Rites of Access

Rites of Access October 27, 2014

At the heart of Richard Beck’s brilliant Unclean are two related mistakes that amount to the same mistake.

The first has to do with sacrifice. He begins from Jesus’ claim in Matthew 9 that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice.” The two are not logically opposed, nor are they opposed situationally. Beck argues that they are psychologically (or psychosocially) in opposition. Sacrifice draws boundaries; mercy transgresses boundaries. Sacrifice expresses a “will to purity” (Miroslav Volf’s language); mercy a will to embrace. (Beck supports this by drawing on the erroneous Weberian claim that Israel was split between priestly and prophetic traditions, on which see my brief comments here.)

Beck acknowledges that every community, including the church, needs boundaries or it loses its integrity. The church then has to work through the tensions between mercy and sacrifice, between boundary-setting and boundary-transgression. Beck is, I think, correct to worry that many churches are much better at “sacrifice” than at “mercy,” much better at setting and maintaining boundaries than at learning to cross boundaries to engage strangers and the unclean. 

That’s a mistake, I’ll argue in a minute. The other mistake has to do with “purity,” which Beck explicates in terms of the psychology of disgust. Disgust is a boundary psychology. We aren’t normally disgusted by blood flowing peacefully in our or another’s veins; when the blood flows out, though, breaching the boundary of the skin, the gorge rises. Certain persons or behaviors are disgusting in the same way, and this sort of social disgust polices the boundaries of communities. Purity rules regulate the boundaries of disgust.

The mistake in both cases is to take Levitical purity and sacrifice as boundary rites and exclusions. Following Girard, he explicitly defines sacrifice in terms of scapegoating and expulsion (96). In Leviticus, though, sacrifice is first of all described as “drawing near,” a qorban that is qarabed, a near-bringing brought near (Leviticus 1:1-3). Phenomenologically, as Marcel Detienne has pointed out, sacrifice is access at a distance, allowing communication with the gods through smoke while simultaneously reinforcing the distance between the god and the worshiper. 

Purity rules in Leviticus have the same force. While Leviticus 11-15 does specify the physical processes and maladies that exclude one from Yahweh’s presence, those same chapters prescribe rites of cleansing that enable a worshiper to draw near. 

With both sacrifice and purity rules, distance and exclusion are assumed. Sacrifice and purity rules are designed to allow some degree of intimacy in a situation of prior exclusion. Narratively, the exclusion begins in Genesis 3, and the Mosaic regulations of sacrifice and purity enable already-excluded humans to coexist with a God who has tabernacled among them – until the time when God steps out from behind the curtain to dwell among us in the flesh.

Beck’s mistakes are common ones. Many if not most assume that the Pharisees understand purity and sacrifice accurately, and Jesus is subverting those institutions. What if the Pharisees have perverted purity and sacrifice into instruments of fleshly exclusion? What if Jesus is right, and welcoming the unclean is precisely what Torah aimed to achieve all along? What if the prophets rightly expounded the priestly tradition? What if, as Beck finally concludes, genuine sacrifice is an act of mercy and love?

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