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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

25. What Do Capitalism, Religion, and OCD Have in Common?

Updated: Apr 8

Apparently our lives were filled with useless rules even before the authoritarian extravaganza that is late-stage capitalism.

Parshah Tzav

TL;DR of the Text

God gives Moses the endless (endless!) instructions for different types of offerings. Aaron and his sons go through their anointment ceremonies.

Major Themes

  • OCD, religious OCD, and useless rules

  • Rules as gatekeepers to acceptance

  • "Even altruism is selfish!" A note to the Ayn Rand fans

*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash: the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

Leviticus 6:1-8*
“Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the elevation-offering: It is the elevation-offering [that stays] on the flame, on the Altar, all night until the morning, and the fire of the Altar should remain aflame on it. The Kohen shall don his fitted linen Tunic, and he shall don linen Breeches on his flesh; he shall separate the ash of what the fire consumed of the elevation-offering on the Altar, and place it next to the Altar. 

He shall remove his garments and don other garments, and he shall remove the ash to the outside of the camp, to a pure place. The fire on the Altar shall remain burning on it, it shall not be extinguished; and the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning… 

[the sons of Aaron] shall separate from [the meal-offering] with his threefingersful some of the fine flour of the meal-offering…” 

As I’ve mentioned before, I used to have OCD. A lot of people joke about having OCD, but holy shit, the real thing is… all-encompassing, let’s put it that way. Anyway, when I read this passage, I was struck by how similar it sounded to OCD rituals. Costume changes? Threefingersful? How do you know you aren’t accidentally doing three-point-five-fingersful? 

Even in the context of religion, Judaism is remarkably prone to OCD-type rituals. Perhaps that was part of the initial attraction for me. Maybe Islam has the same problem; I confess I’m not as educated on the finer points of Islamic theology as I am on Christianity and Judaism. 

For Christians, Jesus came along and effectively negated many Old Testament precedents. In my opinion, the fact that Christianity is having a resurgence of Jewish tradition right now - growing numbers of Christians observe Shabbat, celebrate Passover, etc. - is the Christian manifestation of a global experience. Like the rest of us, they are grasping at straws to attain any semblance of control over their lives. 

I digress. The point being, when we compare Judaism to Christianity, and indeed Judaism to Buddhism or most other belief systems, Judaism stands out for its plethora of rules. 

And what arbitrary rules they are! The topic of ritual has come up multiple times in past articles, and my viewpoint has always been, “Rules are good. They give us guardrails and a semblance of control. The content is not as important as the presence of rules themselves.” 

My original point remains, but there’s also a meta-commentary about rules here. Maybe it took a long time for it to work its way up through my psyche, or perhaps these orders were particularly arbitrary. I’m not sure. Either way, the passage shows us the dark side of ritual: the endless, anxiety-driven perfectionism that happens when you have too many instructions, each threatening outsized consequences for disobedience. 

In the Torah, consequences for disobedience are direct and material. Two of Aaron’s sons died because they didn’t perform the incense offering correctly! However, for those of us with perfectionist predilections, which at this point in capitalist society is most people, we’ve been forced to internalize an oppressive system’s rules and their consequences. 

As a recovering workaholic, I am still learning how to recognize when my inner voice is making up purposeless orders designed to push me to even greater heights of productivity. What happens if I don’t listen to the voice? Anxiety. OCD is an extreme example of this process. 

I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: the Torah is not meant to be taken at face value. It demonstrates different facets of human nature. When the Torah tells us God issued a command, the intention is not to obey it unquestioningly and adopt the command as the Ultimate Goodness and Truth for thousands of years. 

The Torah is telling us a truth, but it’s not found in the commandment! The truth is in the meta-commentary about human nature. We discover the truth by using our mundane human logic. 

If we look at the passage’s scenario plainly, something immediately jumps out: Wow, that’s a whole lot of effort. Why are they killing themselves to follow all these random instructions? It seems stressful. 

It is stressful, profoundly so. Capitalism made us experts in rules-based stress because capitalism specializes in meaningless regulations and hierarchies. 

Speaking of capitalism, an extensive list of rules also acts as gatekeepers into societies, religions, and most notably, classes. Judaism’s laws are concrete and stated - they can be learned and studied. 

