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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Emor: Why remember priests?

Parashat Emor consists largely of material that is specific to the Temple priests. This should not be too surprising: most of Leviticus contains instructions for the priests, and a common Hebrew name for it is Torat Kohanim, instruction of priests. Even material in this parashah that is not exclusive to the priests, such as instructions about various holidays and festivals, is presented from the priestly point of view.

One of the striking features of Emor is the discussion of special rules that affect not only the priests’ work in the Temple, but all aspects of their lives. This emphasis on the specialness of the priests has led many scholars to conclude that it might be of relatively late composition, stemming from the reforms following the discovery (or composition) of Deuteronomy in the reign of Josiah.

One of these reforms was the centralization of sacrificial worship in Jerusalem, eliminating regional shrines such as the one at Shiloh and disenfranchising rural priests. Some scholars hold that the emphasis on the special quality of priests here reflects the insistence of the “Zadokite” priests in Jerusalem, who claimed direct descent from Aaron, that only they qualified to officiate at the altar, and that Levites not of such descent could only do the menial work of the Temple.

Most teachers faced with this parashah would probably build a lesson around the section on holiday observance, or possibly around the section dealing with the punishment for blasphemy. The latter is of some extra interest because it is one of the few occasions, and the only one outside the book of Numbers, on which Moses found it necessary to consult God about a specific law. The best-known of these occasions is probably the episode dealing with the daughters of Zelophehad and their right to inherit their father’s estate.

A lesson on the special rules for priests would present a challenge. Given that kohanim have so few priestly functions today, students are likely to ask why this section should even be studied.

One reason for studying this section would be simply to understand the special quality that Biblical religion imputed to the priests. It is by no means unusual to have special rules that set priests apart from other people; the rule of celibacy for Roman Catholic priests would be an obvious contemporary example. (In contrast, Hebrew priests were expected to marry, although they were barred from marrying a divorced woman.)

Another is that the vestiges of priestly function that remain part of Jewish practice--in traditional settings, pronouncing the birkat kohanim and officiating at pidyon ha-ben, the redemption of firstborn sons, come to mind--serve as reminders of the work that was once the main function of priests.

Thus, the care with which traditional communities have maintained those few priestly functions that are still possible, and with which families have retained knowledge of their priestly status, can be understood as reflections of Jews’ longing for a return from galut, “exile” in the Diaspora and the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel.

Which has come to exist -- it is barely a week since we celebrated Yom ha-Atzma’ut. Most of us, whatever our feeling for Israel, probably do not anticipate the construction of a Third Temple and the reinstatement of sacrificial worship. In fact, it usually comes as a surprise to learn that there is a yeshiva in Jerusalem that now trains men of priestly descent to carry out the Biblical sacrifices. (For many of us, it’s an unwelcome surprise; current Reform prayer books omit or rephrase prayers that refer to this.)

Instead of looking to hereditary priests as the sign of a future redemption, we tend, in the language of a prayer found in Conservative siddurim, to think of Israel as “the first flowering of our redemption.”

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