Are some Jews more holy than others?
This shabbat, we will celebrate the coronation of King Charles III — the assumption of hereditary privilege in one particular family. Fittingly, the first chapter of Parshat Emor is dedicated to the hereditary task of kehunah (priesthood), passed down patrilineally from Aaron, and the numerous commandments (19 out of 63 in Emor) pertaining to the role of being a kohen.
We are told that we must “treat them as holy” and that “they shall be holy to you, for I Hashem who sanctify you am holy” (Leviticus 21:8). How do we relate to this today in an era of democratic values of liberty and equality? Is there still relevance of being born into privilege? We believe we are all created in the image of God, so how is it that some are more holy than others?
The laws in Emor range from those relating to Temple sacrifices, such as being free of blemishes or other physical imperfections and receiving tithes, to others that apply in post-Temple times that limit the kohen’s marriage possibilities and those who prevent the kohen from being defiled by contact with the dead.
During the time I worked in the London Beth Din, I frequently encountered the kohen’s marital restriction in terms of who they could marry: most often in relation to a gerushah (divorcee), although the restrictions include a challalah (a woman born from a marriage forbidden to the priesthood) or zonah (woman who had relations with someone forbidden to her in marriage). These often cause significant pain for a kohen who would need to renounce the privileges of priesthood to enter into such marriages. I have also been conscious that my cousins, as adopted children of kohanim, were unable to assume the privileges of their adoptive father.
What then is the religious significance of these privileges? What is the kohen there to achieve? How does it help the Jewish people?
Today, kohanim perform the priestly blessing, raising their hands (nesiyat kapayim — as Aaaron did when dedicating the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in Leviticus 9:22) and they have the honor of the first aliyah to the Torah as part of the weekly reading. Rabbi Abraham Isaac haKohen Kook, in his commentary on the siddur (Olat Re’iyah), explains that kohanim are not ministers of magic, but teachers of Torah, as Moses says “they shall teach your laws to Jacob and your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10). Rav Kook claims that they have “a hereditary predisposition for the spirituality of Torah.” (segulah kelalit haba’ah be-yerushah), but that they can help us all to reach our own potential. The raising of the hands, he suggests, symbolizes reaching out to reach this potential. Do we accept that Aaron’s descendants have a genetic talent as teachers? If so, we as leaders of educational institutions focused on securing the pipeline of Torah teachers for our schools and communities should focus our search!
Or HaChaim, the 18th century commentary explains the statement, “they shall be holy to you,” differently. It suggests that we all have an interest in the kohen being holy and it is our collective duty to ensure that he conducts himself in a holy manner. While the holiness of the priest is of a different nature than that of ordinary Israelites, we are commanded to ensure he does not lose or abandon the holiness which is his by birth. Just like the monarch, the kohanim have no choice but to serve. But ultimately, it is through the kohanim that God allows His Presence to rest on the whole people. Rather than Torah teachers it emphasizes their role their service plays as spiritual conduit.
The notion of service is reflected in the name of the book “To Stand and To Serve,” a collection of essays dedicated to the memory of Marc Weinberg z”l, visionary leader of the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), communal organizer and teacher, who tragically passed away aged 35 and for whom his kehunah was such a guiding force. According to Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, in his essay, the kohen’s role “is to guard the rituals fastidiously, to perform the avodah according to a given rule book. The guiding principle of his service is routine and regularity, loyalty to the system and its proper functioning.” It is to ensure that God’s will is done, but in a different way to the prophet whose role is “to bring fiery new messages from above… to induce change.” Like the monarch, the kohen belongs to an elite. He is not of the people, and yet the role impacts all of us, as it is “to ensure that God’s will is done.”
Holiness means dedicated, set aside for a specific purpose. The kohen himself is dedicated to God and tasked with bringing holiness to the Jewish people, to highlight the separation between holy and every day, pure and impure and to keep God in the midst of the people. In this way the kohanim can have an impact on the holiness we can all attain. Rabbi Sacks explains (in his essay in To Stand and To Serve) that God cannot expect all people to give over their will to God. He asks it of a specific sub-group: “The priests are the guardians of the sacred and must themselves be kept as far as possible from the ordinary, the mundane, the mortal and above all from death…they are to Israel what Israel is to humanity, a signal of transcendence, representatives of God to humanity and humanity to God.”
In short, they model to us all what we must do in the world. They are both a symbol of holiness and upholders of Godly service. They help us all get closer to God. They help us to connect to Torah, which ultimately is all of our inheritance. As we learn from the Rambam (Maimonides) 3:1, “The Jewish people were given three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty: The crown of priesthood was given to Aaron and his descendants… the crown of sovereignty was given to David and his descendants…But the crown of Torah is for every Jew. Whoever desires may come and claim it… It is the greatest crown of all.” Torah is beyond hereditary privilege because it is the inheritance of us all.