Leviticus: An Embodied Exploration

The book of Leviticus contains many levels of meaning and is rich for exploration. At first glance much of this book may be dismissed as focused on a blood cult and system of sacrifice that no loner pertains to us since the destruction of the Temple. However, upon careful examination it is clear that these pieces of our sacred story are in deep conversation with the rest of Torah and that they contain information about the construction of sacred community and the ways we may bring the Divine presence into our midst that are essential to us today. This paper contains both a reflection on the ideas presented in the text as well as an actual script for an embodied practice as a way of further exploring these ideas. The embodied practice described will likely be the theme of next semester’s Movement Minyan at Hebrew College.

The priestly viewpoint that is so prominent in book of Leviticus lost its central focus with the destruction of the Temple. With the Temple gone, the priestly class lost its power and authority, giving rise to the rabbinic worldview. The priestly voice, therefore, has been set aside by history. This viewpoint, however, contains many important elements for us today. According to the priestly view touching or physically experiencing something is more important than talking or teaching about that thing. This is evidenced in the priestly focus on the construction of a physical mishkan and the carnal nature of sacrifices. The word naga, to touch, appears more in Leviticus than in any other of the five books. With the shift to the dominance of the rabbinic view, however, this focus on embodied learning, worship, and knowing is diminished in favor of the more intellectual approach to religious experience promoted by the rabbis.

In light of this focus on embodied experience found in the priestly system of thought, it seems both fruitful and appropriate to study the book of Leviticus through not only an intellectual but also an embodied framework. Embodied experience allows us to delve into matters that we may not be able to understand at a cognitive level. By engaging multiple senses at once, embodied learning can yield a fuller and richer understanding of a particular subject.

This paper explores three dynamics that are prominent in the book of Leviticus through both an intellectual and an embodied framework. The first session deals with the tension between individual autonomy and communal obligation, as evidenced by the limitation on kindling fires in the home on Shabbat once the mishkan is constructed. The final four sessions compare two main differences between the priestly worldview and the rabbinic worldview: where holiness is found and what is considered the central focus of the Torah. After describing each dynamic and providing scriptural-based analysis, this paper goes on to present a framework for exploring the dynamic through the body. As the co-founder of the Movement Minyan at Hebrew College, over the past three years I have seen how rewarding this combined approach of intellectual and body-based exploration can be. Each form yields its own variety of insight, bringing an understanding of a particular topic to a new and dynamic level.


Session 1: Holy community

Fire is a powerful symbol in Judaism. It can be a life sustaining force as it supplies warmth and is used to cook food. It can also threaten life, burning everything in its path if it gets out of control. As Lawrence Kushner writes, “Fire is the core symbol of transformation, the process by which matter becomes energy, right before our eyes.” Kindling fire is something each Israelite used to do in his or her own home, at any time. Then, in Exodus 35:3, Moses relays God’s instruction “don’t light a fire in any of your dwellings on Shabbat.” As the Israelite people begin to form a collective identity, certain activities that used to be done by any individual at any time become boundaried.

Unlike fires in the home, which are kindled and die depending on the family need, God commands that, “The fire on the altar is to be kept burning; it is never to go out” (Lev 6:12). Fires, which used to be a part of every home, become a defining feature of the mishkan, a sign of God’s presence. As it says, “The glory of God appeared as consuming fire on top of the mountain” (Ex 24:17). God’s presence is so powerful that it needs to be contained in one place in order to not overwhelm the people. In constructing the mishkan as the sacred center, the holy day of Shabbat becomes defined by one central fire in this place of holiness rather than numerous dispersed flames in individual’s homes. B’nai Yisrael was commanded to not light fires in their homes on Shabbat in order to magnify the significance of this Divine flame. As B’nai Israel transition from being a group of individuals into a community, they are commanded to give up some of their autonomy in order to add power to the collective.

The probing into the relationship between individual autonomy and collective identity is one of the major themes of the book of Leviticus. With the construction of the mishkan there becomes a central location for the collective energy of the community and for the Divine presence. In order to create this powerful center, some autonomy must be given up, as in the case of fires in the home on Shabbat. This tension between the individual and the collective is ripe for embodied exploration.


