Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Re'eh (Rambam)

“To Serve Him and to Bless In His Name”

Parshat Re’eh is the first of three parshiyot in the Book of Deuteronomy which together constitute a kind of concentrated summary of all of Torah law. It is concerned largely with the service of God in the Temple, and the negation of various manifestations of pagan worship which were liable to undermine the newly-being-established Israelite society. In this section, we find for the first time an allusion to the city of Jerusalem—not by name, but indirectly, using the circumlocution, “the place where the Lord will cause his name to dwell there.” This week’s Torah portion also refers to the Levitical priests who served in the Sanctuary, their functions, and in passing also to the gifts that were their due. I shall present here some thoughts about Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing—the one vestige, so to speak, of the Temple service still existing in contemporary Jewish practice.

What is the nature of the priestly blessing? In the earlier part of the Torah, we encounter personal blessings, suited to the personality and specific situation of the blesser and blessee: God blessing Noah upon leaving the ark; Melchizedek blessing Abraham after his victory in battle; Isaac blessing Esau (and Jacob); Jacob blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, and then his twelve sons; Jacob as a venerable old patriarch blessing Pharaoh; etc. In Leviticus 9:22-23 we encounter for the first time a formal ritual of blessing is a, delimited by specific prescribed laws. There, in the course of describing the various events on the day of dedication of the Sanctuary in the desert— the very day that was shortly thereafter shattered by the untimely and uncanny death of Aaron’s sons—we read:

And Aaron raised up his hands to the people and he blessed them; and he came down from making the sin-offering and the burnt-offering and the whole-offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and they blessed the people, and the Glory of God was seen to all the people.

In these verses the Torah describes two separate blessings. Rashi explains the difference between the two:

“And he blessed them.” The priestly blessing: ‘May He bless you… shine [His face]… lift up…’ “And they came out and blessed” They said: ‘May the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and may it be His will that the Shekhinah rest upon the work of your hands.’

As Rashi makes clear, the first of these blessings is a ritual, formulaic blessing, performed with the characteristic gesture of raising up the hands, recited by Aaron alone: the archetype of the halakhic Birkat Kohanim. The latter was a personal blessing, suited to this specific occasion, in which Moses and Aaron together expressed their hopes for long lasting blessing and closeness to God to emerge from this place.

A brief passage in Numbers prescribes the formula by which the priests are to bless the people (Num 6:22-27). This ritual was performed daily in the Temple; it is still recited in synagogues in Israel, and by Sephardim throughout the world, at the end of the repetition of the Amidah every morning. (For those of us who grew up or still live in the Diaspora, the ceremony was confined to festival days, or even to the High Holydays alone—making it all the more impressive and mysterious.) The kohanim ascend a raised platform (the dukhan), lift their hands in a gesture of blessing while facing the people and, their faces completely covered by their tallitot, repeat the blessing word by word.

The central theological question presented by this ceremony is: What does it mean for the priest to bless the rest of the people? And, by extension, who is really doing the blessing? Or, what is the relationship between the priest, who recites the words, and God, who is presumably the Source of all blessing? This question is considered by the Sages in a number of sources that we cannot treat here. This issue is also an important element in Rambam’s discussion. Maimonides presents the Laws of Priestly Blessing as an integral part of the laws of public prayer (a point to which we shall return later). After describing the procedure for this ritual in Chapter 14 of Hilkhot Tefillah (incidentally, he in no way suggests that daily “dukhaning” is confined to the Land of Israel; this ceremony was and is in fact performed on a daily basis throughout the Sephardic world, in the Maghreb and Asia Minor and Yemen, etc., where his views where accepted), he continues in Chapter 15 to discuss those things that mitigate against a given individual reciting the blessing:

1. Six things prevent the performance of the priestly blessing….

3. Transgression. How so? A priest who had killed another person, even though he had engaged in repentance, may not lift up his hands [in blessing], as is said, “Your hands are filed with blood” [Isa 1:15}, and it is written “And when you spread forth your hands [I do not hear, etc.] [ibid.] And a priest who had engaged in idolatry, [even] under coercion or by error, and even though he repented, may never again lift up his hands. As is said, “but the priests of the high places shall not go up [to the altar of the Lord in Jerusalem]…” [2 Kgs 23:9]. And the blessing is considered like [Temple] service, as is said, “to serve him and to bless in his name” [Deut 10:8]. Similarly, a priest who had converted to pagan religion, even though he recanted, may never again lift up his hands. But all other transgressions do not prevent him from doing so.

