On Parshat Shemini, Shoah and Atzmaut
by Gidi Grinstein and Ari Afilalo

A fundamental tenet of Judaism is that the Torah, with its elaborate mechanisms of interpretation, can provide an answer to every human condition. This system allows for the evolution of Jewish society and for transcending any technological, political, social or economic change. As is famously said: “Search in it and search in it, since everything is in it” (Hafoch bah ve’hafoch bah, de’kulah bah) (Mishna Avot, 5, 22).

The people who are chiefly responsible for this societal evolution of Judaism are rabbis, who must rely on the work of previous generations, but also remain relevant to present and future ones. For them, Parshat Shemini contributes an important distinction, which is between their priestly and prophetic roles.

In this Parsha, following seven days of preparations for the consecration of the sanctuary (mishkan), Moses ushers in Aaron and his sons to serve as priests (kohanim) (Leviticus, 9: 1, 5-6): “And it was on the eighth day, that Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel;…And Moses said, “This is the thing the Lord has commanded; do [it], and the glory of the Lord will appear to you … according to the law.” A bit later, a tragedy strikes Aaron (Leviticus, 10: 1-2): “And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, … brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them; And fire … consumed them….”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in Lessons in Leadership p. 137, explains: “… a prophet lives and acts in time – in this moment that is unlike any other. A priest acts and lives in eternity, by following a set of rules that never changes…” These distinct formal functions existed in Judaism until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and henceforth were integrated into the role of the rabbis, now entrusted with balancing observance and permission, tradition and innovation, flexibilities and rigidities.

The work of rabbis brings together outlook (Hashkafa) and law (Halakha). Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik viewed rabbinical outlook as flexible and responsive to change, while the legal realm was fixed and timeless. Rabbis have authority and competence to lead the community both in terms of outlook and in terms of law through the process of questions and answers, responsa, that builds Jewish society in a bottom-up manner. The competition among multiple communities that function as alternative centers of leadership – some more reforming and others more orthodox – yield the natural evolution of Jewish law and society. This structure has proven to serve the Jewish People throughout history, including in the deepest depths and at the highest summits, in mundane environments but also in extreme situations.

Imagine the questions that rabbis faced during the Shoah. Which laws of business, ritual, purity or kashrut should be observed and at what costs? Can we even imagine the ethical and practical questions faced by families crowded into a tiny apartment in a ghetto or by a young person that can flee but cannot take his or her parents or sibling with disability with them? Well, leaders, many of whom were rabbis, had to address such questions. Reading the work of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, Responsa From the Depth, collating answers of rabbis to questions in the extreme conditions of the ghettos, the concentration camps, hidings and forests is nothing short of gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring.

These answers too emanated from an outlook. In his article, Rabbinical Leadership in the Ghettos (Hebrew, 2004), Dan Cristal analyzes the fundamental dilemma Rabbis faced. They needed to establish whether the Shoah was a time of martyrdom (She’at Shmad) or a time of ‘saving a life’ (Pikuach Nefesh). The former mandates refusing any transgression (isur) to the point of risking one’s life (yehareg u’bal ya’avor). The latter requires saving one’s soul by putting in abeyance all commandments except idolatry (Avodah Zara), immoral relations (Giluy Arayot) and shedding blood (Shfichut Damim).

If the Shoah represented an extreme condition for rabbinical Judaism, Israel also represents a radical challenge, albeit of an entirely different nature. At its seventieth anniversary, it is the unprecedented condition of sovereignty and its astounding successes that should challenge the rabbinical leadership of our generation. Suffice it to mention that for the first time in our history, the Jewish People is a controlling majority rather than a controlled minority and wields power rather than being subservient to it. Now too, the voice of rabbis as Judaism’s society-builders must be heard so that it can guide the people, as well as inform the sovereign of the land, the Knesset and the Government of Israel, on fundamental issues of outlook and then law. Their work must extend beyond the confines of classic religious laws such as Kashrut and conversions also to societal questions such as: What should be the economic structure of society and what is social justice in the 21st century? How should force be used? Or what does the legacy of being a foreigner (gehr) in Egypt mean with regards to Israel’s illegal immigrants and asylum seekers?

The twentieth century has taken the Jewish People to the greatest depths and to the highest summits of our history. It challenged our society to transcend extreme conditions of powerlessness and to manage unprecedented power and being a superpower. It had allowed the Jewish People to demonstrate outstanding capacity to adapt balancing the outlooks of priests and prophets. That balancing act can be traced to Shemini.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Group and Author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability. Ari Afilalo is a professor of Law at Rutgers University and President of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.