This week I'm writing about what the weekly parashah/Torah reading is not about! This final passage in the book of Sh'mot / Exodus describes the finishing touches to the priestly vestments. Moses checks that everything has been prepared according to God's instructions and God's presence fills the Tabernacle for the first time. All is ready for the establishment of the sacrificial cult, kohein/priest-driven, which will serve as the focal point of Israelite worship until the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.
If ever there was Jewish clergy, in the sense of an intercessor between God and the people, who facilitated atonement, who held exclusive authority to perform rites and wear specific vestments it was the kohanim, the priests, the male descendents of Aaron. If all of Israelite experience, up until the destruction of the Second Temple, had centered around the sacrificial cult, there would be no Judaism, which is rabbinic Judaism, today. The Temple would have been destroyed and without the focal point of that sacrificial system, the Israelites would easily have been dispersed and absorbed into the surrounding cultures of the Roman Empire around them.
So what saved us? What was the safety net that caught us when the Temple fell?
The saving grace of our people was a populist movement that had begun to develop almost two centuries before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: the rabbinic movement had begun. The existence of scholars who were not kohanim/priests is extraordinary in a general culture in which the leaders of pagan cultic worship held the esoteric texts and practices of their faiths in closely guarded, limited circles. The general population had no access to the most sacred texts and instructions.
But in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses decrees that everyone, men, women, children, will all have direct access to the Torah, the Instruction of God:
Everyone needs to learn, everyone needs direct access to the Torah. Extraordinary.
Those who came together to study and discuss Torah, while the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, were a populist movement. The Torah describes these men: wealthy and poor, landowners and shoemakers, with one thing in common: a commitment to exploring the depths of the Torah and making sure that the precepts of the Torah were being faithfully followed in a location and culture and economy significantly different from the place and language and culture and economy of the nomadic wandering generations who were present at Sinai. These scholars asked each other questions: What does this word mean now? How do we fulfill this mitzvah in this time and place? How do we integrate this piece of new realia into the framework of the Torah?
It is a conversation that continues until this very day on many levels . . . including, and most important, among "the men and the women and the infants", not just the scholars, not just the rabbis, but everyone who is part of the community.
There are lots of Jewish "things to do" . . . pray, give tzedakah/charity, support the institutions of the Jewish community, support one another through illness and bereavement, chose to keep the dietary laws of kashrut . . . but the Mishnah (the earliest layer of rabbinic text redacted in the 2nd century CE) declares that תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם / Talmud Torah kneged kulam / the study of Torah stands equally with all the other Jewish practices and observes combined. It's a bold statement. The traditional understanding has been that it is through the study of Torah that we will learn how and why and be inspired to pray, give tzedakah, support the community, take part in the community and deepen our individual Jewish identities.
The world of Jewish learning covers as wide a spectrum as the human experience itself . . . jewish learning leads to Jewish living. And Jewish living also covers a wide spectrum of identity and lifestyle and commitment.
It is for these reasons that the members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island is offering our first public event: an evening of eclectic Jewish learning. Drash and Dessert. "Drash" is the Hebrew term for the exploration and interpretation of Torah. "Dessert", well that's self-explanatory: Jews come together and there has to be food, yes?
We are proud and inspired by the wide variety of topics on offer at our Drash and Dessert event tomorrow evening after Shabbat. Whether you have sent in an rsvp or not, we hope you will join us. Click here to see the full program including time table and descriptions of our 14 different study sessions involving 16 members of our Board of Rabbis!
This week's parashah / Torah reading, Tetzaveh, finds us in the midst of an enterprise begun last week in which God instructs Moses about the Mishkan/Tabernacle to be constructed as a focal point of the ritual relationship between God and Israel. This week, Aaron and his sons are appointed as kohanim/priests in charge of the ritual sacrificial system and as part of this discussion, God describes the vestments that Aaron and his sons are to wear as they perform their priestly duties.
From time to time, I have the privilege of participating in interfaith functions with my clergy colleagues from all over the faith map. Often, the instructions we receive include a note to wear vestments. This leaves me, my fellow rabbis and our friends the imams, in our rather bland professional clothing as our Christian clergy friends show up looking glorious in their colorful, dramatic vestments. At times like this, I admit to "vestment envy."
Rabbis are considered teachers rather than a priestly class invested with esoteric powers endowed with ordination (like the power to grant absolution, for example). The rich vestments worn by Aaron and his male progeny were not worn by Moses, since Moses' role was not a ritual one.
With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the kohanim/priests lost the unique stage upon which they fulfilled their roles in offering daily sacrifices on behalf of the people and facilitating the personal thanks, purification, festival and atonement sacrifices individuals might bring. Since the destruction of the Second Temple there has not been a unique Jewish clerical uniform or vestment.
During the rabbinic period, a type of turban-like headress, called a "sudar", was associated with sages and scholars. Perhaps something like the headress on this classic rendering of Maimonides reproduced on an Israeli stamp...
In largely Christian medieval Europe, Jews lived in tight-knit communities. Medieval manuscript illuminations, like the one above, from a 14th century manuscript from Zurich, depicts a unique-shaped hat (on the right) that was associated with Jews.
For the most part, Jews have blended in and have adopted the dress and style of the surrounding culture.
Jewish tradition does not talk about a medieval Jew's hat or an 18th century Polish nobleman's fur hat . . . but it does set guidelines for us regarding how Jews should dress.
The guiding verse regarding the way a Jewish person should walk through the world comes from the prophet, Micah (6:8):
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-ה׳ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ
It hath been told you, Adam, what is good, and what Adonay requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Walking with humility with God, in Jewish terms, has come to mean dressing modestly . . . avoiding dressing seductively; making sure to dress appropriately for the occasion, not dressing extravagantly or flashily. Although, in certain circles, the discussion of modest dress seems to focus most on women, the truth is that this standard of moving through the world with appropriate humility applies to both men and women.
The glorious vestments described in this week's Torah reading were only meant for the kohanim/priests as they fulfilled their unique roles in sustaining the sacrificial cult of the desert Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. None of us, rabbi, scholar, Jew-in-the-pew should aspire to so much "bling." Our challenge is to walk with humility with God in our world, expressed through our dress and our attitude.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.