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A Clergy-Centric Religion?

 

I. All About the Priests

A reader of Leviticus may emerge with the notion that Judaism is all about priests. Sacrifices, purity, skin diseases,… everything revolves around the priests. The lesson of pagan mourning practices teaches us that Leviticus reflects a much different perspective on Judaism.

R. Shalom Carmy (Mitokh Ha-Ohel, Emor) points out that this tension can be found in Abarbanel’s conflicting accounts. In his introduction to the entire book, Abarbanel states explicitly that Leviticus teaches about the priestly role. They are the center of this book and presumably the center of the religion. However, in his introduction to chapter 21, he seems to reverse himself. He states that Leviticus is about the holiness of the entire Jewish people.

Which is it? Are the priests God’s chosen ones and the rest of the people acquire some of that holiness by proximity? Or is the entire nation holy and the priests merely selected for specific functions? Is Judaism a clergy-centric or laity-centric religion? R. Carmy explains that Abarbanel’s different explanations reflect where he wrote them–at the beginning of the book or working through it, passage by passage. But that does not answer the big question.

II. Forbidden Mourning

Priests are forbidden to pull out their hair, shave the corners of their heads and lacerate their flesh (Lev. 21:5). Commentators point out that this is already forbidden to all Jews earlier (Lev. 19:27-28) and in Deuteronomy (14:1). Classicaal commentators of two approaches to explain this redundancy. Ibn Ezra (Lev. 21:5) suggests that this had to be mentioned to priests because if they violate the prohibition, they are not only liable but are also disqualified from Temple service. Seforno (Lev. 21:5) points out that the Torah sets aside the prohibition of a priest becoming impure for close relatives. Therefore, it needed to reiterate the other mourning prohibitions to state that they are not set aside.

Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur (actually R. Naftali Wessely, who wrote the Leviticus commentary) quotes the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodas Kokhavim ch. 12) who said that these acts are prohibited because pagan priests did these things. While the Rambam did not quite say all that, with a little extension you can imagine him saying it. If so, we can understand why this prohibition–that applies to everyone–is repeated in regard to priests. They must be extra careful to avoid it.

Later commentators followed this general approach. He-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah quotes the Bi’ur explicitly. R. Carmy quotes other commentators, like R. Hirsch and R. David Tzvi Hoffmann, who also follow this general approach.1

III. Kellal and then Perat

R. Carmy finds additional significance in the order. The command to the people, indeed the entire portion of Kedoshim directed at the nation, precedes the priestly portion of Emore. The national holiness is primary and the priestly role only secondary. R. Carmy also notes that the language in Emor seems to address the nation in its entirety and not just the priests. The priests are consistently referred to in the third person. The second person is used when telling the people to sanctify the priests (Lev. 21:8). Even the priestly passage is directed to the entire nation.

I add that we discussed a few weeks ago the progression of the first ten chapters of Leviticus (link), including the tension between the first five chapters and the next two. The first five chapters of Leviticus are addressed to the nation as a whole. The sixth and seventh speak to the priests. We found significance in the tension but we can also see meaning in the order. Like Kedoshim-Emor, Vayikra speaks to the entire nation and only afterward Emor addresses the priests.

The same message can be seen at the very beginning of Leviticus. In Judaism, the entire people is holy even if specific people are appointed to unique roles. The priests are functionaries and representatives of a nation of priests.


  1. I saw the Bi’ur and Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah before reading R. Carmy’s essay. I have not looked up R. Hirsch or R. Hoffmann. If anyone knows where I can acquire R. Hoffmann’s commentary on Leviticus (in Hebrew, not German), please let me know.
 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

9 Responses

  1. Shlomo says:

    The second person is used when telling the people to sanctify the priests (Lev. 21:8). Even the priestly passage is directed to the entire nation.

    Yet the passage is prefaced by “say to the kohanim” not “say to bnei yisrael”.

    More broadly though, you could bring up the whole school of thought saying that the mishkan is “bedieved”, the original priests were the bechorot, etc…

  2. joel rich says:

    In Judaism, the entire people is holy even if specific people are appointed to unique roles. The priests are functionaries and representatives of a nation of priests.
    =============================
    This might be in line iiuc with r’ybs on korach’s error of “kol haeidah kedoshim”, we do all have the same tzibbur kedusha but each individual can perfect his own. in your formulation, is it the case that the cohanim by nature have a higher level or just a different one?
    kt

  3. Alan Haber says:

    I agree completely that the Torah is certainly not proposing a “clergy-centered” religion. I can arrive at this point as you do, by analyzing the book of Vayikra – though starting with a different assumption than you do.