Embodied Experience

In this session participants will be given one set movement that they can improvise on, but must incorporate into their free-form movement, for example: twirling in circles. At the beginning of the session participants will choose a space in the room and will be invited to move in whatever way they choose but including twirling in some way. All around the space individuals will be creating their own movement experience in the proximity of one another but in no way dictated by one another. Then, midway through the session we will create a central location—a square demarcated by tape on the floor to signify the mishkan. Participants will be told that they can no longer use the twirl in their own free-form movements. The only place they can now twirl is in the space marked off by the tape. Not only that, but twirling must be happening within the taped off section by someone at all times. We will also give a set way that the twirling must happen, including the speed of the turn and the motion of the arms. From here, participants will be invited to continue moving, following the new rules.

In our discussion following the movement experience we will delve into the tensions, feelings, and insights that this experience evoked: what did it feel like to incorporate a particular motion into your movement? What was the experience of being a room full of people using this motion? Did the way you did this motion remain consistent? Did the movements of other people around you influence you? How did it feel to have a limitation placed upon this movement? What was your experience of having to make your performance this motion match the guidelines we gave you? Was there any power in having this motion relegated to one central location? Did you feel responsible for making sure someone was always doing this motion in the specified spot? How did this influence your own personal movements? In which part of this experience did you feel the most freedom as an individual? The most connected to community? The most connected to God?


Session 2 & 3: Climbing Higher, Going Deeper

The narrative structure of the Torah can be seen through many lenses, each adding its own gloss on the relationship between the books of the bible. Two such lenses through which the Torah can be viewed are the rabbinic and the priestly lenses.

Through the rabbinic lens, the arc of the biblical narrative moves from the lowest to the highest place. The Torah begins at sea level in primordial swamp of the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The first human is made of dust from the earth and is brought to life by God blowing in his nostrils (Gen 2:7). From this lowly beginning, our ancestors continue to move upwards throughout the book of Genesis: Abraham goes up out of Egypt on his “lech l’chah” journey (Gen 13:1) and after reconciling with his brother Esau Jacob goes up to Beth El (Gen 35:3). From Exodus through the end of the Torah is the story of the Israelite people following God’s directive to Moses to bring the nation up out of the land of Egypt towards the Promised Land (Ex 33:1-3). Moses receives Divine instruction by going “up to God” (19:2) or “up the mountain” (19:20). The Torah ends at the pinnacle of height at the top of Mount Nebo (Deut 34:1). Moses dies atop this mountain; his life ending as Adam’s began: God kisses Moses, taking his breath from him and then buries him in the ground.

Through the priestly lens, however, the Torah moves in a different direction. Rather than climbing ever higher up to encounter God, the priestly view understands the Divine presence to dwell deep within space. This space comes to be demarcated by a structure in which God can dwell. God’s purpose in taking the Israelites out of Egypt was, “in order to dwell among them” (Ex 29:46). In order for God to live among the people, a holy space needed to be built. In Exodus 25, God tells Moses to instruct the people to make an offering to God “from every person who has an impulse in his heart” (Ex 25:2). The offering that God request is the construction of a holy space for God so that God will can be ever-present among the people (Ex 25:8).

The following chapters detail exactly how the mishkan was to be constructed, including the materials, colors, structural measurements and the process of assembly. The mishkan was surrounded by an outer courtyard, which contained the altar of burnt offering and the laver for ritual washing. The walls of this courtyard marked the first level of holy space. Going deeper, within this courtyard was a curtain marking another level of sacred space: the Holy of Holies. This innermost chamber could only be accessed by the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur. Going even deeper within, through this curtain, within the Holy of Holies sat the Ark of the Covenant. It was within the Ark that God’s presence on earth was manifested.

In this view, forgiveness and restoration of relationship happen when an individual moves to a place deeper than his normal location. For example, if an Israelite has sinned, in offering his sin sacrifice, he moves from outside the domain of the mishkan inside the boundary of the courtyard. If a priest has sinned, he moves inward from his normal location in the mishkan to altar to apply the blood of his sacrifice to the horns and base of the altar in order to complete his atonement process. When the place in which one stands is broken, one must move to a new space in order to find healing and wholeness. In the case of the sin offering, each person moves from his normal realm of functioning one step deeper within holy space in order to rectify his relationship with God.


Embodied Experience

In this two-part session participants will explore the differences between the embodied experience of moving from low to high outside versus moving from outside to inside. In the first session we will delve into the movement from low to high. Participants will start on the floor, inhabiting the space of the primordial swamp of the Garden of Eden. Through a slow progression, we will make our way from slithering and sliding prone on the floor to crawling on our hands and knees to squatting, and finally to standing. Once upright, participants will be given a specified amount of time to move from where the stand to the very top of a tall staircase, from which they will be able to look down on the scene from above.

