 20 is indeed one of the pieces of evidence that Leviticus is symmetrically organized around a central point, chapter 19. In terms of the inner and outer ways, that chapter is the turning point. Up to chapter 18 the text faces inward. From chapter 20 on, the text faces outward. Using the imagery of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, we could describe chapter 18 as the point where the High Priest takes his last step towards the Ark of Testimony. Chapter 20 would then be the point where he takes his first step away from the Ark in order to leave the Holy of Holies. This configuration leads us to some intriguing questions. What happens in the very middle, when he is no longer going in or out? Why is the very instant of revelation, at the source of holiness, clothed in references to unbridled sexuality? Is this the moment of mystical union?

The differing perspectives of chapters 18 and 20 support the speculation that chapter 19 is in some way meant to been seen as the moment of union. The prohibitions listed in chapter 18 are supposed to prevent the act from taking place. The punishments of chapter 20 are for the fait accompli. Between them, logically, falls the act itself. How does this startling analysis relate to the figure of the two ways? In the formal literary sense, Lev 19 is the union between the inner and outer ways. It does not belong to either one separately, but contains clear aspects of both. It is the goal of the inner way and the source of the outer way. Each of the separate ways contains nine individual units of text, without chapter 19. This “double-barreled” chapter completes both ways by simultaneously rounding each of them up to the number ten. In short, the last unit of the inner way is also the first unit of the outer way. This is the structural union that takes place in the central unit of Leviticus, the union of the inner and outer ways. There is also a conceptual union compatible with our earlier analysis of the insider and outsider narratives.

The inner way can be characterized as individually oriented, as opposed to the social orientation of the outer way. From the point of view of the High Priest, his inward journey takes him away from the crowd surrounding the Tabernacle to the point where he is alone with God. This intimacy with God is evidently being compared in some way to sexual intimacy. The explicit direction of the inner way is towards the source of holiness. Each step brings the High Priest closer to the holy. The inner sanctum is itself referred to as the Holy of Holies. The Hebrew word for holy is kadosh. As a verb, kadesh, sanctify, also means to marry, to join in holy union. The inner way leads to union with the holy. The very first verse of Lev 19 says: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Man is invited to share God’s holiness. The ultimate inner experience is to become holy like God, to join God in a union of holiness. This is the ultimate goal of the inner way, a personal, intimate experience of the holy.

In Lev 18, at the last step before union in chapter 19, there appear the warnings against forbidden unions. The specific language used in the majority of the injunctions is in itself revealing: “lo tegaleh, do not reveal [the nakedness]. This exact formulation is used no less than thirteen times in chapter 18. Most of these instances refer to close family relationships, which by their very nature are intimate and private. There is at least a figurative connection between the intimacy within the private chambers of the home and the intimacy within the Holy of Holies. The connection is tightened by the framework of chapter 18. It opens and closes with God revealing Himself: “I am the Lord your God.” The injunctions against revealing intimacies are found within the framework of God revealing His intimate relationship with Israel. The holy union with God which is to take place in Lev 19 demands that the individual renounce all impure unions. As indicated in the framing text, verses 1-5 and 24-30, the action of the individual who indulges in abhorrent sexual practices can affect the relationship between God and Israel and cause the land to spew the people out. At the culmination of the inner way, we see that the individual in the privacy of the inner chambers of his home has the same degree of responsibility for the welfare of the Jewish people as does the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. There is thus a direct link to the narrative of Aaron’s sons. We have noted that their indiscretion was an excessive spirituality, a burning desire to be intimate with the holy. Theirs was a forbidden intimacy, to enter the inner sanctum uninvited. The passion for intimacy burned them up within. The same passion is expressed in the untoward intimacies of chapter 18. Now we will look at the parallel stage in the outer way, chapter 20.

Whereas chapter 18 presents the passionate individual as a threat to the stability of the state, chapter 20 presents the remedy for the threat. “If a man commits adultery with a married woman, committing adultery with another man’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. If a man lies with his father’s wife, it is the nakedness of his father that he has uncovered; the two shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed incest; their bloodguilt is upon them.” While the prohibitions are addressed to the potential transgressors, the remedy is addressed to the state. The responsibility of preventing forbidden relations and the subsequent degeneration of society resides with the individual. The obligation to punish the transgressor resides with society. The enforcement of capital punishment is also a theme of the narrative of the Egyptian’s son. This is the perspective of the outer way. We can think of it in terms of law, the way society regulates itself. Stylistically, the capital laws of chapter 20 are expressed as case law: “If a man does such and such, then…” This may appear to be simply a stylistic change from the injunctions of chapter 18, but the shift in emphasis indicates a one-hundred-eighty-degree shift in perspective. The laws of Lev 18 are addressed to individuals, while the laws of Lev 20 are addressed to a political body.

We have begun to explore a way of reading Leviticus as a consistent, superbly planned text. Its parts are all connected by way of a single image, the path of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. This path has three components, the inner way, union, and the outer way. The inner way can be characterized as a process of separation and sanctification that reaches its peak in the privacy of the Holy of Holies with some form of holy union. The holy union gives birth to a new impulse, and at the very point where the inner way is completed, the outer way begins. The High Priest, having completed his inward journey, now desires to rejoin his brothers as part of the community of priests and share with them the experience of the holy. The individual who follows the path of the inner way to its end achieves self-realization. At that very point, he faces a choice. He can either stay within and die to the world or make an about-face and rejoin the world. The rest of Leviticus details the way of joining the holy community.

The overview of the inner and outer ways allows the reader to integrate seemingly unrelated parts of Leviticus. It also implies that the text has a focus, a center which itself integrates the two ways. We have noted that the apparent theme of the core text which unites the two opposite sections is union, as evidenced by the laws of chapters 18 and 20. This analysis prepares us to see chapter 19 as the focus of Leviticus and the merger of the inner and outer ways.

Chapter Three