Bill Moyers’ Leviticus: A Listless Conversation

(755 words; posted Friday, Nov. 15; to be composted Friday, Nov. 22)
      It was reported to be “the best meal” in town. Hungry after videotaping a conversation with Maya Angelou about the epistemology of poetry for the upcoming PBS Series The Millennium: What PBS Has Taught Us, I hopped the M to Brooklyn. I exited the subway at Marcy Avenue in Williamsburg. On the corner in front of me was Rudi the Knish Man. Across the street were merchants selling pickles, kosher meat, and religious wares. The Jerusalem of Jesus could not have looked much different.       Entering the basement of a sturdy brownstone two blocks away, I came across a score of people eating at a long, plain table. I recognized among them an astronaut, a mercenary, a wheat farmer, a circus acrobat, and the manager of the Gap in Garden City. Their leader was a bearded man–a priestly Cohen, descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother–who directed the action. And action there was, if the sacrificing of animals is the game you love.
     They were living the life of Leviticus, the third book of the Bible, whose decrees have imprinted the spiritual, ethical, and literary practices of Western civilization. There was little dinner conversation, just adherence to the rituals tendered by Moses at Sinai to the Israelites–the kind of meal you wish would happen at your Sunday dinner table.
     We all read Leviticus’ divine dictums as children, but how often we forget their steady wisdom. In that brownstone basement in Brooklyn, the clean and unclean, shaven and hirsute, boiled and unblemished, seed-spillers and procreators all joined together in a quest to understand the laws of God. They showed me how the commandments of Leviticus are as clear and relevant to us today as they were to a small tribe of nomads 3,500 years ago.
     I came away from that Brooklyn encounter resolved to test whether the communal practice of the laws of Leviticus could succeed on television. I wondered if a television series about Levitical priestly worship might nourish a spiritually hungry audience. Perhaps, I hoped, we could recreate Jerusalem at home. Please join me in a conversation about Leviticus.


Episode One: The 20 Percent Solution
According to Leviticus, if an Israelite satisfies a vow with an unclean animal, its value must first be assessed by a priest, who collects 20 percent for his labors. Is 20 percent too much to pay for a simple inspection? Since the priest himself determines the offering’s value, could the system be ripe for corruption? What does the 20 percent figure say about America’s capital-gains tax rates?

Episode Two: An Offering Unto the Lord
     For a first-fruit meal offering, the Lord demands toasted corn with oil and frankincense. Priests must burn some as an offering to God, but what should we do with the remainder? Is it kosher? Can it be composted?

Episode Three: The Ungodly Mix
Leviticus commands: You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material. Technology says “yes,” Leviticus says “no.” Can the two be reconciled?

Episode Four: Holier Than Thou
     God smote Aaron’s two unholy sons, Nadab and Abihu, with fire for offering incense to the Lord. What does it mean to be unholy in today’s world? Several dramatists discuss whom they would cast as Nadab and Abihu. “Alec and Billy Baldwin.” “The Baldwins.” “Any of the Baldwin boys would do.” We reach a rare consensus on the meaning of Leviticus.

Episode Five: Forgotten Foods
Most of us know that birds that walk on four legs are forbidden animals, but who among us remembers that we may partake of flying creeping things that go upon all fours, which have legs above their feet to leap upon the earth? Can it be that God intends us to eat grasshoppers?
Episode Six: The Unclean
     Who is clean? No question in Leviticus is more difficult. The holy book tells us that boils, burns, infections on the head or beard, bright spots on the skin, hair loss, and certain bodily discharges render us unclean. Is anyone among us clean? If not, then who is left to cast us out?


Funding for Leviticus: A Listless Conversation is provided by the Archer Daniels Midland Co.–supermarket to the world–supporting the constitutional right for children to practice cereal offerings in schools; the John D. and Catherine T. MacLevine Foundation, providing Genesis grants to fellow Levites; and the National Council on Leprosy.
Illustrations by Charlie Powell

Jeffrey Itell is a Washington, D.C., writer.