Many years ago, a celebrated Italian academic, Umberto Eco, wrote a curious satire of the publishing world. It was a series of harsh reviews of famous books, written in the style of modern editorial boards.
The one of the Bible went this way: “I must say that, when I began reading the manuscript, I thought the author really got it. Even if it is not clear who he is, and this might be a problem in terms of copyright, he managed to put together a plot that has everything the average reader loves to read: a lot of sex, violence, war, adultery, massacres… But after some hundreds of pages I realized that this is not a book, it is rather an anthology, collected by an unknown editor; the text itself is repetitive, obscure, sometimes even openly misogynistic, with more than one unresolved contradiction. Plus there are several long lists of weird names and places never heard before, dry accounts of some obscure journey, which are frankly boring. I am inclined not to publish this manuscript.”1
Parashat Emor seems to be a good case in point for that fictitious reviewer. It includes an account of a stoning for blasphemy, ordered by God to Moses – which is morally troubling. Speaking of contradictions, such an episode is followed by the prescription of death penalty for the murderers. Moreover, large part of the parasha is devoted to the Kohanim, the priests: to the restrictions and obligations concerning their ritual purity.
This might be just difficult to understand for that fictitious reviewer. But to us, modern, emancipated Jews, it is theologically and morally problematic. The “Founding Fathers” of American Reform Judaism, in the Philadelphia Conference of 1869 proclaimed that: “The priestly service of the Aaronites and the Mosaic sacrificial cult were only preparatory steps for the true priestly service of the whole people. . . . Any distinction between Aaronite and non Aaronite in relation to religious rights and obligations has therefore become inadmissible, both in ritual and in life.”2
The religious profile of Reform Judaism is much changed since 1869, but we still feel committed to the intellectual integrity expressed in those words. Far be it from us to forbid to Mr Cohen to cross the gates of the cemetery, or to refuse to celebrate his son’s marriage with a divorcee. We work to build and maintain inclusive and egalitarian communities, and we certainly cannot accept in our midst the presence of a privileged caste, a social group whose members, as parashat Emor states, have to marry a virgin, or can be defiled for being close to a dead person (Lev. 21:13, 21:1). All of this is not part of our world.
Or is it? Truth be said, in our society there are modern equivalents of Kohanim. In Biblical times, Kohanim oversaw the Temple, were in charge of the sacrifices, handled the holy utensils and vessels. They took care of what kept the Jewish people together, the centre of Jewish life.
Our society too has a centre, even if is not holy. Our society has a political and an economic life: power and money are present in our social life, even if we take particular care not to name them in educated conversations (another modern equivalent of a commandment – “not to mention the Holy Name in vain” [Exod. 20:7]).
Those who are in places of political, or financial responsibility, can be considered the modern equivalent of Kohanim. As in Orthodox synagogues, they are given places of honour, during public occasions. Some of the rules concerning the Kohanim might not be applicable to modern day politicians and bankers: at least they can marry a divorcee. But their marriage choices are definitely under public scrutiny, and so is their participation in family rituals, like funerals. We like to think that in modern, democratic societies, being part of an elite has to do only with personal qualities, it is not a right inherited at birth. But it’s hard to deny that being born in the proper family helps your career.
Scholars maintain that before the book of Leviticus was included in the Torah, the laws concerning priesthood were handed down orally from one priestly generation to another. This passage from oral to writing is nothing short of revolutionary. Because when these rules are written, they might become public, and members of that elite become accountable. From a certain moment on, whoever has read that book can judge if the members of the elite are behaving properly or not. If they are following the rules for the sake of the society, or if they are just exploiting the honours and the benefits that are given to members of any elite — political and financial ones included.
Like the Kohanim, politicians and bankers have to be very careful when they deal with death. Whoever holds financial and political power can take decisions in matters of life and death — quite literally. Whoever is in touch with death, finds himself defiled.
The first part of parashat Emor teaches that this is a risk, a danger, to which persons who hold responsibilities are especially exposed. Defiled, contaminated, are indeed those politicians, and those bankers, who deal with murderous tyrants, whether the dictators who are falling nowadays, or those tyrants who, hopefully, eventually, will fall.
In the past weeks many of us felt horror and abhorrence in learning of the huge amount of money that British Universities had received from Middle Eastern autocracies. Probably this explains why the right of self-determination of the Jewish people, Zionism, is so unpopular in the same Universities, and in sophisticated circles that are so benevolent with every other form of self-determination.
Members of the modern elites who have allowed, and benefited from, these financial operations, are surely responsible for mismanagement, for the standards of the general society. But, out of the reading of parashat Emor, out of the rules of purity observed by the ancient Biblical priests, we charge them with defilement: for having been close to corpses, for having handled contaminated money. Often that same money came from the depredated Jewish communities of the Middle East, which once had flourished, and then were deprived of their goods, and often of their lives.
The refugees from these communities come under the spotlight of the media less often than other Middle Eastern refugees, like the Palestinians, so the fictitious reviewer invented by Umberto Eco is allowed not to take notice. He was inclined not to publish the Bible, and surely he failed to appreciate why parashat Emor begins with the rules of purity — to be observed by the Kohanim — and why it ends with a law against murder, a law that has to be observed by all the people, without exception (Lev. 24:17).
We, however, are not allowed to ignore this.
1 Umberto Eco, Dolenti declinare. Rapporti di lettura all’editore, in Diario Minimo, Bompiani, 1966, p. 147 [my translation].
2 The Reform Judaism Reader: North American Documents, compiled by Michael A. Meyer and W. Gunther Plaut, New York, UAHC Press, 2001, p. 196.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.