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.
This week, our Torah portion contains the opening chapters of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. In Leviticus, we will generally be taking a hiatus from the engaging narratives of Genesis / Breishit and Exodus / Sh'mot . . . and we will take up the narrative again in a few months when we embark on the book of Numbers / Bamidbar.
In the meantime, we will immerse ourselves in a book of the Torah that is refered to in our traditional sources as "Torat Kohanim" . . . basically an instruction manual for Aaron and his descendants, the Israelite priests / kohanim. What kind of sacrifices need to be brought to the Mishkan / the Tabernacle? Who shall bring those sacrifices? When?
The Kohanim function with the absolute authority of God behind them and their role in the community is established by birth: Aaron, his sons, their sons for all generations constitute the priests, the kohanim of Israel.
Rabbis, as you see from my photograph above and the photographs of my three immediate predecessors at Torat Yisrael, come in all shapes and genders. We have no garments which embody the sanctity of the tasks we perform. We wear kippot and tallitot as do the members of our congregations because our role is not established by birth, we are not the descendents of anyone chosen by God.
In fact, the roots of the rabbinate can be found in something of a populist revolution beginning in the last century or so before the Common Era. Through the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly caste had evolved into a sort of Israelite aristocracy . . . a closed circle with an essential power base, the Temple and its sacrificial cult. To be a priest, a kohein, your father had to be be a kohein. That was the only way in.
In houses of study around the Land of Israel, scholars were gathering to study the Torah and ask existential questions about the nature of Jewish practice in an economy and a cultural setting that was fundamentally different than life in the wilderness during forty years of wandering. These sages began to ask a question that we are still striving to answer today? "What is our 'best practice' as Jews in this time and this place?"
Unlike the kohanim, the only thing you needed to become a rabbi, one of these sages, was a good head on your shoulders, the willingness to study Torah with an open mind and a profound commitment to the survival of the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
These are the roots of the rabbinate which I share with Rabbi Parness, Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Rosen . . . it has nothing to do with who our fathers were, it has nothing to do with being invested with esoteric divine powers like a priest . . . or a pope . . . it is about dedicating our lives to keep alive the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. And that, my friends, is a privilege.
As our e-mail inboxes and snail mailboxes flood us with advertisements of Labor Day Sales and we makes plans for one last long weekend before we settle down to the serious work of the academic year, the fall, work responsibilities and the High Holidays, I think we should take a moment to contemplate the origins of this week's long weekend:
As one might expect, the institution of Labor Day in the United States coincides with the growth of the labor union movement at the end of the 19th century. The US Department of Labor website reports:
"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."
The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City. Ten thousand workers marched in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. Within a year or two, the celebration of American labor was moved to the first Monday of September and was marked by parades, speeches and picnics for laborers and their families to enjoy a rare day off together.
Work is understood in our tradition to serve as a means of establishing security, self-esteem and a sense of responsibility for society in general. Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (Conservative) at the American Jewish University writes:
"...according to the rabbis, work is essential to personal development and to achieving religious depth and meaning. Through work, humans assume their places in the social order as active agents, like Adam. Work is a pathway to personal health, a conduit to greater understanding of Torah and of faith, and a mechanism through which one ultimately leaves a mark on this world. For a person's work to achieve and maintain this degree of personal and religious meaning."*
Rabbi Peretz's reference to Adam goes back to the passage in Breishit/Genesis in which God informs Adam that he will now be responsible for producing his own food "by the sweat of his brow." From this moment, humanity is transformed from God's "sheltered pets" in Eden to independent, responsible beings, creating and maintaining a social order, a system of justice and equity, developing ever-sophisticated means of producing food, clothing and shelter . . . which engage us to this day.
These are trying times for workers around our country, and in Rhode Island in particular. As so many of our neighbors, friends, colleagues find themselves out of work, our appreciation for work and its significance in our daily private, family and community lives grows.
These insights and appreciation have deep roots in our tradition. Rambam/Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah, a thousand years ago:
"One is at a high level if he is sustained by the efforts of his own hand, a characteristic of the pious of early generations. In this he merits all the honor and good of this world and the world to come, as it is written. "If you eat by the work of your hand, happy are you, and it will go well for you." (Tehillim/Psalms 128:2). Happy are you in this world and it will go well for you in the world to come."
I hope you will join me in a prayer that by Labor Day 2013, everyone in our community will know the deep satisfaction of "eating by the work of their hand . . . "
*"Social Justice and the World of Business," Walking With Justice, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 2008.
In this week's double parasha/Torah reading, we begin with the aftermath of a tragedy . . ."aharei-mot"; after the death of Aaron's sons . . .
The tragedy is recounted, not in the immediately preceding parasha, Metzora, nor in the parasha before that, Tazria, but in the third parsha preceding this week's reading, Shemini. It is there that we read a perplexing event: Aaron sacrificed the animals, then lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. Then Aaron and Moses went inside the Tent of Appointed Meeting. When they came out again, they blessed the people, and the glory of God revealed itself to all the people. Fire went forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted for joy, and fell on their faces.Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire into it and placed incense upon it. Then they brought before God strange fire that God had not enjoined upon them. Then fire went forth from before God and consumed them and they died before God.
Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God said, 'I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire peoples.'” Aaron was silent.
How can we possibly understand and integrate into our understanding of Judaism a God that kills two young men who display spontaneous love and devotion to God?
It is in this moment that we confront an essential difference between the Israelite religion described in the Torah and the rabbinic Judaism our people have practiced for 2000 years: The Israelite religion of the Torah was cult of sacrifice led by an oligarchy, a dynasty of priests. From Aaron to his sons, to their sons . . . . until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, Israelite service to God was channeled through a series of sacrifices of various categories mediated by and facilitated by the kohanim, the dynastic priesthood. For all the information provided in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus about the conduct of the sacrificial system, there was esoteric knowledge that was shared only with successive generations of kohanim. This was a hierarchical system structured in a society that shared certain assumptions about the service of God and the relationship between the people, the priesthood and God.
Nadab and Abihu broke those esoteric rules and it may well be that the story of their death was meant to be a cautionary tale to subsequent generations of kohanim who might seek to create their own traditions beyond the bounds of priestly disciplines.
The rabbinic Judaism we practice today is the result of a revolution: the Judaism that has evolved and grown and reflected the real-life commitments and passions of Jews around the world for 2000 years was born of discussions by scholars in houses of study 2000 years ago. Around those tables were Jews of all backgrounds, rich and poor; Jews of all categories, kohanim, levi'im and plain Israelites; tradesmen and merchants and men (yes, men) of independent means. The only path to advancement was your learning, not who your father was, not how much money you had. The learning was guided by a number of principles: all opinons brought in humility and faith are equally important and worth preserving; we respect and name those who have contributed insight and learning to our tradition; learning is accessible to all who seek it.
In the world of rabbinic Judaism there is no punishment for spontaneity in devotion, there is no rejection of creativity and honest exploration of our tradition. It is the rise of rabbinic Judaism, born in the discussions of the Mishna, Tosefta, Midrash and Talmud that is responsible for the fact that Judaism is alive, well, thriving and evolving to this day. We look back at the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu with compassion and self-differentiation . . . their actions today would have brought them closer to a God who has grown with us instead of condemning them to death.
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.