Why do Kohanim get special privileges? We’ve spent the last 10 chapters learning that holiness is the responsibility and aspiration of every Jew. From the beginning, we were told that we are meant to be a “nation of priests, a holy people.” So why is one group singled out?
The Mishna in Gittin (59a) offers a stunning answer which demands to be taken seriously. The Kohen’s privilege is granted “for the sake of peace”.
“For the sake of peace?! But it’s a Torah law!” the Gemara challenges, citing the verse from chapter 21- “and you shall make him holy”. True, it’s from the Torah, the Gemara replies, but the underlying reason for the Torah law itself is “for the sake of peace”. Priestly privilege is not because they are inherently holier, or because they are closer to God. Its sole purpose is to help the people serve God by embodying the values of Aharon, to “love peace, and pursue peace, love people and bring them closer to Torah.” And therefore- “vekidashto“. You make him holy, because it is you he serves.
But privilege has its dark side, and power corrupts. Before the destruction of the Temple, when the priesthood became hopelessly corrupt and disconnected from the people, the role of the kohen was taken over by the rabbi, the spiritual leader whose power did not come from state appointments, but from popular acceptance. In our day, it is the rabbinate that is state appointed, utterly disconnected from the people, and rife with corruption. Who are the leaders who live up to the vision of spiritual leadership whose raison d’etre is “the sake of peace”?
I have had the privilege to encounter and learn from two of the greatest: Rabbi Avi Weiss, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Humble giants who have dedicated their lives to pursuing peace, and to bringing Jews closer to their heritage, who have built their legacy on a foundation of love, and who even happen to be kohanim. It would take several thousand pages to even begin telling the stories about Rav Avi, who I’m humbled and honored to call my rabbi… and every congregant of his will tell you the same.
Rabbi Riskin I personally know less well, so I can share one story. The last time I bumped into him, he was wandering the streets of my neighborhood in Efrat on a hot Shabbat morning, having walked an hour from his home in his resplendent, and very warm, Shabbat beckishe. When I saw him, I immediately knew what he was looking for. A beautiful young boy had lost his courageous battle to cancer on Friday night. Until the burial that would be on Saturday night, the community took turns reciting Tehillim next to the body that lay in the house. But Rabbi Riskin is a kohen. He couldn’t go into the apartment, or even into the building. He told me to let the bereft family know that he was there, outside, if they wanted to talk, but that they shouldn’t feel any obligation at all…
At the twilight of prophecy, Malachi tells us that “The lips of the Kohen guard knowledge, and God’s Torah will they seek from him, for he is the angel of the Lord of Hosts” (Malachi 2:7). The rabbis apply the verse to understand what kind of rabbi one should learn from: if he is like an angel of the Lord, seek Torah from him, and if he is not, do not seek Torah from him.
Entertaining the thought that these two paragons of kehuna are not worthy of the title ‘rabbi’ is, unfortunately, not the worst thing the institution of the rabbinate has done. The human pain and suffering, and chillul Hashem it has caused in areas of conversion, kashrut, burial, marriage and divorce are far greater. But this latest story does again emphasize how hopelessly distant the Israeli chief rabbinate is from the goals and visions of spiritual leadership that our Torah teaches.
Our first responsibility is to stop seeking their Torah.
I’m blogging a reflection on the daily 929 chapter on an almost daily basis. Usually it’s shorter, about 400 words…but sometimes there are things that need to be said. You’re invited to join the journey, from the perspective of a rabbi who believes that all the Torah is ‘for the sake of peace’.