Not Kohens nor Levites, but all the people are holy

It is shocking to read in sidra emor about the particular physical qualifications which must be met by the hereditary priesthood, in particular the restrictions which the bible describes in this week’s sidra. “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lords offerings by fire.” we are told, “he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Eternal have sanctified them”

The defects are described in the text – blindness, lameness, hunchback, cataracts – all of them physical and external, all of them beyond the control of the individual. Indeed we are told in later rabbinic commentary (on Bechorot 45a) that an internal defect does not disqualify one from priestly service, only external defects do this.

The priests were a group apart, their status protected and hedged around with strict regulations. They could not touch a dead body except that of an immediate blood relative. They could not shave their heads nor cut the sides of their beards. They could not marry a divorced woman- their wives had to be above any suspicion and come from families that also were seen to be pure. In return for their work in the Temple service they were given special privileges and obligations. To this day in Orthodox Judaism the person who considers themselves to be of a priestly family is called to the Torah reading first, is privileged to do the duchenan (the priestly blessing) on festival days, and will perform pidyon haben – the ritual of release of the firstborn son. Reform Judaism does not make such people more special than others in the community. We do not aspire to a third Temple so the role of priest/ Kohen, is defunct. The disbenefits for a Kohen are real, and can complicate their lives, which, given the reality that we have no real way of knowing who is actually a descendent of the Aaronide family can cause problems that do not need to be caused, and anyway Reform Judaism understands that religious leadership is no longer in the hands of the hereditary priesthood, but has passed into the hands of rabbis and scholars and is now embedded in Rabbinic Judaism.  

It is often a surprise to Jews from a traditional orthodox background to find that we do not accord any special privileges to the Cohens and the Levites in our services; that we have no difficulty with them attending funerals like other Jews; that we perform their marriages to proselytes. It is sometimes a shock to them that we have taken for ourselves the wonderful “priestly blessing” formula, and that we use it at the end of most of our services to invoke the blessing of God on the community on a daily or weekly basis. I have occasionally overheard complaints about what is seen as our lack of respect for the priesthood, yet I do believe that this particular reform was one of the most powerful and significant for us. Far from rejecting our history, I am certain that by making all Jews equal within our liturgical practise we are proclaiming that we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Instead of defining holiness within the confines of the ritual of the Temple service, we are opening it out into the lives of all who are looking for it. By rejecting the notion of a priesthood whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in terms of physical defect or perfection, we are free to become a people whose holiness or lack of it is expressed in more inner terms, in our prayers, our hopes and intentions, our yearnings, as well as in the actions which result from our inner lives.

The priesthood described in the bible is a complex structure designed to contain purity and holiness as it was understood then, and shows, I believe, clear signs of having accepted concepts from outside societies as well as creating new forms and ways of being. The notion that physical perfection was required in anything which came near to the place of the sacrifices was taken on board in the biblical tradition, but that doesn’t mean it was divine, nor that it was right. Today one can argue that we know much more about physical disability and are less afraid of it, But more than having a different approach to disability, we have developed a different approach to holiness. Maimonides tells us that the sacrificial system was a necessary step to the more religiously sophisticated and satisfactory practise of prayer. His argument could be extended to communal holiness – we no longer need a special group of people to be holy on our behalf, the professional liturgists and holders of ritual power. We have graduated from such a need and now the special privileges and obligations are the property of the whole Jewish people. It means that we must all take on the work of attending to God’s service, rather than leave it to the people who were born to it, or who are the heirs presumptive. We all have the job of seeing to it that holiness is part of the practise and the being of the Jewish people, that it is expressed both internally and externally, that we truly work together to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If we don’t do that now, then we will be, in the words of sidra Emor, “profaning Gods holy places”, for the holy places of God are always found within a community of people.

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