Contrast Judaism’s (mostly) codified religious law with the criteria for admission into upper-middle-class society in the United States. Those are opaque and squiggly, defined by things as minor as someone’s word choice or intonation in casual conversation. 

Indeed, the difference between spoken and unspoken rules can also be found within Judaism. For example, it’s still extremely difficult to gain acceptance into Judaism if you weren’t born into it because of cultural (essentially, racial) reasons rather than religious ones. 

The more conservative and religious the Jewish community, the easier it is for a convert to be accepted, precisely because Orthodox converts are expected to follow a well-defined and structured religious canon. If you’re a convert in a liberal/Reform Jewish community, you’re looking mostly at racial and cultural (unspoken) rules governing acceptance, just as you would be if you grew up working class and were trying to pierce the hazy, mid-century-modern veil of upper-middle-class Western capitalist society. 

One of the peculiar ironies of liberalism. 

What is the correct message to take from the passage? I offer you this: Don’t take anything at face value, especially rules. Use your discretion to decide if they make sense. If they do, excellent - have at it. If they don’t, well then, why bother? 

Leviticus 6:13-14*

“‘This is the offering of Aaron and his sons, which each shall offer to Hashem on the day he is inaugurated: a tenth-ephah of fine flour as a continual meal-offering; half of it in the morning and half of it in the afternoon. It should be made on a pan with oil, scalded shall you bring it; a repeatedly baked meal-offering, broken into pieces.” 

Ancient Aliens meme. A guy who looks like he stuck his finger in an electrical socket is holding his two hands apart. He looks very high. "God is all-powerful but needs humans to cut up his snacks for him"

So the offering is supposed to be cooked in oil - okay. But also scalded? And broken into pieces? Does God have dentures? Is it difficult for Him to eat unless humans break His food into smaller pieces for him like a parent helping their child cut meat? 

More fodder for religious OCD. 

Leviticus 6:16*

“Every meal-offering of a Kohen is to be entirely [caused to go up in smoke]; it shall not be eaten.” 

See, now this makes a certain kind of sense. Some things were off-limits, even for priests. Not because they were inherently holy but to teach the priests a lesson in self-control. If they learned their lesson, hopefully it would help them avoid the pitfalls of greed.   

Leviticus 7:15*

“And the flesh of his feast thanksgiving peace-offering must be eaten on the day of its offering; he shall not leave any of it until morning.” 

The lesson? Don’t delay expressions of gratitude. 

Leviticus 7: 16-17*

“If his feast-offering is for a vow or a donation, it must be eaten on the day he offered his feast-offering; and on the next day, what is left over from it may be eaten. What is left over from the flesh of the feast-offering shall be  burned in the fire on the next day.” 

Offerings for vows or donations were spread over two days so the vow and/or donation would have more time to stick in the donor’s mind. Otherwise, it’d be easy to go home elated from the celebrations and “forget” to follow through. 

They burned the offering on the third day for hygiene purposes. Even now, with our pasteurization and refrigeration, we still shouldn’t keep meat longer than 3-4 days.

Leviticus 7:29-30*

“Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When one brings his feast peace-offering to Hashem, he shall deliver his offering to Hashem from his feast peace-offering. With his own hands shall he bring the fire-offerings of Hashem; the fat atop the breast shall he bring, the breast, in order to wave it as a wave-service before Hashem.”

You know the saying, “Even good deeds are selfish, because you feel good after you do them?” People, most famously Ayn Rand, use the concept to justify their selfishness. The thinking goes: Even altruism is technically selfish! If everything is covertly selfish, then I’m free to be as overtly selfish as I want. 

What false logic. Why does it matter if good deeds make us feel good? Just because something is mutually beneficial doesn’t negate its goodness! The Torah incentivizes this by baking in a ritual to celebrate those who bring offerings to the Sanctuary and help feed their community. 

However, some people do donate to charity just to have their name on a building, or for other narcissistic motivations. Like everything else in life, altruism has a dark side, and this passage afforded someone the perfect opportunity to “do the right thing for the wrong reasons.” 

Instead of either/or, I hold both of these possibilities together. We can acknowledge our ambivalent relationship with altruism while still appreciating the fact that human nature rewards us for doing good.

*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


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