    In truth, if you think of it, much of the book actually has nothing to do with Kohanim. Your comment that “a reader of Leviticus may emerge with the notion that Judaism is all about priests” is certainly true – but only for certain parts of the book. (Reading the first half of this past week’s parsha, for example, one might come to that conclusion. But reading last week’s parsha of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, or next week’s parsha of Behar-Bechukotai would not lead to that conclusion at all.)

    Recognizing this reality on the one hand removes much of the force of your initial comment. But it leads to a very different question: if that is the case, then why is Vayikra referred to as “Torat Kohanim”?

    I believe the answer (as alluded to in part by R Menachem Leibtag in this piece: http://tanach.org/vayikra/vayik0.htm) is that the book of Vayikra teaches us how to be a holy NATION, one that is worthy of the title “Mamlechet Kohanim” (Shmot 19:6).

    Thus the Kohanim themselves serve not only as spiritual leaders for the rest of Am Yisrael, but also as models for how we are meant to function vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

    The entire progression of the book points to this concept. The first section (Parshat Vayikra and the first half of Parshat Tzav) discuss korbanot – the quintessential example of Avodat Hashem. The next section (second half of Tzav and first half of Shmini) discusses the dedication of the Mishkan – the forum for this “pure” form of Avodat Hashem. Indeed, in this forum of the Mikdash, the kohanim play a central role.

    Following this comes the unit of “Tahara”, comprised of the second half of Shmini, and Parshiot Tazria-Metzora. Kohanim need to exist on a higher plane of holiness, and this requires purity, which itself requires refraining from certain foods or from entering the mikdash or even the entire camp in certain states (here the focus is not on the kohanim per se, but rather on all of us as “mamlechet kohanim”).

    The next unit (Parshiot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim) discuss the BEHAVIOR expected of kohanim, of people who are set aside as holy people who are expected to be focussed on the service of Hashem. This involves refraining from forbidden behaviors such as idolatry and improper sexual relationships – but it equally focusses on social responsibilities like giving charity to the poor (19:9-10), refraining from theft and deception (19:11-13), and avoiding slandering other people (19:16).

    Finally, after the brief unit discussing the holiness of the Kohanim themselves (the first half of Parshat Emor), we have the conclusion of the book which discusses how to structure an entire SOCIETY around these principles (thus we have the “Moadim” calendar in the end of parshat Emor, and the laws of Shmitah and Yovel, as well as related land laws and other related principles in Parshat Behar. The book concludes with the “Tochacha”/rebuke of Parshat Bechukotai, which lays out the ground rules for the history of a holy nation that must take responsibility for its actions).

  4. Gil Student says:

    R. Alan: Thank you for adding R. Leibtag’s insights. My thinking is that if you start from Vayikra 1:1 and continue reading, you will be overwhelmed with Kohen-centered material before you reach any more universal teachings. There is a reason biblical critics break the book in two, chapters 1-16 and 17-26 (27 is left as a short third section).

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    R Gil-Look at it this way. Vayikra is truly a Toras Kohanim with instructions about Korbanos, etc until Acharei Mos-Kedoshiim, when the univeral implications of YK, adherence to Isssurei Arayos and all Mitzvos, and especially the Moadim and Shemittah for all of Klal Yisrael become the central theme of the Sefer through the end of the Tochacha.

  6. Mike S. says:

    1) The Gemara in Nedarim (and elsewhere) asks whether the cohanim are our agents or those of God; the p’sak is the latter. Indeed, Tosphot in Kiddushin 23a claims everyone agrees they are at least to an extent God’s agents and the argument in nedarim is whether they are exclusively so or whether they are also our agents to an extent. Which would seem to give some weight to the clergy centered religion view.

    2) Whatever we decide about the cohanim, what about the rabbis? The Rambam in the beginning of Hilchot Mamrim describes the Beit Din Hagadol as the source of Torah She Ba’al Peh in each generation. And the Chassidic movement and the recent innovation of “daas Torah” in the modern sense have pushed toward a rabbi centric religion.

  7. Mike S. says:

    Oops–the Tosephot is on 23b.

  8. Shlomo says:

    My thinking is that if you start from Vayikra 1:1 and continue reading, you will be overwhelmed with Kohen-centered material before you reach any more universal teachings. There is a reason biblical critics break the book in two, chapters 1-16 and 17-26 (27 is left as a short third section).

    You contradict yourself. You say here that there are two clearly distinct sections, of which the first is kohen-centric. But in your article, all the examples of kohen-centricity you bring are from the second section.

  9. […] in this book. While we have argued that the true focus of Leviticus is the entire nation (link), any reader will inevitably ask, “Why them?” What distinguishes the priests from […]

 
 

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