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Parshat Emor: Lessons for Life Amid the Rules of Death

By Jacek Proszyk - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63749292

On the surface, Parshat Emor is the source for many of the rules and requirements regarding the Kohanim – the priests that served in the Holy Temple – and many of them involve avoiding defilement by coming into contact with the dead. But we also find many lessons about life—and its importance in Judaism— in this parsha about death.

The defilement from the deceased outlined in the parsha, is, of course, a spiritual state, not a physical one. But it highlights an important difference between Judaism and nearly all other world religions. Many other belief systems are focused on what happens to the soul after death, with this world considered a conduit to eternal life. Similarly, Jewish teaching emphasizes that our good deeds can bring us to that eternal life – but that those deeds are equally important for tikkun olam, making the world what God meant it to be.

It actually makes sense that religions would emphasize the afterlife; after all, the common human experience of the death of a loved one always brings to mind the fate of the deceased. Is there an afterlife? What do I have to do to ensure my eternal life there? What are the criteria necessary for entry to the afterlife? World religions have struggled to answer these questions for millennia, and many of them stress the centrality of that afterlife, whatever form it takes. Judaism, of course, believes in an afterlife as well – but making this world a better place is an objective in and of itself, not just a ticket to eternity. Actually, the 14th century sage and philosopher, Yosef Albo, explains why in the written Torah there has been only hints to an afterlife; he says this is because the Torah speaks to the entire Jewish nation and explains its mission in this world, while the idea of paradise or hell in an afterlife is constrained to the individual.

Thus the Torah’s emphasis on holiness for the Kohanim – with many of the rules they need to observe designed to emphasize life. For example, if a Kohen (or any Jew, for that matter) comes into contact with a dead body, or is even in the same room as a cadaver, they need to go through a special seven-day process of purification, forbidden from entering the precincts of the Holy Temple until they can be restored to their previous status. Judaism, of course, has mourning rituals for those whose loved ones have passed on – but Parshat Emor tells us that the Kohanim are restricted from going to funerals, except for immediate relatives; to this day, Kohanim are not supposed to enter a cemetery, honoring their special holy status. And it’s clear that the Torah’s intent is life affirmation; the High Priest, who is the head of the Kohanic tribe, is forbidden from mourning or attending funerals of even parents or siblings. “Neither shall he go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother,” the Parsha tells us, “for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him” (Leviticus 21:11-12).

That Judaism is unique in this matter is clear from how other religions handle the dead. Many churches contain the bones of kings, popes, and priests, and many are located on the site of the martyrdom of an important Church figure. In Islam and Buddhism, many mosques and Buddhist temples are located adjacent to cemeteries. Jews traditionally kept synagogues totally separate from cemeteries. 

Having said that, it is important to point out, especially as Lag B’Omer approaches, that the veneration of the righteous at their burial sites – the Lag B’omer celebration at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai being the most well-known event – is largely a recent innovation, not shared by all streams of Judaism. The idea that a grave of a righteous person will protect the people dwelling among it, is contradicted by Rashi regarding the verse “their shadow has disappeared” (Numbers 14:9), The current veneration of the dead, has definitely been absent in Jewish tradition during the existence of the two temples for obvious reasons, and certainly runs contrary to the spirit of this week’s parsha. These visitations were not encouraged by many of the great sages, including the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna. And in fact, throughout the entire five Books of Moses, we have only one example of an individual visiting graves to pray – that of Calev, “And he came till Hebron” (Numbers 13:22) according to the opinion of Rava, (Talmud Sota 34b) Calev was one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to scope out the Land of Israel, who went to pray at Me’arat Hamachpelah in Hebron, the burial site of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Further underscoring the emphasis that Judaism places on life, Israel and diaspora communities have been exceptional in providing emergency services. These efforts have created real competition in this field, reducing response time to minutes and sometimes even seconds, replacing ambulances with ambulant motorcycles, saving thousands of lives on a yearly basis. 

When it comes to radical religious extremism, the Jewish attitude versus the attitudes of other belief systems to death isn’t just a theological matter. In recent years, radical Islam has made it clear that some value death—whether that is the death of enemies or their own eternal martyrdom granted when they die doing violence in the name of religion—much more than life. This is summed up in the radical Islamic slogan used by ISIS fighters and others, “we love death as you love life.” This radical Islamic “love of death” has caused many wars and bloodshed throughout the generations. Look at the gruesome celebrations in Middle Eastern cities  – the distribution of sweets and the ululations of joy – over the years when  suicide bomber blew him or herself up, taking with them many Israeli civilians, who were simply riding a bus or having a cup of coffee.

In the current war, we continue to see celebrations in Palestinian cities, when Israelis are killed, and see how many Gazans are still supportive of Hamas, even after the great calamity and destruction it had imposed on them, with nearly three quarters still approving of the October 7th attacks – even after those vicious pogroms prompted an unprecedented Israeli response, rendering millions of Gazans homeless. Israelis, meanwhile, hold protests calling for the return of the hostages – and peace, so they can return to the homes they were forced out of because of unceasing rocket and drone attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah, seeking only to peacefully live their lives. 

Having said that, Judaism is not immune to extremism; and the lessons from this parsha also make it clear that our leaders have the responsibility to teach and act in ways that focus on life. This means the emphasis should be on preserving life; even when security and military operations require killing our enemies in defense, this is not something to celebrate.

The lessons Parshat Emor are how the priests need to affirm life – and those lessons need to be adopted by all of humanity, now more than ever.

About the Author
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and exiled Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is also the recipient of the Aachen International Charlemagne Prize in 2024.
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