Priest. Prophet, Rabbi
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Priest, Prophet, Rabbi
Parashat Tzav welcome us deeper into Vayikra. The Book of Leviticus, is also known under its rabbinic name ‘Torat Kohanim’, the Priestly Law (Mishnah Megillah 1:5). We tend to associate Leviticus with all the stuff that makes us feel icky and that is difficult to talk about, like purity laws and the sacrificial cult. Added onto that is the institution of the Priesthood itself as well as the notion of commandedness, with which our portion opens: ‘tzav et Aharon v’et banav’ – ‘command Aaron and his sons’. The first chapters of Leviticus outline the sacrifices as well as the consecration of the Mishkan, Tabernacle.
The central question for us over the coming weeks is how can we re-read Leviticus in a way that is authentic to the intention of the text as well as compelling to the contemporary, progressive Jew? The fact that the book of Leviticus is called ‘Torat Kohanim’ by the Mishnah is significant: the Rabbis could have called it ‘Torat Korbanot’, the Law of Sacrifices or even ‘Torat Toharot’, the Law of Purity. Yet they didn’t: the overarching principle to them was to commemorate the vestiges of a hereditary religious institution that was already losing its function in their age. Is the Priesthood an institution that we can relate to at all today?
Perhaps reimagining the Priesthood is a little easier for us in the UK (and Holland), because we grew up under that strange and antiquated institution of a constitutional monarchy. We have all seen the gravitas and ceremony of a monarchy. Regardless of ideological positions of monarchism or republicanism, it is a sociological fact that the constitutional monarchies of liberal European democracies provide a symbolic and stabilizing factor. Perhaps it was not all that different with the Kehunah, the Priesthood, in Biblical times. What was significant about a Kohen is not his personhood but rather what he represented symbolically. A Kohen was a holy vessel whose duty it was to connect Heaven and Earth, to ground the axis mundi, the world pole as anthropologists would term it, on which the cosmic order rested. The Kohen was a stabilizing, grounding force.
Of course, things change and models of religious leadership change as well. Soon enough, a new type of Biblical leadership emerged: the ‘Navi’, the Prophet. The later prophets expanded their religious calling to include a radicalizing, universalizing force. If the Priest wanted to uphold the world order, the Prophet came to shatter it. If the Priest represented the religious establishment, the Prophet defied it. Prophets were weird characters; slightly unhinged, operating on the peripheries of societies, struggling with the loyalty of their calling, torn between their love of God and their love for humankind.
One could argue that the Prophet is a counter-point to the Priest. Where the Priest is a vessel that provides structure; the Prophet plunges the depth of his own soul.
We see this bold, uncompromising vision in this weeks Haftarah, from the prophet Malachi. In this haftarah, the prophet delineates his awe-inspiring as well as frightening view of our ultimate redemption, the Messianic era. ‘Hineh anochi sholeach lachem et Eliyah haNavi – lifnei bo yom Adonai, hagadol v’hanora. V’heshiv lev avot al banim, v’lev banim al avotam…’ - ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal. And he shall turn the heart of the parents to the children and the heart of the children to their parents.’ (Malachi 3:23-24)
We often like to think that Haftarot were selected to support the Parshiyot, but sometimes the opposite is true: a Haftarah can serve as a counterpoint to, or even subvert the Parashah. We see this happen in our reading today: the portion focuses on the minutiae of the sacrifices but the Haftarah gives us an existential warning. Ultimately, the minutiae don’t matter if their underlying values are not adhered to. Ultimately, the message of prophetic Judaism is uncompromisingly ethical. ‘V’korbati Aleichem lamishpat, v’ha’iti ed memaher bamechashfim, ubam’na’afim uvannishba’im lashaker, uv’boshkei s’char, sachir almanac v’yotam matei ger v’lo yro’uni, amar Adonai Tzevaot’ –
‘And I will draw near to you to judgment, and I will be a quick witness against the sorcerers, against adulterers, and against false swearers and against those who oppress the worker in his wages, the widow and the orphan and that turn aside the stranger from his right and fear not Me says the Eternal of Hosts.’ (Mal. 3:5) Essentially, the Prophetic tradition tells us that we ought to value the sacrifices as religious expression, but if we divorce the sacrifices from ethical conduct, they will become idolatrous. Malachi restores in us the deep intuition that God is relationship. ‘Korbati’, ‘I will draw near to you’, God says through Malachi. That if we forget the significance of the root word of korban, sacrifice, – kuf, reish, bet – ‘to draw near’, that we then forget ourselves?
The Priest and the Prophet in Judaism form a dialectic. They are the thesis and antithesis of religious leadership: conservative, grounded, meticulous. But also dynamic, radical, sweeping. We cannot be only one or the other. We need both. We needed grounding and conservation in our individual lives, our religious communities, and our world. Sometimes we need to slow down, be procedural, be measured, give the tradition a vote, to paraphrase Mordecai Kaplan.
Yet at other times, we need the opposite. We need to be visionary and bold, grow in our relationship with ourselves, our Judaism and God. We need to challenge preconceived norms and uproot what has become sacrosanct.
Now that we are embarking on our journey through Leviticus, in what way is each of us is a Priest and each of us is a Prophet. How do we ground our own ‘axis mundi’, our connecting core, and relate to what truly matters in our individual lives and our communities? How do we live with tension and difference and address the range of ideologies, beliefs and needs that we encounter as citizens?
The dialectic finds its resolution in a third model of Jewish leadership: the Rabbi. The Rabbinic period rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Churban, the Destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai made it clear that in the post-Temple reality, deeds of lovingkindness are the the new sacrifices. The Rabbinic archetype is willing to honour the past and shape the future; and through makhloket, sacred disagreement, creates one of the world’s most vibrant democratic institutions.
None of this holy work could have been done, however, without evolving the model of the Priest. The Book of Shemot (Exodus) calls upon us to be a ‘mamlechet kohanim’, a Kingdom of Priests, and a ‘goy kadosh’, a holy nation. We may not wish to bring a literal sacrifices, but there is much we can offer.
There is an amazing transformative message hidden amongst the pages of Parshat Tzav, that the unique and particular structures, rhythms and rituals of a clearly-defined Jewish life can open up into so much more; that we are the authors of our own Torat Kohanim as we balance these different roles and we reach our fullest potential in our lives.