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Parashat Emor

May 19, 2016

To Serve God Without Blemish
by Rabbi Len Levin

“[The priests] shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God; for they offer the Lord’s offerings by fire…and so must be holy.” (Leviticus 21:6)

“Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said: Torah leads to mindfulness, which leads to diligence, which leads to cleanliness, which leads to abstinence, which leads to purity, which leads to saintliness, which leads to humility, which leads to scrupulousness, which leads to sanctity, which awakens the spirit of prophecy and the resurrection of the dead, to be brought about by Elijah (may he be remembered for good!).” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 20b, Mishnah Sotah 9:15).

We read this week of the strictures of purity incumbent on the priests who officiated in the Tabernacle (and in later periods, in the Temple). They should take special care not to incur ritual impurity except in cases of the utmost necessity, such as performing the mitzvah of burial of their immediate kin. (To this day, this is the source of the custom that kohanim, of Aaronid priestly descent, avoid entering cemeteries.)

We also learn that just as animals with physical blemishes are disqualified from being offered as sacrifices on the altar, so, too, priests with physical deformities were disqualified from serving in the sacrificial service: “no man who his blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long…or who is a hunchback or a dwarf…shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire” (though they were permitted to eat of the sacred foods contributed by lay Israelites for the maintenance of the priestly class; Lev. 21:18-23). This is a disqualification that was not unique to the Israelite priesthood but was observed by the priestly classes of all ancient peoples.

As in many other respects, the idea of holiness evolved in the course of Jewish history from a physical to a more spiritual concept. (“God does not see as humans see; for humans look at the outward appearance, but God looks to the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7]) Rabbinic Judaism did not disqualify people from leadership on account of physical blemishes but ranked them by their spiritual qualities and learning. “A bastard who is a scholar takes precedence over an ignoramus high priest.” (Mishnah Horayot 3:8)

A special genre of Jewish literature developed over time focusing on the study and perfection of moral virtues. The Talmudic corpus is replete with isolated passages such as the saying of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair quoted above. One tractate of the Mishnah, Avot  (“Ethics of the Fathers”), collects the moral sayings of the rabbis of the first and second centuries. In the eleventh century, Bahya Ibn Pakudah composed a treatise, Duties of the Heart, elaborating on how one should train oneself in improving adherence to reverence, piety, and benevolence. This became the first in a series of similar treatises composed over the next thousand years.

In our day, Rabbi Ira Stone has updated this genre with his acclaimed book, A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Musar (Aviv Press, 2006). His teaching combines the best of the 19th-century Musar teachers Israel Salantar and Simcha Zissel Braude of Kelm, which were based on the 18th-century master Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto (whose Path of the Righteous used the saying of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair as its outline). He augments this with the challenging “philosophy of the Other” of the 20th-century  French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

Rabbi Stone’s approach starts with the simple principle, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In Levinas’s interpretation, this powerful principle directs us to recognize God’s command emanating from the “other”–any fellow human being whom we perceive facing us and needing our help. Indeed, our responsibility would be infinite — too much for us to bear — were it not for the wisdom and guidance of the tradition that provides the social norms that formulate our duties toward our fellow human in ways that are achievable.

Still, to train our passionate selves to fulfill this responsibility, we must come to know the component parts of our human nature, the yetzer tov (good impulse) and yetzer ra (evil impulse). We must undertake a lifelong discipline to develop in ourselves the qualities — patience, order, cleanliness, humility, diligence, and all the rest. The Musar tradition, as explicated by Rabbi Stone, provides methods and tools for training ourselves, individually and in groups, to facilitate our ongoing moral self-improvement.

If we follow this path, then we will be (God willing) “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.