This will be juxtaposed with a second session in which participants explore the experience of moving from outside to deeply within a certain space. As in the first session, we will start by playing with this theme simply with our own body. At first, participants will be instructed to allow themselves to be led by the sounds and beats of the music. At this stage the music, an external factor, will dictate the rhythm and motions of their movements. Then, we will gradually lower the volume on the music until it is no longer audible. Through this change, participants will, necessarily, have to rely less and less on that which is external. Participants will be encouraged to follow their internal sense for how to move.

In this session we will have portioned off part of the space with a curtains. Behind the curtain are smaller and smaller spaces, each marked off by their own curtain partition. At this point the music will come back on and participants will be directed to use the following 10 minutes make their way through each curtain. In each of the three sections, they will be asked to remain for a few minutes, allowing the music, the space, and their own inner voice to speak to them and direct their movements. Participants will be directed to emerge from the space slowly, section by section, in the same manner they entered.

In our discussion following this movement experience we will explore what these sessions evoked, both individually and when compared to one another: What was the experience of moving from the lowest point, rolling on the ground, to the highest point, standing on the stairs? What resonances or other experiences did this evoke? What advantages did being high up afford you? What challenges? What was it like to move from being outside to inside the curtained space? What resonances or other experiences did this evoke? In comparing the two sessions, where (if it all) did you feel most connected to God? To community? To yourself? To the rest of the natural world? Why? Does your experience of these two sessions make sense given your understanding of the Divine? Did any of your reactions surprise you?


Session 4 & 5: All Roads Lead to the Middle; All Roads Lead to the End

Looking at the biblical narrative through different lenses reveals not only different ideas about where holiness is to be found, but also distinct narrative arcs. Viewed through the rabbinic lens, the climax of the Torah comes at the end of Deuteronomy when B’nai Yisrael reach the Promised Land. The narratives of creation, the tales of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the road from enslavement to freedom, the growth of the Israelite people under Moses’ leadership—all build to the final scene when the Israelites look out to the land flowing with milk and honey that they have been promised as their inheritance. In this view, everything that occurs is for the sake of the end of goal of reaching the land.

Through the priestly lens, however, the story looks somewhat different. Rather than the drama of the Torah reaching it’s full apex at the very end of the very last book, the story climaxes in the middle with the construction of the mishkan. In the priestly view the narratives of creation, the patriarchs and matriarchs, and enslavement and freedom all build to the formation of a dwelling place for God on earth so that God can be among the people. As God describes the reason God freed the people from Egypt was so that God could dwell among them (Ex 29:46). In this view, the end of the construction of the mishkan to the conclusion of Deuteronomy contains the falling action of the narrative. Reaching the Promised Land, therefore, is not the apex of the story but is rather simply a way to move the characters off stage.


Embodied Experience:

These two distinct views of the narrative arc of the Torah can be explored through the body, adding new insight into these structures. Just as there is an arc to the flow of a written story, so too is there is an arc within a piece of movement. In this two-part session we will use the same flow of movement done in two different ways to match the two different arcs described. In the first session, the movement and music will build throughout the entire session to an ecstatic moment of release at the end. In the second session the music and movement will build over a much shorter amount of time to climax in the middle. The rest of the session will be a cool down, using the same movements but in a slower, more relaxed way.



Rather than abandon Leviticus as irrelevant, I am instead suggesting that it is time to revisit it in a new way. Just as the sacrificial system became unavailable due to the destruction of the Temple, the rabbinical system of intellectual engagement has become stale through standardization and overuse. However, rather than a regressive return to a physical system of sacrifice, I am offering an approach that takes the enterprise of Leviticus both deeper inward and higher upward to both enlarge the space for God to dwell in and to allow us to meet God a bit more than half way.

As we have learned, according to the priestly view all of our struggles and wanderings throughout the Torah were so that God would be able to dwell among us, as it says “make me a sanctuary so that I can dwell among you” (Ex 29:46). If so, for us to continue to consider the Torah relevant to our lives today, we must find new understandings of what the mishkan might be. While built structures can provide space for holiness, the work of allowing God to dwell among us must first begin with each one of us. It is my hope that combining both an intellectual and embodied exploration of the book of Leviticus will help us to see ourselves as the mishkan, thereby inviting the consciousness of god to dwell within us.