Before we get started, this week (and next) will probably be a little shorter and lighter than my usual post. Vayikra is indeed the "doldrums" of the Torah, and I've already exhausted a lot of the fun things to talk about in the book. However, lest you think that I'm running out of steam, I have a lot of great stuff in the works for Bamidbar and Devarim.
This week's double parsha is one that is quoted an outsized number of times in both modern religious and atheist proclamations. It is home to the commandment forbidding homosexual relations (Lev 18:22) often quoted by the Orthodox Jews and more commonly evangelical Christians as justification for social policies. Atheists who like to ridicule Christians like to point out the prohibition of sha'atnez (Lev 19:19) found a little bit later, where you are forbidden to wear garments containing wool and linen. They often attempt to ascribe hypocrisy to evangelicals for focusing on homosexuality while ignoring this law (seemingly unaware that Orthodox Jews do take this commandment very seriously.)
There really is a random sampling of commandments in these sections. Some of them seem quite good and I agree with their morality. Commandments such as, not cheating a customer in a business transaction (Lev 19:36) and commandments regarding leaving some of your crops for the poor (Lev 19:9). It also contains some that I don't agree with, like punishing practitioners of arcane magic with death (Lev 20:27). It also contains "silly" prohibitions like the commandment against shaving the "corners" of your head (Lev 19:27).
It also contains the favorite quotable commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18) which later, to the credit of the biblical author, gets extended to apply to gayrim, which biblically means non-Israelites (Lev 19:34). This is the Jewish version of the golden rule, and it's actually, in my opinion, a reasonably good moral principle to follow. It doesn't work in some edge cases, like the situation where you are a masochist, and there are probably better ways to formulate it, but the intention is good nonetheless. Also credit should go to the Rabbinic teachings which state that this is the most important part of the Torah.
A lot of people like to focus on "love your neighbor" as an example of Biblical morality. In doing so they imply that there's something special about the authorship of the Torah in that it was able to specify such a law. However, on the contrary, some form of "love your neighbor" seems to crop up in nearly every society. If anything, it's representative of a universal moral law that pretty much every religious or societal infrastructure has produced. For example, from the Analects of Confucius:
Zi Gong asked: “Is there a single concept that we can take as a guide for the actions of our whole life?”From ancient Egypt we have the concept of Maat, which essentially is justice. The story of the Eloquent Peasant has possibly the earliest version of the golden rule, in a form that presumably is difficult to translate:
Confucius said, “What about ‘fairness’? What you don't like done to yourself, don't do to others.”
Do for the doer, to cause him to doMore explicit versions appear contemporaneously to the probably dates of composition of the Torah :
That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.In India, the golden rule is no less prominent. The Mahabharata says:
One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one's own self. This, in brief, is the rule of Righteousness.Later Hindu works, namely the Padma Purana, elevate this commandment to the most important, just like Confucious and the Jewish Talmudic Rabbis did.
The end result of all this is clear. Love your neighbor is a good ethical commandment, but it's one that is found pretty much everywhere in humanity. It would be somewhat shocking if Judaism did not have such a commandment. Nevertheless, it would be folly to ascribe a divine nature to the Torah because of the presence of such "good" commandments mixed in with the rest.