Perashat Emor: The Priest Within
Nietzche was preoccupied with the question of where the “good” came from, and who was responsible for it, that is, what is its “genealogy”. Here is his summary statement on the matter:
The judgement “good” did not originate with those to whom “goodness” was shown! Rather it was “the good” themselves , that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebian’the pathos of nobility and distance, as aforesaid, the protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruling order in relation to a lower order, to a “below”- that is the origin of the antithesis “good” and “bad”‘ (The Genealogy of Morals, Kauffman edition pp 25-26).
Thus, to Nietzche, those who have power are those who create morals for a society. When, as in the ancient times, according to Nietzche’s myth, the leadership was in the hands of the aristocratic and noble, there was a different conception of morality than the currently accepted one in bourgeois society, which derives from the ressentiment of the herd, “perverted” towards concepts like pity and shame. The idea that morality as a concept and practice is the result of forces of power in society is developed in Foucault and others. Is this definition of power = morality the case in Jewish thought?
I propose that our perasha offers a test case in reading of these ideas. The way one explains the supplementary prohibitions of the kohanim (I don’t like the term “priesthood” loaded as it is with a set of meanings from our European history) in essence situates the concept of an elite within Jewish society.
The textual issues which give rise to this discussion in the commentators is found at the outset of our perasha. Perashat Emor begins with Gd telling Moshe to speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, instructing them not to be defiled by contact with the dead. The word emor, speak, is repeated twice in the verse. The Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 114. explains this duplication as instructing the priests to caution the adults to educate the children as well in the ways of ritual purity, so that the children don’t defile themselves either. The Hebrew phrase used to explain this is very concise and leads to several alternate readings “l’hazhir gedolim al ketanim”- translated literally, warn the big regarding the small. The Midrash adds that this repetition of the command Emor, is necessary because of the presence in humanity of an evil inclination, and thus, being easily corruptible, humanity its warnings in duplicate.
The Kotzker finds this Midrash’s meaning to be adressed to the wrong audience. If a duplicated warning is mandatory for those in a lower state, then duplications should be present in commands relating to the masses, not the priesthood, the spiritual elite, as it is here! So why then is it directed at the Kohanim, instead of towards the masses? According to the Kotzker, this message of spiritual weakness is specifically directed to the Kohanim as an educational paradigm oriented toward the entire people’s transformation. That is, the duplication addressed to the kohanim is meant to teach the body of Israel, that if these people who are so close to the Temple need a special extra precautionary warning, then how much more careful everyone else must be!
At any rate, returning to our original question of valuation of spiritual hierarchies, among the classic Hasidic thinkers, we notice a trend, whereby the status of the Kohen is diminished in favor of the people as a whole. The Tiferet Shelomo notes that the opening verse begins in the plural, addressed to the Kohanim, but ends with the singular- here’s the verse transliterated: v’amarta alehem, you shall say unto them, lanefesh lo yitama b’amav, that the kohen should not “yitama“, defile himself, among the people. Spiritual elitism? According to the Tiferet Shelomo, the purpose of the kehuna as an institution is primarily concerned with elevating the entire people, thus, the subject of the verb yitama (defiled) is not the kohen, but rather is an injunction against letting any nefesh b’amav, a person of the nation, be defiled. In other words, don’t read it that no priest should profane himself among the people, rather, read the verse as: Teach the priests to create an environment which prevents the people, b’amav, from becoming profaned. Not letting any individual stumble is the primary purpose of the institution of kehuna. The Sefat Emet (in the sermons from 1877, trl”z) suggests that the level of holiness of the kohen is in a direct relationship to the level of holiness of each individual among the rest of the people. The spiritual level of the kohen is not only some individual attainment, but rather reflects the level of the people as a whole. When the people are led to greatness, their leaders are then great.
The Kedushat Levi, the Be’er Mayim Hayim, and the Noam Elimelech share an interesting, more radically egalitarian view. The Kedushat Levi explains that the phrase “the sons of Aharon” is superfluous, after all, we know who the kohanim are descended from. To him, this phrase is meant to keep the kohanim modest. The kohen can not lord his position over others, as his position is solely a result of lineage, something which one doesn’t earn, and can’t be said to deserve, so what does he have to be a big shot about? Thus he must fulfil his duties not thinking he is any more special than anyone else as a result (this is exactly the opposite of how many organizations, including contemporary chassidut with its emphasis on lineage, evolved).(The Kedushat Levi thus also reads the double emphasis on the word “emor” “say”, not just as a teaching for the kohanim, but to all people as a message to keep their speech from becoming defiled.)
The Noam Elimelech very aggressively denies the validity of pride about lineage, the person’s “am“, his volk or genitori, which he refers to as a “tuma’a“, a defilement! He thus rereads the end of the verse transliterated above as “the kohen shouldn’t defile his soul with pride about his people”. Once freed from reading this passage concerning the priesthood, he rereads the above cited Talmudic teaching regarding “Gedolim al ketanim”, warning the great regarding the lesser, in two ways of interest to us:
1. That even those in a lofty spiritual state (gedolim) must be concerned about their own seemingly trivial sins (ketanim).
