When the Rabbis divided the Torah into its 54 parashiyot (portions), they generally arranged for each portion to begin with a unique or otherwise significant word that would in some way summarize major themes of the entire section. Such is the case for most of the portions we have studied in Leviticus—until we come to this week's portion, Emor, which means "Say." Say? How many times is that word used in the Torah? What is unique about that word—what could the Rabbis have been thinking?
When we look at the whole first verse of the portion (Leviticus 21:1), however, we see something curious: the word occurs three times in this first sentence: "And Adonai said to Moses: Say to the "priests," kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them." It occurs once in the third person, twice in the second person; once in past tense, once in the imperative, and once in the future. It would appear, then, that one of the reasons the Rabbis began the portion with emor, "say," was to emphasize that this was a portion about speaking.
But what kind of speech? Rashi suggests that the second use of say (emor) is a direct address that Moses is to make to Aaron's sons, and the third, ("You shall say") is an instruction that Aaron's sons are to speak to the next generation. This is a profound statement. It suggests that whatever the parents are told cannot rest with them, but must be carried on to their children, who will, by implication, carry the instruction forward to their children. It may remind us of the ad for the Patek Philippe watch: "You never actually own a Patek Philippe; you merely look after it for the next generation." Rashi as the inspiration for a watch ad—who knew?
What is the Torah that is given to the priests (kohanim) to pass on to their children? That the kohanim must stay away from the dead lest they defile themselves; they may not shave the corners of their beards (pei-ot) or make gashes in their flesh (traditionally taken, perhaps mistakenly, to rule out tattoos). They may not marry prostitutes, divorcees, or widows—only women who are virgins. Any of them with a physical defect (mum, in Hebrew) may not officiate over sacrifices in the Tabernacle, though he may eat of those sacrifices like other priests. The daughter of a priest married to a layman may not eat of these sacrifices unless she is widowed or divorced and childless. The offerings—like the offerer—must be without blemish. An animal may not be sacrificed until it has spent seven days with its mother and may not be offered on the same day as its mother. Sacrifices must be eaten on the same day they are slaughtered, lest they become spoiled.
The restrictions about disfigured priests are unsettling to modern sensibilities: if a priest's disfigurement was seen to distract the offerer from his or her sacrifice, one could argue that there was a lesson to be learned about perceiving the image of God in any physical characteristic. The redeeming element in this passage is that the disfigured priest was not barred from the Temple precincts, but could walk about and take his share of the sacrifices for his own sustenance. He would therefore be noticed by the worshippers, who would have an opportunity to reflect on the lesson that one needed to look past the physical disability to the priestly soul, and the human soul, that lay within.
Have the kohanim followed this Emor instruction to pass these teachings on to the following generations? The laws dealing with sacrifices, of course, have become moot with the Temple destroyed, though by reading the Torah portion every year it appears we are all keeping the teaching alive. But children of kohanim who follow traditional understandings of Torah will to this day refuse to enter a graveyard or marry a widow or a divorcee, in both cases at significant detriment to their own well-being.
The Reform Movement, however, stated early on that these teachings were not to be passed on to subsequent generations1, holding that preserving the sense of one's own ties to the priesthood as a kohein or a Levite was not appropriate to a movement that did not want the Temple rebuilt, and felt that the class distinctions imposed by the Tabernacle in the wilderness did not befit modern egalitarian sensibilities. Neither marriage nor graveyard restrictions have been observed by Reform Jews, nor have the instructions for trimming the corners of one's beard. The Reform Movement has been neutral about tattoos, generally frowning on them for cultural rather than for religious reasons. Even cremation, which is the extreme example of harming one's flesh, has become more and more accepted in the Reform community.
There has, I believe, been a loss in this stance. One could argue that maintaining the distinctions of kohein, Levite, and Israelite ("ordinary" Jews) could have contributed to a fuller sense of one's own identity, tying one to generations of men, and their sons and daughters, who followed the prescriptions of Emor. When my family searched for a kohein to preside over a pidyon habat, a ceremony for "redemption of a firstborn girl,"2 none of the kohanim in our acquaintance wanted to acknowledge their priestly status by officiating—even at an "egalitarian" rite—for a firstborn daughter!