On the first and most basic level, the priest must be an upright and honest man, loyal to God, not a man of violence or cruelty, nor a syncretist who practices pagan religion together with Judaism. The prophets articulate in many places the idea that ritual punctiliousness and unethical behavior are incompatible: “I cannot abide iniquity with solemn convocations” [Isa 1:13]. Certainly, a priest tainted by bloodshed or pagan worship (and, some might say, by major sexual transgressions; see the hav amina in j. Gittin 5.8) is unfit to serve in the Temple or to bless the people. But he continues:

6. A priest who was free of all those things that prevent him lifting his hands, even though he is not a sage, and is not scrupulous in performing mitzvot, and even if the people gossiped about him, or his business dealings were not conducted righteously, may lift up his hands, and he is not prevented from doing so. For it is a positive mitzvah incumbent upon every priest fit to perform it, and one does not tell an evil person, ‘Add to your wickedness and refrain from performing the mitzvot.’

On the other hand, there is a limit to the degree of perfection expected of a kohen. One who was an ordinary, mediocre person—not a particularly saintly or learned man, but not a heavy-duty transgressor either—in short, a “garden variety” sinner, who perhaps had a heavy finger on the scales in his shop now and then, or about whom there were occasional rumors of sexual indiscretions, may still ascend the dukhan and recite Birkat Kohanim. Two arguments are advanced to explain this. The first, that such a person should not be deprived of an opportunity to perform a mitzvah, because the very performance of such an act may swing his spiritual balance back in a more positive direction. The second reason is as follows:

7. And do not be surprised by this, saying, Of what benefit can the blessing of such an ordinary person be? For the acceptance of the blessing is not dependent upon the priest, but upon the Holy One blessed be He, as is said, “And thy shall place my name upon the children of Israel, and I shall bless them” (Num 6:27). The priests do the mitzvah as they were commanded, and the Holy One blessed be He in His mercy blesses Israel.

Ultimately, the blessing originates, not in the kohen, but in God himself. The priest is no more than a conduit for the Divine energy. Hence, the interesting dialectic here between ruling out certain people from saying the priestly blessing. To allow a person whose whole being, so to speak, is identified with evildoing and total rejection of the Jewish path, would be to make a mockery of the occasion; on the other hand, by not making the standards excessively stringent, it is clear that the personality of the kohen is not at the center, as in the final analysis it is God who does the blessing.

What kind of theology is implicit here? Is it a kind of ritualism or theurgy, in which the priest, by uttering the right words, forces God to bring down blessing and abundance? A magical manipulation of cosmic forces? (This would be very different from the Rambam we know) Or is it something else: God is the source of all blessing, but He wants man to participate in bringing this flow down to others. Paradoxically, this understanding reduces the sacerdotal role of the kehunah. The mitzvah is, by definition, an ethical act; the Priestly Blessing is to be recited “with love.” The halakhah thus stresses the ordinariness of the kohanim, the fact that they are mere messengers.

The Spanish film maker Almodovar once remarked how, as a child, he began to doubt the efficacy of the sacraments because, knowing the bad acts done by some Catholic priests, he reached the conclusion that “those hands were too dirty to perform the miracle of consecration.” As against that, the halakhah sets up a dialectic in which, on the one hand, there are ethical expectations of the priesthood but, on the other hand, they remain, even in their priestly holiness, as ordinary, fallible human beings. They do not really make or break the divine will, but simply do as they are commanded.

But there is a more fundamental issue here: what is the role of “holy people” in the service of God? How seriously do we take the claims to their holiness? Are they basically ordinary people fulfilling a specific function, who are only “holy” ex officio, so to speak, or are they somehow different in their essence? On another level, this also relates to the issue of the election of Israel, the notion that Jews are a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” How true is this, in ordinary experienced reality? As we already mentioned earlier this year (See HY V: Vayishlah; Lekh lekha), Rambam differed sharply from other Jewish thinkers as to whether the election of Israel is a matter of some metaphysical soul essence or of commitment to the monotheistic idea, potentially open to all.

An interesting sugya relating to the atonement of Yom Kippur touches upon this issue. The Torah states that, in addition to the two goats that are at the center of the Temple ritual on this day, the high priest brought a bull of his own, which atoned both for himself, and for his brethren in the priesthood as a group. But for what sins did this offering atone? For those specifically related to their ritual priestly functions—unwittingly entering the Temple in a state of impurity and similar trespasses (tumat mikdash ve-kodashav)? Or for all of their sins, even those that have nothing to do with their priestly functions? This question is subject to dispute between Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon in a mishnah in Shevuot 1.7, and in the gemara there at 13a. It seems to me that at the root of this dispute lies a central question: do the priests belong to a class apart in all aspects of their lives, so that even when they need to atone for mundane sins, great or small, that have nothing to do with the Temple, but with the “secular” realm of life they share in common with every other human being—e.g., in the areas of business, of proper speech, of family life, of food and drink and sex—their atonement is somehow channeled through the fact of their priesthood? Or are they, in these areas, like the rest of Israel, and is the Temple ritual a kind of “sacred drama” into which they enter when they don the robes of priesthood—and otherwise they are ordinary people?

