The world of Camino Real, Tennessee Williams’ way ahead of its time play, is a dark place from which escape may not be possible. If you’re familiar with the play, you may recognize how it might be a fitting play to produce in our own troubled times. It’s a complicated work, and I cannot do it real justice here. I’m not sure that even if you read it you’ll understand, and may find you’ll have to consult the analyses of others to aid in your understanding.
(Consider that among the characters in the play are the literary characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Lord Byron, Camille, Esmerelda, and you might understand why it attracts me so. Read the play itself and you might understand why it feels so apropos to today’s realities.)
One of the characters in the play is the Gypsy, who is used by the despotic character Gutman as a distraction from the harsh realities of Camino Real. A recurring theme is how the Gypsy’s daughter, Esmerelda regains her virginity with each moonrise, with each new moon.
Therein lies the most tenuous of connections to what we read in parashat Emor.
Impurity doesn’t last forever. Impurity fades and one can become chaste again. A priest or other who has come into contact with a dead body, or through nocturnal emissions will become pure again by the evening, simply through the passage of time. The purity, in this case, is the purity that permits a priest to partake in the sacred offerings. (Or, to be more blunt about it, the sacrifices made to G”d that really serve the function of feeding the priests. What need of G”d has burnt food?)
At Yom Kippur, we get a clean slate (at least for our sins against G”d.) So this concept of impurity being time-limited appear in Jewish belief and practice. What then are we to make of a book of judgement? If our impurities can be made pure through the simple passage of time (and perhaps a ritual or two) how can we square that of this idea of standing in judging before G”d at the end of our lives, with our good deeds and sins being weighed to determine our fate. (For those of you who think this isn’t part of accepted Jewish belief, think again.)
Can all types of impurities be washed away through some form of ritual and the passage of time? Are there some impurities that can never be washed aware or fade with time?
Or is all this a moot point, because this whole concept of impurities fading with ritual and time seems to be only for the priestly class?
No lay person may eat of the sacred donations. It’s for the priest only. However, the lay person must sacrifice only the best animals, without impurities. In fact, the priests have to bend over backwards to insure that no lay person eats, even accidentally, from the sacred donations, and to prevent them from offering a blemished animal in sacrifice. Why can’t these impure animals be made clean? Let the priests eat some of the less choice offerings.
Sounds like the priests looking out for the priests, if you ask me. Well, this is the book of Leviticus, isn’t it. The priests probably redacted this whole book so heavily it bears no resemblance to its original form (or the priests made up this book from whole cloth.)
In Camino Real, both the upper echelons and the unwashed masses are equally guilty of greed, gluttony, and ill-treating others. So before I go lambasting the priests, I should remind myself that the laity have their faults, too.
But c’mon. In yet another example of the Torah as bad parenting 101, G”d throws Moshe a bone and makes his older brother and his descendants into the priests. Isn’t that like asking for a Korach to come along? Sure, we’ve all heard the apologetics. Freedom was new to the formerly enslaved Israelites. They had to be weaned. A priesthood is one way to help insure a gradual transition. Problem is, the transition never got made until external forces defeated us and destroyed our Temple. Twice. Then, rushing to fill the vacuum, and certain that the unwashed masses couldn’t possibly do it on their own, the rabbis rush in and, with the simple story about pure or impure status of a certain oven at Akhnai place themselves, by their own decree, into the role formerly occupied by the priests. Today, many of us are still trying to claim our freedom – the freedom first given to the priests and later stolen by the rabbis.
Camino Real in the play is the end of the road. A sort of purgatory (or for that matter, a hell, as at least two levels of Dante’s hell are embedded into the play.) It is Sheol. Yet even Camino Real offers a glimmer of hope. Kilroy, erstwhile hero of the play refuses to give in to Gutman (the anti-hero despot.) Kilroy is eventually killed, but restored to life. (Yeah, I know, I know. Don’t go there.)
Esmerelda launches into a long diatribe including these words:
G”d blesses all con men and hustlers and pitchmen who hawk their hearts on the street, all twotime [sic] losers who're likely to lose once more, the courtesan who made the mistake of love, the ˻˻ greatest of lovers crowned with the greatest horns, the poet who wandered far from his heart's green country…, look down with a smile tonight on the last cavaliers, the one with the rusty armor and soiled white plumes, and visit with understanding and something that's almost tender those fading legends that come and go in this plaza like songs not clearly remembered, oh, sometime and somewhere, let there be something to mean the word honor again!
Surely those are words for our own moment in time.
I’m not sure you could say the play has a hopeful ending (the analysts debate that) but it has offered a few moments of hope amidst all the overwhelming despair. Even if, ultimately, it mocks the Quixotian hope, it does remind us that such hopes do exist.
My Quixotic hope is that we Jews will again rediscover and reclaim our own ability to make the impure pure, simply though time and perhaps simple ritual, and to be able to interpret for ourselves what the priests and rabbis claimed only they could interpret.
©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Emor 5777 - Mum's the Word (Revised & Revisited 5760)
Emor 5775 - Missing the appointment
Emor 5774 - Lex Talionis (Redux & Revised from 5759)
Emor 5773 - The Half-Israelite Blasphemer
Emor 5772-Eternal EffortII: We Have Met the Ner Tamid and It Is Us
Emor 5771-B'yom HaShabbat, B'yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 - G"d's Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 - Mum's the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort