Friday, May 6, 2011

A Thought On The Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family:
Click here: Parshat Emor

The Kedusha of Kedoshim and the Kedusha of Emor

Through the book of Vayikra, that Torah has been concerned with kedusha, sanctity, and how to protect it.   The Torah now turns its attention from the sanctity of the Temple to the sanctity of to those who are constantly in the Temple - the Kohanim.  The Children of Israel were commanded in Kedoshim to "become holy," indicating that for them holiness was an aspiration, something to strive towards, and not innate.  In contrast, the Kohanim are both commanded to become holy - "Holy shall they be their God, and they shall not defile the name of the God ... and they shall be holy" (Vayikra 21:6) - and are, at the same time, already considered to be holy: "A woman who is a prostitute or defiled, or a woman who is divorced from her husband they shall not take, because he is holy to his God."  (verse 7).   Thus, for them the command to "become holy," is less of one of aspiring to a status that is not yet achieved, as much as it is a command to preserve and protect their holy status. 

Now, this idea of intrinsic sanctity is hard for many people, especially since we live in an egalitarian, non-caste society,  a society in which status is a function of accomplishment, not a right from birth.  "What makes the Kohanim holier than any other Jew?  Why are they better just because who their father was?" we may reasonably ask.   The Torah does, to some degree, address this.  He is holy, we are told, not as something innate from birth, but because of the role which he has been assigned: "... for he offers up the bread of God."  Nevertheless, he is entitled to this role as a birthright, and this role is not open to non-Kohanim.   This is a very challenging concept for many today.

In addition, it seems that the Torah is not only asking us to see Kohanim as holy because of the role that they play, but also because they have been chosen to embody holiness on this earth.  Just as the Temple is holy because God's presence dwells in it, so the Kohanim are holy because they are regularly in the Temple and thus God's holiness extends to them as well:  "Holy shall he be to you, for holy am I, the Lord who makes you holy."  Thus we find in Ki Tisa (Shemot, 30:22-30) that the anointing oil was made to both sanctify the Temple and its vessels, and to sanctify the Kohanim who serve in the Temple.  The Kohanim, then, are a type of klei kodesh, holy vessel, which is holy not just because of the role he plays, but as an object, as it were, that has been chosen to be an embodiment of God's holiness, as a symbol of holiness.

What makes the concept of kedusha as applied to Kohanim even more challenging is the way in which the kedusha expresses itself.  In what ways does a Kohen's holiness require him to act differently from an average Jew?  First, we are told, he may not become tamei, impure, to a dead body, unless it is of a person of his immediate family.  Second, he must  be conscious of his outward appearance, and cannot disfigure himself in mourning.  And, finally, he may not marry certain women who are seen as less than proper - a prostitute or a divorced woman.  

This is a strange and troubling list.  The first demand is understandable -tumah is conceptually the antithesis of kedusha, and, were he to become tamei he would have to remove himself from the Temple and from his role of offering the sacrifices.  The last two items on the list, in contrast, do not interfere with his ability to function in his role, but they do - presumably - impact how he is perceived.  A Kohen who has disfigured himself, even in morning, is not looked at with honor and respect.  A Kohen who has married a (former) prostitute would naturally be looked at by many people with disdain.  He would not be able to command their respect for him, and thus would compromise his role as a symbol of holiness to the people.  This is also why, presumably, he is proscribed from marrying a divorce woman.  In a society which highly valued virgins, and which probably regularly saw divorced women as "defiled," regardless of who was to blame for the divorce, being married to a divorced woman would lower a person's status in the eyes of many.  Thus, a Kohen which must be a symbol of holiness, and must call upon people's respect, cannot allow himself to be seen by others with disdain.

This focus on appearances extends to the next section of the parsha - the concern with blemishes.  We are told that a Kohen who has an external blemish "may not draw near to offer up the bread of his God." (Vayikra 21:17).   Why does a blemish matter?  He hasn't done anything wrong!  He is not to blame!  But, of course, people are people, and they will naturally look with more respect on a Kohen who is tall, good looking, and handsome, than they will on a Kohen who is physically disfigured.  People do focus on trivial externalities.  [See, for example, "Good Looks, Good Pay" on the Forbes website, or "Why Tall People Make More Money," on CNN.]   Let us not forget that the Temple itself is the epitome of a focus on the external - with its gold and silver, its purple and crimson - the Temple was to look beautiful and majestic so that people would see it, and God who was represented by it, with honor and respect.

The practical implications of holiness, then, are understandable, but they remain quite challenging.  Now we ask not only what entitles a Kohen to this holiness, but also why this holiness is translated in such external, superficial ways.  Why are the commands not more moral and religious, as they are in Parshat Kedoshim?   Why does his holiness not demand of him to live a life that is morally beyond repute, and that is fully focused on serving God?     We are told that "a person sees with his eyes," but we are also told, "but God sees to the heart."  (Shmuel I, 17:7).  So why not try to correct people's focus on externals rather than tacitly accepting it, and accommodating it?

Perhaps these two questions answer one another.  The Kohen's kedusha status, while present from birth, is not the kedusha of Parshat Kohanim.   The kedusha of that parsha remains the true kedusha.  It is a kedusha of morality and of religiosity.  It is a kedusha of aspiration, one that the Kohanim are not excluded from.  They, like every Jew, must constantly be working to grow morally and religious, to be closer to God not physically, but spiritually and morally.  The Kohen, like every Jew, must strive his entire life to "become holy."    

The kedusha of Parshat Emor, in contrast, is the kedusha that Kohanim have from birth, but it is a very different kedusha.   It is one that they have by virtue of the role that has been given to them, and because they have been chosen to serve as a symbol to the people.  This lesser kedusha is one that is not about who they are, but about what they are.  Who they are inside, what type of person they are, is the concern of Parshat Kedoshim.  What they are on the outside - a symbol to the people - is the concern of Parshat Emor.  This kedusha of being not like a person and a subject, but of being like an object, like a klei kodesh, like the very Mikdash itself, is one which does express itself in terms of externals.    The kedusha of Kedoshim is the kedusha of a person; the kedusha of Emor is the kedusha of an object.

The problem still remains, however.  People will gravitate towards the external.  People will  see the external kedusha as the primary, as the one that really matters, and will ignore the more significant, but less visible, internal kedusha.   And, in fact, we know that so many people do, sadly, associate religiosity with externals - externals of dress and appearance, externals of performance that serve to mark one or one's community as different, as somehow "more holy."   To focus on the less visible kedusha, the character of the person, their values, their morality, their true religious striving - to serve God fully and in ways that truly matter - is truly a profound challenge.    It is so rare that we are able to focus on the more important kedusha of Kedoshim, and to not be distracted by the kedusha of Emor.    Who among us will not immediately assume that the rabbi with the long beard and the black hat and the long bekesha is not more holy that the clean-shaven rabbi who sometimes wears jeans?  

Where is the corrective for this?   How does the Torah counterbalance the seductive draw of the kedusha of Emor?   I believe that the answer is to be found in the section of the Kohen with the blemish.  For what are we told about this Kohen: "The food of his God from the holiest sacrifices and from the holy sacrifices he may eat." (Vayikra 21:22)   As the Mishna Zevachim, 12:1, explicates, such a Kohen gets an equal portion of the meat of the sacrifices and eats it, although he does not serve in the Temple.    In this way he is drastically different from the Kohen who is impure.  The Kohen who is tamei neither gets a portion of the meat, nor may he eat from it.  What is the difference?

The difference is this.  The outer blemish is just a problem with his kedusha as a symbol to the people, with his object-kedusha.  As such, he can no longer function as a holy-object symbol to the people - he can no longer play the visible role of serving in the Temple.  However, his inner-kedusha is unaffected.    Thus, he is still seen as a member of the group, as part of the Kohanim who served in the Temple that day, and as someone who is entitled to a portion of the sacrifices.   He is like the brilliant lawyer who is not presentable in a courtroom.  Such a person best serves the team by doing her work off-stage, but is no less valued, and is an equal member of the team.

In contrast is the Kohen who is tameiTumah is invisible.  The problem is not how someone tamei is perceived, the problem is how they have been affected.  Tumah can be of the moral/religious type, but even when it is of the more ritual type it represents a true compromise of kedusha, a defiling of the true kedusha of the person.  Thus, a Kohen who is tamei can neither serve, nor get a portion, nor eat.  Such a Kohen is truly excluded because his kedusha - the kedusha that matters - has been compromised.

In fact, the Gemara states that when the Kohanim eat the meat of the holiest sacrifices, their eating is a form of the meat being consumed by the altar, and it is through their eating of this meat that the owners achieve full atonement.  When the Kohen with the blemish eats, he is not only being treated as a member of the group, he is being seen as representing God, as serving as an altar for the sacrifice.   He just must, sadly and because of our human biases and weaknesses, give up some of his public role.

The challenge for us is to both acknowledge the importance that people give to  externals and appearances, and the need to accommodate it, and at the same time to be aware that true worth, and true kedusha, lies not without but within.   If there are times that we must make certain concessions to the way the world works, we must do all the we can to ensure that we do not marginalize those with merely external blemishes, that we do not give undue significance to the external- object-based kedusha of Parshat Emor.  We must ensure that we keep our focus on the internal- person-based kedusha of Parshat Kedoshim.  "For a man sees with the eyes, but God sees to the heart."

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

The following is adapted from a posting on The Daily Daf which I wrote a few months ago, but which directly connects to themes of this week's parsha and connects to my Thought on the Parsha, below.

Torah in the Bathroom?
The twelfth chapter in Zevachim is devoted to the topic of which Kohanim who may not serve in the Temple are still entitled to a portion of the daily sacrifices.   The basic rule, as laid out in the first mishna, is that a Kohen with a blemish is entitled to a portion of the daily sacrifices, as indicated by the verse in this week's parsha: "The food of his God, from the holiest of sacrifices... he may eat."  In contrast, the Kohen who was tamei, impure, that day, even if his pure that evening, does not receive a portion of the daily sacrifices.

The Gemara discusses the details of these laws at length, and ends its discussion with an analysis of R. Elazar ben R. Shimon (Zevachim 102b).   We had learned that a Kohen who was tamei, and thus not able to do the Temple service that day was not entitled to a portion of the korbanot that evening.  It should be noted that this is only a loss of property rights, not a ritual exclusion - he can eat if a fellow Kohen offers him a portion of his meat.   The Torah also spells out that such a Kohen is excluded from a portion in 3 cases: (1) the meat of a sin-offering, (2) the remnant of the mincha and (3) the breast and  the thigh from the peace-offering. 

R. Elazar ben R. Shimon looks at why the Torah needed to address all three cases - could we not have learned one from the other?  He points out that in each case, an argument - based on a kal va'chomer, an a fortiori argument- could have been made to allow the Kohen to have a portion, and that thus an explicit verses were needed for all three cases.  What is interesting and unusual about his analysis is that rather than discussing the issues abstractly, he chooses to tell it in a narrative style, imagining a Kohen who is a tevul yom, someone who has gone to the mikveh and will be pure that night.  This Kohen comes to argue with, and demand a portion from, another Kohen, one who worked that day.   "You may be able to push me away in one type of sacrifice, but I should at least be entitled to a portion in this other type of sacrifice" is his claim.  Th this, the other Kohen responds, "Just like I could push you away in the first case, I can push you away in the second case as well."   The narrative ends with the tamei Kohen being denied any portion and walking away in utter defeat:

Thus the tevul yom departs, with his kal va'chomers on his head, with the onen (one who has just suffered a death) on his right and the mechusar kippurim (one who lacks a korban to end his impurity) on his left.

Analyzing the issues this way certainly brings it to life, and serves as an effective memory aid.  More significantly, it underscores the human dimension here - that a person is being excluded, that it is a debate not about ritual but about property rights, entitlement, and exclusion.   And, in the end, this poor tevul yom, together with his fellow impure Kohanim, are literally pushed away, walking away from the Temple with their heads down, despondent over their exclusion.

The Gemara, however, does not end the discussion there.  For, when Rava had introduced the statement of R. Elazar ben R. Shimon, he said that R. Elazer had told it over in a bathroom!  So, naturally, the Gemara now asks how that was permitted:

Now, how might he [R. Elazar son of R. Simeon] do this? Surely Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in R. Yochanan's name: One may think [about Torah] in all places, except in a bathhouse and a bathroom? - It is different [when it is done] against his will (i.e., involuntarily).

What is the purpose of this discussion here, at the end of this Talmudic section?  While it may be nothing more than a side point, it seems significant that Rava made a point of relating that the original statement was made in a bathroom, and this is how the tradition was remembered.  Again, perhaps this was just to teach us the principle that this was allowed when it is against someone's will, but of course, if the person can't do anything about it, what purpose is served by telling us that it is allowed? 

I believe that the issue around Torah in the bathroom is brought in here to show the stark contrast that exists between the Mikdash as the center of kedusha and Torah as the center of kedusha, that is - between a Temple-based Judaism and a Torah-based Judaism.  When Mikdash is the primary locus of kedusha, access to that kedusha, to the holy, is very limited - the Mikdash is only in one physical space and true access is restricted to a very select group.  Only male Kohanim can enter the inner parts of the  Mikdash, only a male Kohen without a blemish can do the Temple service, and only a Kohen who is not tamei can eat the meat of the sacrifices.  Not only that, our Talmudic passage  teaches that even if a Kohen is just tamei temporarily, and is able to eat that night, then no matter how hard he argues, how hard he tries, and although his state is not his fault, he is nevertheless not entitled to a portion - he is pushed away, and leaves despondent. 

Not so in the case of Torah.  All can access - Kohen or Yisrael, man or women, rich or poor.  Even when attempts are made to push some away - like Hillel who was turned away because he did not have the entrance fee to enter the beit midrash (Yoma 35b), if you are committed and persevere - you will get your portion in Torah and be allowed in.  And, as the Gemara in Berakhot (22a) famously says, being impure is certainly not an obstacle, because "the words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity." 

