The Ways of Holiness



The Torah as a Whole

The Torah (Pentateuch) is much more coherent than it appears from a linear reading. The reason that it appears so inchoate is that we cannot easily see its structure. This is especially true of those sections that consist of lists of laws. In the narrative sections, for the most part, we can at least say that the text appears to be organized chronologically. However, temporal order is not a sufficient explanation for many of the larger questions concerning the nature of the Torah, such as: Why is the Torah divided into five books? What is the character of each book? How do they relate to each other and to the whole? If we add the questions of this sort to the perplexity engendered by the intermixing of laws and narrative, we are faced with a conundrum. Simply put, after more than three thousand years of study we know very little about the Torah as a whole. Leviticus: The Ways of Holiness is intended to contribute to the discussion of the Torah as a literary composition. I will demonstrate principles of organization that make it possible to read the Torah as a coherent document. The single most important finding that I will report is that the legal codes of the Torah are organized according to clear, albeit non-linear, principles. The reading that I will present is consistent with the broad area of Jewish learning know as “the oral Torah,” which is generally held to differ from the direct study of the Torah as a text, which is called “the written Torah.” My overall approach can be described as an attempt to reunite the oral Torah with the written Torah, or perhaps more precisely, to rediscover the oral Torah within the written Torah.

The Torah and the Mishnah

The “oral Torah” is in fact a vast literature that includes the Mishnah, the Talmud, and works of Midrash, as well as the mystical literature of the kabbalah. In discussing the relationship between this veritable sea of literature and the “written Torah,” I will limit myself to the Mishnah as my exemplar of the “oral Torah.” After extensive analysis of the literary structure of the Mishnah, I published a new edition of the Mishnah, The Structured Mishnah. In it I present each chapter of the text of the Mishnah in the format of a table. This format makes it possible to visualize the inner relationships of the parts of the chapter.

It became quite clear from my study of the Mishnah, that the text is non-linear. The laws do not necessarily follow each other logically. Sometimes a block of two or three laws must be compared with another similar block in order to understand why the individual laws appear together. A linear presentation of the text actually distorts it. One can get the idea from the normal linear format that elements that follow each other in print also follow each other logically. This is one of the great pitfalls of reading the Mishnah. As we will see, it is also true of the Torah. Reading the laws of the Torah linearly can distort the inner relationships between the laws. Moreover, unless one is aware of the rules of the non-linear structure, it is virtually impossible to make sense of the ostensible “collections” of laws in the Torah. This is as true of the most basic collection of laws, the Decalogue, as it is of the most complex collection, the Book of Leviticus.

The specific discovery that I will demonstrate in this book is that the Torah organizes its laws according to the same principles of organization that are used in the Mishnah. Of course the previous sentence is totally unreasonable. The Mishnah was written well over a thousand years after the Torah, so I should say that the Mishnah utilizes the rules of organization promulgated in the Torah. I have reversed the order to say that the Torah uses the same rules as the Mishnah simply because the rules of the Mishnah became apparent before the rules of the Torah. The key point is that the Mishnah is the major piece of evidence concerning the structure of the Torah, outside of the Torah itself.

Secret Teachings in the Torah

The structural similarity between the Torah and the Mishnah could be left as a curiosity for literary historians were it not for other considerations. I will argue that the literary structure of the Torah directs the reader to levels of meaning that are virtually inaccessible without an understanding of the underlying principles of organization. This last point holds for the Mishnah as well. And yet, for all that an overview of the structure can contribute to our understanding of any text, one additional factor places the structures that we will examine in a special category. The principles of organization that dictate the structure of the Torah and the Mishnah are conceptually similar to esoteric teachings that fall under the umbrella of “kabbalah.” In other words, one could say that the kabbalah is embedded in the structure of the Torah and the Mishnah.

I am not proposing a “kabalistic” or “mystical” reading of the Torah. My thesis and analysis must stand or fall on purely literary/philosophical considerations. But if I am successful, my enterprise should contribute to a greater appreciation of just how inseparable the written Torah is from the so-called “oral” Torah. Whether or not my observations concerning the similarities between the literary structure of the Torah and elements of kabbalah are significant, we will nevertheless have to relate to some parts of the Torah as esoteric. This conclusion is inevitable once we see that the formatting of the Mishnah is identical with that of the Torah. In both cases the initiate who understands the principles of organization is capable of reading an aspect of the text that is hidden from the non-initiate.


Chapter One

Focal Symmetry in the Camp and in the Torah