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Parashat Emor – 5779

May 16, 2019

Kedushah: From Hierarchy to Complementarity
A D’var Torah for Parashat Emor
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).

“These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the LORD, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Leviticus 23:2).

“The world stands on three things: on Torah, on the [Temple] service, and on deeds of lovingkindness” (Avot 1:2).

“A bastard who is a scholar takes precedence over a High Priest who is an ignoramus” (Mishnah Horayot 3:8).

“Holiness determines and actualizes the spirit as moral spirit. And in the same way the spirit determines and actualizes holiness as the action of moral reason” (Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, end of Chapter 7).

Can sanctity be reconciled with equality?

Kedushah—holiness or sanctity—is one of the central value concepts of the Hebrew Bible. It is expressed tangibly in the complex system of rules governing the priesthood and the sanctuary. Gifts of food and livestock donated to the sanctuary become holy. The sacrifices on the altar are called kodesh—“sacred.” Persons or objects in a state of ritual impurity are not allowed to come into contact with the sacred precincts. And the whole system of divine worship is performed and conducted by a special clan—the kohanim, priests of the line of Aaron—who are in our Torah reading called sacred in their very persons.

Our weekly portion also devotes a chapter to the festivals of God, which enact sacredness in time. Not all times are equal. We sanctify the Sabbath of every week, and special days in the year, to experience elevation and closeness to God.

And in last week’s portion, Kedoshim, the whole people of Israel is called on to be holy to God by committing itself to an exacting code of conduct, one that is centered on ethical living but extends into many ritual observances as well.

The blessing of Havdalah that is recited at the end of the Sabbath over wine, candle, and spices expresses this ideal of holiness through separation in the various domains: “Blessed are You, O God, who makes a separation between holy and commonplace, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the Seventh Day and the workdays of the week.”

All these notions express an ideal of sanctity through hierarchy. The sacred is sacred only by contrast with the commonplace. (Hol does not have the negative connotation of the English word “profane”). The sacred represents an ideal that is only occasionally or rarely achieved. By this view, people, places, objects, and times are not all equal; some are, by implication, better than others.

Hierarchy stands in tension with the ideal of equality. We associate equality with modern political ideals, with Jefferson’s “all men are created free and equal.” But it has Jewish roots as well. We read last week in the Torah: “Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly” (Leviticus 19:15). And the Mishnah teaches: “Humanity was created through a single person, to teach you that if anyone causes a single life to perish, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and if anyone saves a single soul, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

Can hierarchy and equality be reconciled? A first attempt was made by the rabbis by positing Torah and good deeds as ideals on a par with the Temple service. These values provide equal opportunity for all. The privilege of the kohen in the synagogue is vestigial, limited to getting the first Aliyah in the Torah reading and officiating in the priestly blessing. The synagogue and house of study provide a level playing field in which all can participate through intellectual development and prayer.

If the Torah generates its own aristocracy of learning, the world of good deeds is more democratic still. All can participate equally in rejoicing with the bride and groom, in assisting the needy, and in burying the dead. In the last case, paradoxically, the kohen is at a disadvantage, as he is forbidden to defile himself by contact with the dead except for an immediate relative. Significantly, a volunteer society for burying the dead is called a Hevra Kadisha, a holy fellowship; it achieves sanctity in its own way, complementary to that of the hereditary priesthood.

The festival calendar shows us another model of complementarity. Who can say that Pesach is greater than Sukkot, or that Shabbat is greater than Yom Kippur? Each possesses unique attributes that the others do not. This one expresses solemnity; that one, joy; the other, repose. Even the fasts of lamentation are an essential part of the calendar, commemorating an unavoidable part of human experience.

The sages of Yavneh expressed this complementary ideal in their own fashion. Though Yavneh stood preeminently for the cultivation of Torah, they recognized that a healthy society needs many kinds of people, with diverse pursuits and talents. They said:

“I [who learn Torah] am God’s creature and my counterpart [who engages in other labor] is God’s creature.

My work is in the city and his work is in the field.

I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work.

And just as he does not presume to perform my work, so I do not presume to perform his work.

Lest you say: I engage [in Torah study] a lot, while he only engages [in Torah study] a little, it has already been taught:

One who brings more and one who brings less have equal merit, as long as they direct their heart towards Heaven” (Talmud Berakhot 17a).

Let us all take pride in our own distinctive virtues and talents, while according equal value to those who have complementary gifts to contribute.
Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR. He is the editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism.