Shemini: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.
Though we’re still in the first half of Leviticus, I’m going to start this week’s column with a verse from elsewhere:
Now, Israel, what does YHWH your God ask of you but to fear YHWH your God, to follow His ways, to love Him, and to serve YHWH your God with all your heart and all your soul.
We’ll get back to Leviticus shortly, but first a message from those two great religious emotions, fear and love. Students of religion all know, and regularly invoke, the name of Rudolf Otto, the early 20th-c. scholar who called the experience of God “numinous” and referred to this quality by the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
The mysterium, of course, is God, the being whose essence Moses wished to understand. It is the two opposite qualities that Otto called tremendum et fascinans that are referred to in Deuteronomy in the much more approachable language of “fear” and “love.”
“Love” in the ancient Near East is not necessarily romantic. The words translated into English as “love” often reflect a legal obligation, something more like loyalty. The Shema, which also repeats that “heart and soul” line, is introduced in the prayerbook with the notion that God chose Israel out of love for them, and that suggests an emotional component to God’s love, a love that should naturally be returned.
But what does it mean to fear the Lord? The rabbinic attitude toward this expression, which occurs number of times in the Torah, is that if a verse commands you to do something and then adds, “You shall fear YHWH,” this must be something that you would imagine you could do without getting caught, secretly committing some sin against God or some crime against another human being. The text says “you shall fear YHWH” because that’s going to put what we call in English “the fear of God” into you, and you won’t do that thing after all, because you realize that God will know you’re doing it.
In the 21st century, though, lots of people are not comfortable with this idea of fearing God. That verse in Deuteronomy that I started with is translated in NJPS this way:
And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.
They translate יִרְאָה yir’ah not as fear but as revere. Reverence is a very different emotion from fear, but this is what people would rather see nowadays in that text, that insistence of the Torah that we fear God.
Here’s a comment, about 20 years old, from R. Bradley Shavit Artson:
Modernity, with its insistence on the worth of the individual, on the ability of humanity to progress, has moved us beyond the utility of fear as a functional training device. If Jews who wish to be modern also desire to draw close to God, they will do so out of love.
But “fear” is indeed the straightforward meaning of this verb that the Torah commands. When Adam tells God in Gen 3:10, “When I heard you in the garden, וָאִירָ֛א va’ira because I was naked, so I hid,” he is not saying that he hid because he was filled with reverence. He was scared because he was — more or less literally — caught with his pants down.
Parashat Shemini (did you think I had forgotten?) is a story that seems intended to create fear rather than reverence. Leviticus 20 describes the eighth day of the ceremony during which the priesthood and Tabernacle are inaugurated and the very first organized sacrifices are made.
The priests have been installed; Leviticus 9 tells how that happened. Aaron blessed the people and he and Moses went into the Tent of Meeting and consulted the instruction manual (or whatever one does when assembling a Tabernacle for first use), and they came back out and blessed the people.
Then, Leviticus 10 tells us, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took a fire pan, they put fire into it and incense on it, and offered before YHWH אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה esh zara — “alien fire,” as NJPS translates it. The King James translation is familiar to many people: “strange fire.” But there was nothing out of the ordinary about the actual fire. Rather, as the NRSV translates, it was “unholy.” More precisely, it was “unauthorized.”
In tractate Avodah Zarah. the expression is used to refer to idolatry, literally “unauthorized worship.” The word zar always indicates something other than what is called for in a particular situation. In Proverbs, the isha zara is neither “strange” nor “alien” — it simply means “someone else’s wife.” Elsewhere we read of a distinction between a priest and an ish zar, “a layman.”
Nadab and Abihu, then, put fire on the fire pans, and that is what a fire pan is for. But they made a mistake. They did something that was not called for, something God “had not commanded them” (10:1). In 10:2, as a result, “fire came from before YHWH and ate them” — “consumed” them in the more genteel JPS translation, but literally the fire “ate” them and they died before YHWH.
The next time anyone tells you that the book of Leviticus is boring and nothing ever happens in it, point them to chapter 10, where two live human beings are burned to a crisp. If that’s not going to sell tickets for you, I don’t know what will. All of which is to say, this is definitely a God that you should be scared of. The closer you get to God, the more spiritual you try to be, the closer you are to being consumed in flame.
Religion can be dangerous! If loving God can refer not only to a legal category but to something like our human love (though perhaps more intense), so can fear. יִרְאָה yir’ah, when it is aimed at God, does not mean reverence. It is not something we are “over” in our brave, new, enlightened world. The message of Parashat Shemini is to take Deuteronomy seriously. When the Torah tells you to “fear the Lord,” be afraid. Be very afraid.