Tzav: Holiness, the Situation in Ukraine, and Eating Animals by Ivy Helman

The parshah for this upcoming Shabbat is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36).  It details the investiture of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood and lays out the basics of various offerings (mostly, although not exclusively, animal sacrifices) and the rules regarding the eating of them.  As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I would like to complete at least one commentary on each parshah of the Torah.  Yet, there are only so many times that one can question the establishment of the temple, condemn animal sacrifice, and denounce the absence of women.  Yet, as we approach another Torah portion this week, Tzav , this is more or less what we have.  So, what do we do?

Tzav starts, as parshot from the book of Leviticus often do, with descriptions of various laws.  Here, the laws focus on various offerings including the grain, sin, peace, thanksgiving, and burnt.  Only the male members of Aaron’s family can eat the offerings.  Consumption of the offering increases the holiness of the consumer as long as the eating of the animals falls into the guidelines outlined within the text.  

The parshah ends with an explanation of how to consecrate Aaron and his sons.  The process lasts a total of seven days.  It includes residing at the entrance to the tent for the duration, offering various animals as sacrifices, eating copious amounts of said animals, the donning of specific ritual clothing, and multiple anointings of the men and the altar (often with blood).   

There is a part of me that wants to find some way as a feminist to interpret this parshah that makes sense.  Mostly, I want to find a  way to honor the holiness out of which these men thought they were operating.  They thought their actions benefited the community and brought more holiness into the world.  I have to think that they didn’t just do what they were told, but that they believed in what they did as well.

So, I have looked at the haftarah for inspiration.  The haftarah contains two selections from chapters 7 and 9 of Jeremiah.  It begins with a discussion of sacrifices much like Tzav and discusses typical Israelite unfaithfulness, but then it ends with this, “But one who knows me knows that I [the deity] am the One Who practices kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; for in these things I delight,” (9:23). 

We could take the Israelites’ actions in the Torah and relate it to the image of the divine from Jeremiah.  The Israelites were practicing what Jeremiah was preaching.  In other words, the Israelites thought that in their sin offerings they promoted forgiveness, sincere thanks in the thanksgiving offerings and real peace in the peace offerings.  These are more than just intentions.  Rather, they thought their actions had a real tangible effect in increasing the holiness in themselves and of the community.

Author’s photo.

This contextualizes all of the animal offerings to a historical moment in time, but what does this mean for our times and from our perspective as feminists?  There are two ways to look at this idea I think.  First, we could concentrate on the critique. No matter how many times I reread the parshah, I return time and again to its patriarchal violence in the form of animal sacrifice.  Yet, the Israelites aren’t the only ones who have used animals for their own means.  Lest we think we are better than the Israelites.  Did you know that globally 200 million animals are killed a day for human consumption?  That translates into roughly 80 billion animals a year.  We may not sacrifice animals in the way the Israelites did, but neither do we, as a collective, honor animals or their right to live.   

In addition, this killing of animals speaks of violence in general.  In patriarchy, violence often means war.  Starhawk says, “patriarchy finds its ultimate expression in war.”  How true!   War destroys millions of lives, wreaks havoc on the environment, and causes enormous amounts of pain, fear, suffering, and death.  War is wrong.  Nothing good could ever come of it.  

However, second, we can look at the parshah from the perspective of its constructive potential vis-a-vis holiness. Our actions can bring more holiness into the world like the Israelites thought they were doing.  For example, animals deserve to live their own lives, to have families and social interactions, to suffer as little as possible, and to be valued as the individuals they are.  There is something we can do about this; we can opt out of the patriarchal use, abuse, and murder of animals.  I, for example, strive everyday to be as vegan as I can.  I am not perfect, but every action improves the lives of animals.  

I live an eight and a half hour car-ride from the border with Ukraine.  I cannot and will not support what Putin has done, and my heart reaches out to the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainians deserve to live in peace as do the other peoples around the globe embroiled in violence and war (lest we forget them).  For my part, I’m doing what I can to aid those who help Ukrainian refugees fleeing to the Czech Republic.  We need to do more.  We need to end the crimes of that mad man, Putin, and those who support him.

The holiness of the parshah can come out of the pages of Tzav and into our own time if we are willing to not take the text so literally.  The divine does not require these specific actions of us, but the divine does require us to act.  Acting in the right way and with the correct values can bring holiness into the world.  That is until action upon action leads to the world being holy and murder and violence no longer existing.  

Tzav says holiness comes in every action we take towards justice, kindness, and peace. No matter how small.  Come! Let us bring more holiness into the world.  We need it.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses. 



Categories: animals, Jewish Feminism, Judaism, Patriarchy, Torah, Violence

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Thank you for this powerful insight. It is all connected. May the patriarchal violence just stop.

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  2. “There is a part of me that wants to find some way as a feminist to interpret this parshah that makes sense.” Unfortunately I doubt you will find one – the Abrahamic faiths treat women as either inferiors, subhumans, or breeders. There is no shame in acknowledging that some beliefs simply are not feminist or egalitarian, but support a very narrow view of who is considered human or worthy or having inherent value.

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  3. Stay safe in Europe! Tsar Putin seems to want to conquer the whole continent, to lay it all waste, i hope that does not include the Czech Republic or other lands that were once part of the Soviet empire. I hope Prague is safe.

    As for your study of the Abrahamic holy book, I’m always impressed by the depth of your knowledge and research and critical thinking. And further impressed by your interpretations. You write that “our actions can bring more holiness into the world like the Israelites thought they were doing.” I wish people would start acting in such a way! It seems to me that the 21st century is pushing holiness out of the world. No matter where we live, all we have to do is look around. Oh, gee–I’m sorry to sound so pessimistic, but I can’t help it. Nevertheless, bright blessings to you and your ongoing work. Stay safe! .

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  4. What do you think about the Chassidic idea that when we say brachot etc we release the sparks of holiness into the world and they become part of tikun olam?

    I like this idea but I’m not sure what I really think about it.

    Your ways of bringing more holiness into the world sound most constructive.

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