There are some really big ideas in Judaism: Torah, God, Holiness, Israel – and perhaps because they are such big ideas, no one agrees on what they mean. This week, we are confronted with another such idea – that of the Priestly class, the Kohen. Until now, the entire people have been singled out for a unique relationship with God, starting with Abraham and the promise of the covenant, through to Moses hearing from God, “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God (Ex. 6:7)
In Tzaveh, (Ex. 27:20 – 31-10) however, the Israelites literally become vested in a new group of leaders, Kohanim, (Priests) from within the general population. Aaron, Moses’ brother, becomes the High Priest, and his sons are also brought forward to accept this new status. This is a scene not lacking in drama. It has everything for the senses – sound, light, fragrances, a new suit of clothes, and of course, bling. We read that those of wise heart, who have been filled with God’s wisdom, are given the task to sew these new clothes for Aaron and his sons. He gets a breastpiece, an ephod (whatever that is), a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash. Animals are brought forward, hands are placed upon them, they get slaughtered, oil gets poured, blood gets smeared, and thus, “he (Aaron) and his vestments become holy” (Ex. 29:21). The clothes make the man, as they say.
The establishment of a priestly group within the Israelites is not something that was taken lightly, nor abandoned over time. Genetic markers have been identified that have shown up in self-identified Kohanim all over the world. Kohen status is passed only from father to son, so thousands of years after Aaron’s ordination, it seems that these select group of men can plausibly trace their history right back to T’tzaveh. Amazing.
However, in the last hundred years or so, the rise and popularity of non-Orthodox paths of Jewish life,in the various, pluralistic forms of Jewish denominations, the idea of a caste system within the Jewish community has become less compatible with the values of egalitarianism and universality. It’s only within Orthodox and many (though not all) Conservative congregations that Kohanim still have the first aliyah, or honor, for the Torah reading. Many men who are “legitmate” Kohanim may not know about their special status, and the accompanying restrictions. What does this mean for the continuing idea and practical existence of a Divinely-commanded, holy, separate class among Jews?
I struggle with this. On one hand, the constant community presence of a “Kohen” that has remained in force for a hundred generations, is powerful. I don’t like to just toss off that kind of staying power. Kohanim are a living link to the past, one that has survived remarkably intact. Yet, so many Jews today find the idea of a dynastic class problematic. The purpose of this father-to-son group was to instruct and perpetuate the rules of Jewish ritual, maintaining the holy space (the Mishkan, or the Temple), and be in charge of the sin/guilt/thankful offerings (sacrifices) that bring people closer to God. Well, we don’t have the Temple anymore, so is there really a need for an archaic designation of men to run those sacrifices? In the words of a good friend of mine, regarding our preoccupation with the destroyed Temples, “Temple destroyed. Get over it. There’s other work to be done.” Ritual authority has been disseminated among rabbis in different movements, with varying results and admittedly increased confusion. But confusion is a temporary byproduct of diversity, and diversity is, I think, a welcome and inevitable part of our community.
I also don’t think Jews need intermediaries to be close to God. Papal leadership didn’t take hold in Judaism for a reason, and there are even those who make the argument in their studies of early Chasidism, that the relationship with a Tzaddik, one’s “rebbe” who is consulted at all points and turns, is often seen as being a bit closer to God than a regular person. This challenges the “no one is holier-than-thou” idea. And, the Biblical pattern of bypassing first-borns (Ishmael/Isaac, Esau/Jacob, even Aaron/Moses), in determining whom God chose for a leadership role, argues against a dynastic system. Our history is one of meritocracy. One doesn’t get the job just because Dad had it.
So, I keep coming back to the question of why we still, as a community, designate and elevate Kohanim as an elite class. I love the majesty of Aaron’s ordination in T’tzaveh. I feel the ritual’s profound effect on all who witnessed it. But I also felt the profound effect as I watched my sister receive her “smicha” (ordination), when her teachers laid hands on her head, and conferred upon her the role of ritual leader, joining the long line that began with Aaron and his sons. No blood-smearing necessary.
This issue is a “new” one – only a few generations old, compared to the weight of many more before us. But there is something to be learned from the text, even if the role of a Kohen is no longer relevant. The blood of the ordination offerings were smeared on the Priests’ ears so they would understand, their hands so they would act with kavanah (intention) and their feet so they would follow a path of righteousness and holiness. We are a “ nation of Priests and a holy people” (Ex. 19-6). We can take it from here.