2. The idea of repetition as in Kierkegaard: When in a high spiritual state (gadlut), the individual must attempt to descend with the lessons of that state back into the quotidian, the everyday. The challenge is to carry the spiritual heights of specific moments of grandeur back into ordinary life and society. It is not a great achievement to feel spiritual when at a point of spiritual high, it is maintaining that moment in everyday life that is the achievement.
The Be’er Mayim Hayim stresses the mutual inter-relatedness of all the strata of the people; there is a mutual responsibility upon every sector of society to not pull the others down. He explains that this teaching intentionally is presented after the Nadav V’Avihu episode, which was a failure not of the masses but of the upper echelons of spiritual society, and thus wonderfully inverts the assumed standard reading of the “l’hazhir gedolim al ketanim” maxim: The ordinary people should not be misled by the sins of the leadership!
In conclusion, let us turn to the teaching of R. Zadok Hacohen, who at the outset seems to teach that the kohanim do have a privileged position, but his inversion of who the kohanim are is most dramatic- to R. Zadok, all of Israel ultimately are the kohanim .According to the Midrash Rabba, this perasha of spiritual nondefilement for the priesthood comes as a reward for the “yir’ah“, the awe, with which Aharon, forerunner of the priestly clan, approached Gd when called to the altar (see Rashi on Vayikra 9:7, supported by Malachi 2:5). The Midrash adds that this honor will be bestowed upon all his subsequent generations, even after the Temple is destroyed. But what significance does non-defilement have in the absence of the Temple, when the ritual rites of purification are no longer in existence? R. Zadok explains that even if the physical edifice on Mt. Zion no longer exists, the “Temple” still exists. Where is it? In our hearts, as quoted according to the Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba. There, Gd is referred to as the heart of the Jewish people; the Midrash’s proof text refers to Gd as being “shochen”, dwelling, in our hearts; the word “shochen” is etymologically related to the word for the sanctuary, the “Mishkan”- thus there, in our heart, is the Temple, where Gd’s presence dwells. As a result of yir’ah, awe before the Divine Presence, the descendents of Aharaon are always ready to enter this Temple, the one alive, beating, and present inside each and every one of us. And in truth, it is not only genetic kohanim who have this ability. We are all described as having this same awe, this yir’ah that enables us to encounter Gd dwelling within us, on the Shabbat, as stated in a halachic context in the Mishna, Demai 4:1, and in the Jerusalem Talmud there. The Zohar states explicitly that Shabbat in time is equivalent to the Temple in space, so that keeping the Shabbat is equivalent to serving Gd in the Temple. Thus, in summary, when we attune to proper consciousness, we are all equivalent to kohanim serving in the Temple- in that Temple within each and every one of us.
Once we have reached a situation of reading whereby the priestly texts regarding Kohanim can be understood as referring to inter- and intra- personal issues, then we are open to lovely readings of the sort presented by R. Hayim of Sanz in his Diverei Hayim. The Diverei Hayim expands a suggestion by the Noam Meggidim that the nefesh, a metonymic term that is usually read as “a person” referred to in the opening verse of Perashat Emor, refers not to the priest but actually means what its literal translation says it is, the “soul” (that is, nefesh is translated as soul rather than person). Verse 21:1 reads: lanefesh lo yitama b’amav,generally translated as “the priest should not become ritually impure among the people”. However, in the spirit of the subversion described throughout this essay, the Noam Meggidim and Diverei Hayim democratize the reading to refer to each individual soul. The Divrei Hayim adds a radical translation of the word amav, which is generally read as deriving from the root “am”, meaning “the people”. However, he suggests that the root here is one with a doubled m, which is the term used for the dwindling flickering of a coal, the dimming light of the ember. Read in this light, the Divrei Hayim reads the verse as follows: When the spiritual achievement of a particular individual (soul, nefesh) has reached a low point (its immui, its dwindling), it should not give up hope and self destruct in despair (lo yitama, giving a psychological spin to the ritualistic term “impurity”). A person should not become depressed even when one feels really down. Rather, every person should realize that even at the lowest point, when one feels one has entirely lost all connection to spiritual life, one can restore ones self to a state of great holiness and wholeness.
Here’s an additional reading along these lines, one that transfers the verse into one making reference to more rarified concepts about prayer and consciousness. The Pri Haaretz, R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, reads “nefesh” as referring to prayer (the term is used frequently in relation to David, who is viewed metaphysically as the archetype of prayer/shekhina). Prayer, to the Pri Haaretz, takes flight when it is intended as a contemplation of the Divine, as opposed to the “grounded” form of prayer as petition for personal gain. The latter to him is degraded prayer,defiled- “tamei“. As such he read our verse as instructing us that the soul/prayer must not be defiled by “amav“, the physical drives and desires of the body (with all the components of the physical organism incorporating, as it were, a whole population of desires). Thus the teaching “l’hazhir gedolim al ketanim” is read as ” To illuminate (l’hazhir from the root “zohar” meaning to glow), the higher, expanded consciousness (the term “gadlut” is a frequent Lurianic term for higher states of consciousness) into the lower worlds, the lower states of mind (that is the material world, “katnut” read as small mindedness).
We have seen how a seemingly exclusionary set of dry ritualistic exhortations regarding an “elite”, have become transvalued into a set of universally normative spiritual and ethical goals and guidelines. In our readings, we look to the “masses” not as the source of ressentiment as did Nietszche, but rather to each and every person at every level and rank as the source of endless spiritual renewal.