The idea of certain individuals being somehow special, closer to Godliness, is a very powerful one. On the one hand, there is a reality that many of us have experienced, of sensing a certain holiness in specific human beings. They project a radiance, an aura of wisdom, of calm, of having acquired a sense of the spirit, of having a clearer sense of the meaning of life, of having attained that “knowledge of God” which Rambam speaks about with greater intensity and clarity than other human beings. On the other hand, there is a tremendous danger of abuse in that same power. We all know of the charlatanry practiced by certain putative saints and rebbes and holy men, preying upon the credulity and naivete of the simple folk. Moreover, all this runs against the democratic ethos dear to many of us—the American credo that begins with the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal,” precisely because all are created in the image of God.

This talk of priests and holy men returns us full circle to an overview of Re’eh. One plausible reading of this portion sees the central theme, not so much as the positive one of centralization of worship and the creation of a Temple, but in the negative message of rejection of the pagan world and its approach to the Divine in every possible shape and form. Before one can begin to worship Hashem, one must begin to assure the refinement and purity of that worship.

Hence, the first idea, that there is one site to which one must bring sacrifices, is connected to the notion that whatever is bad about paganism is somehow related to the plurality of sites for pagan worship—the riot of locations for altars, high places, or “spreading trees.” By contrast, the One God who created all is transcendent, imageless, sexless, and hence cannot be worshipped everywhere, but in one place alone. Only after accepting that, can one go beyond that to the awareness that He ultimately transcends all places. As Solomon put it, “the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how then this house that I have built?” From there, the parsha goes on to other dangers—the reveling in blood of pagan worship, etc. In particular, we find a series of various types of charismatic figures who may come along and try to tempt people away. The religious seducer (mesit umadiah), who may a close friend, a brother, even “the wife of your bosom.” The false prophet who presents misleading signs and wonders—the message being, not to trust in signs, but in the truth of the message, measured against an objective yardstick of Torah.

We live in an age in which there is a great “thirst for the word of God”—both in the Jewish people, and in the world generally. This has led to a revival of religious feeling, but has also produced a large number of charlatans, cult leaders, etc., who present a veneer of the spirit, and are followed by the naïve and innocent and ignorant, who so powerfully seek anything that seems to present an alternative to the confusion and meaninglessness of the post-modern world. The temptations to the unscrupulous to present themselves as possessing sacred, secret knowledge are many—money, power, adulation, honor, sex, etc. Again, both within and without Jewry, and even within the Torah world, there are mediocrities who represent themselves as spiritual masters. On the other hand, there are men and women of true depth and insight, holiness and knowledge, to be found out there, sometimes in the most unexpected places. Happy is he who has met such a one. And happier still one who has made him a life teacher. This, then, is the essence of the dilemma. Generations of he adept have taught us that one needs a teacher to grow; but, human beings being what they are, there are those who bear the Name falsely. Happy is he who knows to tell the difference.

Rosh Hodesh Elul

A brief thought about Rosh Hodesh Elul. The month of Av is symbolized by the zodiac sign of the lion (Leo; Aryeh), which in Jewish symbology is associated with the overwhelmingly destructive force of the nations that “tore” the Jewish people apart during this month, on various occasions. Elul is symbolized by a virgin (Virgo; Betulah), symbolizing purity and innocence. Somehow, the transition from Av to Elul involves moving away from preoccupation with violence and destruction, whether through wallowing in our victimhood or dreaming of revenge, to a virginal state, in which we become capable of a kind of rebirth and re-creation of self that is the essence of teshuvah.

And, speaking of the lion and the virgin, I must quote a lovely Hasidic vort I once heard from my dear, late friend Yehudah Fast, z”l, which redeems an otherwise rather objectionable, seemingly misogynist saying of Hazal. Rabbi Yohanan says, “after a lion and not after a woman” (Berakhot 61a). My friend explained this as referring to the process of teshuvah, of return to God. “One should do teshuvah ‘after the lion’—i.e., already during the month of Elul, that follows upon the lion-like month of Av—“and not ‘after the a woman’”—i.e., waiting for the Ten Days of Repentance, in Tishrei, after the end of virginal Elul.


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