Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Emor (Haftarot)

Ezekiel and the Priesthood Revisited

The haftarah for Parshat Emor, Ezekiel 44:15-31, is taken from the final chapters of the Book of Ezekiel, which gives a blueprint for the future Temple and for life in a future theocratic kingdom (see our discussions earlier this year, on Tetzaveh and Hahodesh). Jon Levenson calls these chapters “a constitution for the ‘kingdom of priests and a holy people.’” Within this context, the present section deals specifically with the rules governing the future priesthood, and may be seen as a kind of alternative codex to the first half of our Torah reading, Leviticus 21-22, which contains a series of laws for the kohanim.

In discussing this portion last year, we mentioned the difficulty posed by the concept of a hereditary priesthood, of a class enjoying special privileges and restrictions, to modern people for whom democratic conceptions are virtually axiomatic. At that time, we attempted to explain the validity of such a hierarchy within the broader rubric of olam-shanah-nefesh. Another, simpler way of understanding this is that there is an inherent religious value to having a certain group of people wholly dedicated to the service of God, every detail of whose lives are meant to be holy. This expresses, at least in theory, a certain type of holy idealism—even if, in practice, it often leads to corruption and exploitation of the trust of the faithful. There comes to mind, lehavdil, the Christian priesthood, or other kinds of monasticism (Buddhist, Hindi, etc.), whose holy men are required to live reclusive, celibate lives.

It is in this light that we can understand the opening section of this Torah portion. Interestingly, the sequence of units within these chapters is not what one might expect. Rather than opening with those sections that seemingly pertain more closely to priestly functions, such as the rules about bodily blemishes (21:17-24) and ritual impurity during sacrificial service (22:1-16), it begins specifically with those laws concerning the “secular” aspects of the priests’ lives: marriage, mourning and defilement for the dead, and personal appearance (for regular priests: 21:1-9; the high priest: 10-15).

As, unlike the religions mentioned earlier, Judaism affirms family life and sexuality as themselves realms of holiness, it not only allows marriage for its priests, but in at least some cases actually requires it (Talmudic law requires that the kohen gadol be married in order to perform the atonement ritual for the people on Yom Kippur; there is even a minority view that he should have another wife ready should his wife die suddenly; Mishnah Yoma 1.1). Instead, it imposes certain restrictions on his choice of marriage partner.

To return to Ezekiel: he, so to speak, raises the ante, imposing a stricter set of rules even on the ordinary priests (we have already noted, in our discussions of the other haftarot from this section, the unresolved contradictions between this chapter and Torah law). It is interesting to observe the sequence of laws mentioned here. It begins with the priests’ physical appearance. They are not to wear woolen, “sweaty” clothes, but pure white linen. But when they come out to bless the people they may not do so in their holy clothes. There seems to be a strict line of demarcation drawn between the holy service performed in the “inner courtyard” and the priests’ interaction with the lay Israelites in the “outer courtyard” (vv. 17-19). As for their tonsure: their hair may neither be fully shaved off (like the pagan priests of the time, per Maimonides’ Guide III.37), nor unruly, but “neatly trimmed all around” (kasom yikhsemu; v. 20).

In terms of marriage: unlike Leviticus 23, here even an ordinary priest can only marry a virgin, or the widow of another priest, but not the widow of an ordinary Israelite. Offensive as it may be to today’s feminists, it seems clear that the sexual history of a woman is deemed an important, even defining consideration in her persona. It is as if intimate contact of a woman with a man outside of priestly circles, even within the legitimate context of a marriage that ended in death and not in divorce, somehow renders her impure or unfit. This, coupled with the rule in verse 19, suggests a certain aloofness from the rest of people, even a kind of exclusiveness. The role of the priests, as mentioned immediately after these verses, is to serve as teachers, instructing the people “to distinguish between sacred and mundane, between clean and unclean “ (vv. 23-24; compare Malachi 2:4-7, who was roughly contemporary with Ezekiel), as well as to resolve disputes between people and to “sanctify my sabbaths.” To teach, to instruct, to judge, but not to mingle—as if even in everyday life they remained on a different plane than the ordinary folk.

Another strange aspect here is the final verse, which states that the priests, specifically, are not to eat neveilah utereifah, any animal that was torn or died by itself—a rule that in Torah law applies to all Jews. It would seem that during this period, at least in Ezekiel vision, the ideal of observance of the laws of the Torah as a means of attaining holiness was focused only upon the priesthood. One is reminded somewhat of the Conservative rabbinate in the US which, at least during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, was expected to maintain a far stricter standard of religious observance than their fellow Jews, a so-to-speak vicarious Yiddishkeit. In this respect, some critics have found a certain similarity to the role of the Christian clergy, compared to the Jewish posture that “all of my people shall be righteous.” Traditionally, the discipline of the Torah is seen as imposed equally on all Jews, with the special rules applied to the priests more of a minor exception that proves the rule, rather than signaling a qualitative difference in religious expectations.


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