There are other aspects to this portion that do have a bearing on Reform—and all other—Jews. Chapter 23 contains the laws "God's festival celebrations," (mo-adei Adonai), which the people are "enjoined to observe" (asher tik'r'u otam; Leviticus 23:2). This verse, though, can also be read "The set times of Adonai, which you shall proclaim, are holy convocations; they are My set times"—in other words, once you proclaim them, I shall observe them as well." This verse too is preceded by a form of emor: "You shall say to them [the Israelities]." There is one Patek Philippe for the kohanim, but another, equally precious one-for—all the people of Israel—that can be observed by the generations through time since it is not dependent upon a physical structure like the Temple. Included in this list are Shabbat, Pesach, the Omer period of bringing sheaves preceding Shavuot (and speaking of bringing sheaves, one should not reap the corners of one's field—as one should not cut the corners of one's beard—but leave them for the poor), Rosh Hashanah (called a Day of Sounding a Joyful/ Loud Blast), the Day of Atonement, Sukkot, and the Eighth Day after Sukkot (what came to be called Sh'mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah). The order of holidays begins in the spring, with the first month, which we call Nisan.
Finally, the Israelites are instructed (here the word is not "say" but "command"; Leviticus 24:2) to bring pure olive oil, beaten, for a light to be kept burning eternally (ner tamid). Here is a command originally intended for the Tabernacle, throughout the priestly generations, which has transcended that limited place and been observed as an ornament in the synagogue—throughout the generations. Like a fine watch that keeps time eternally, the ner tamid has kept burning eternally, keeping light kindled for all who wish to hear the eternal word of God.
A full discussion of Reform views of the priesthood may be found at http://ccarnet.org/responsa/priestly-levitical-status-reform-judaism/
Rabbi Richard N. Levy recently retired as Rabbi of the Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he continues to teach in the fields of liturgy, spiritual growth, and social justice. He is a past Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the campus and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
In Emor we find the laws concerning ancient priests. As Rabbi Richard Levy noted, the Reform Movement rejected the notion that kohanim and Levites should maintain a special status within Reform ritual practice1 as it insinuates that we desire to return to a sacrificial system.2
Despite this decision, I agree with Rabbi Levy that there are worthy connections to consider between Reform Judaism and kohanim. Where I differ is that I find a metaphorical interpretation more compelling. We live in an age when Reform Jews are reclaiming and reinventing traditions and rituals, such as the use of the mikvah, for moments of transformation and renewal before marriage, Shabbat, and conversion3; and the use of kippot, tallitot, and in some cases tefillin for men and women. Within this climate, there is room to at least consider what the priestly laws might offer us in today's world.
If we examine the list of commandments found in our Torah portion—including retaining the corners of their beards, avoiding gashes, and marrying virgins, to name a few—a theme emerges. Our physical bodies are holy, and if we treat them with respect we might elevate our connection with the Divine. To extend this metaphor, it seems logical that we should consider the modern issues of body image, as well as healthy eating, living, and relationships.
When we do so, we honor the spirit of these ancient laws and indeed pass them along to the next generation. To reference Rabbi Levy's metaphor of handing down a Patek Philippe, we might characterize this interpretation as refashioning a timeless watch into a necklace, bracelet, or abstract sculpture. We can root our efforts in source material, while reshaping it to address our changing environment, moral values, and modern sensibilities.
1. In Orthodox and some Conservative congregations, descendants of Aaron, kohanim, are called first to give a blessing over the Torah, to say grace after meals, and to recite the Priestly Benediction in the synagogue.
3. Michael A. Meyer and David N. Myers, eds., Between Jewish Tradition and Modernity: Rethinking an Old Opposition : Essays in Honor of David Ellenson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014)
Rabbi Jessica Rosenthal serves as the rabbi at Temple B'rith Shalom in Prescott, Arizona.
Emor, Leviticus 21:1–24:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 912–938; Revised Edition, pp. 817–845;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 723–746