Torah, unlike Mikdash, is accessible to all, and can be accessed in all places.  There are only 2 places that Torah cannot be learned: a bathhouse and a bathroom.  And then we find out that even in a bathroom, if a person is not to blame and can't control his thinking, it is permissible as well!  Unlike the tevul yom who is pushed away due to no fault of his own, R. Elazar's statement is remembered, accepted and passed down, and he is none to blame for where he thought of them.  Such is the difference between access to Torah and access to Mikdash!

Two final notes: 

(1) R. Elazar not only thought Torah in the bathroom, he actually said the Torah in the bathroom, and presumably formally passed it on while there.  The argument that "he could not control it," is even harder to accept when it comes to verbally articulating his thoughts.  Perhaps it means that he couldn't hold his thoughts in his head, and the only way he could stop thinking about it was to talk about it.  Even so, it is fascinating that we allow this - it would seem to be a serious affront to the words of Torah - and that the teaching remains untainted.   Truly, the words of Torah do not receive impurity!

(2) The tevul yom tried to make his argument and be included through the use of a fortiori arguments, i.e., through Rabbinic hermeneutics.  This was rejected based on verses, and he left with his kal va'chomers on his head.  In the Mikdash, it was the verses that trumped Rabbinic methodology, one that would have allowed for greater inclusion.  Outside the Mikdash, even in the bathroom of R. Elazar, Rabbinic methodology could be learned and used, and it was indeed used to be more inclusive - to allow one who cannot control his thoughts to think - and even teach! - Torah in the bathroom itself.

Happenings At The Yeshiva

Students are beginning to wrap up their halakha learning for the year and move into a serious chazara and test-taking.   This week, years 1 and 2 finished up the rabbinic restrictions of shehiyah and chazara - leaving food on the fire from before Shabbat and returning it to the fire on Shabbat.  Years 3 and 4 covered the topics of tvilat kelim, immersing vessels bought from non-Jews, as well as bishul nakhhri, eating kosher food cooked by non-Jews.  These halakhic areas present both practical challenges -  eating in restaurants or otherwise off of dishes that are not toveled, and eating manufactured food products that are kosher but were produced by non-Jews, for example.  They also present for some conceptual challenges, as they seem to treat everything non-Jewish as bad.  One point that we made in shiur is that these statuses are specifically around food and food-related vessels.  Therefore, they can be seen as an extension of the kashrut model.  Not that it is "bad," just that when it comes to food and everything related to food, the Torah and the Rabbis clearly demarcate between not only kosher food and non-kosher food, but also, and as an extension, between Jewish and non-Jewish food, and between Jewish and non-Jewish eating utensils.

On Monday, Yom HaShoah, we interrupted our morning learning at 12:30 for a special commemoration.  We - the Modern Orthodox community, in contrast to the Charedi community - have chosen to interrupt the joy of the month of Nissan with Yom HaShoah, and this serves as a statement that the tragedy of the Holocaust was so unprecedented that it created a rupture in history and to all normal categories, and thus needs to even create a rupture in the month of Nissan and its previous inviolate status.  In this light, we believed that it was necessary to interrupt our morning seder for this commemoration.  During this commemoration, Beit Midrash student Avram Mlotek led the yeshiva in the singing of Yiddish songs that were written during and survived the Holocaust.  It was a profound moment of connecting back to the world that was, in our hearts and not just in our heads.

Tuesday is a day on which students of each year meet as a group for 1 hour with a Process Group leader to reflect on issues, and to listen to one another, and to learn to be reflective of and to process their own thoughts and feelings and those of others in the group.   This Tuesday, we held a Process Group for the entire yeshiva, mixing students into different groups, and with a group for the rebbeim and staff as well.  After each group met, the whole yeshiva was brought together.  Each group reported on its discussions and there was then a period of yeshiva-wide discussion and reflection.  It was a tremendously uplifting experience, to hear how thoughtful everyone was, how deeply invested in the yeshiva, and - when it came to sharing concerns and challenges - how both students and staff shared the same concerns, and were committed to working together to addressing them.   Yasher Koach to Process Group Leaders Dr. Seth Aronson and Dr. Jill Salberg for initiating this, and to all the Process Group Leaders, and all the students and staff for their full and enthusiastic participation.

This week we also had two special guests.  Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu from Klal's Rabbis Without Borders, was here on Wednesday and had lunch with students who were interested in being involved with this project.  On Thursday, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg was this week's Visiting Scholar and he spoke on the critical topic of: "Toward a Personal Theology of Judaism- What Is the  Jewish Story for the World?". 

Finally, YCT students Andrew Scheer, Daniel Millner, and Aaron Potek left this weekend to Birmingham, AL, to support YCT student Eytan Yammer who is heading Knesseth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox Synagogue of Birmingham.  As I am sure many of you know, Birmingham was hit with several tornados last week, and much of the community  there is without electricity and other basic necessities.  Our students will be helping bring aid to the people of Birmingham, and will be there for Shabbat to bring chizzuk to the Jewish community.