Leviticus A Priesthood of the Imperfect
Parshat Emor begins with a discussion of taboos around priestly purity, forbidding members of the priestly tribe to have contact with the dead or to engage in certain mourning practices. The rabbis read the verses to exclude the situation of a “met mitzvah,” an abandoned corpse, one for whom there is no one else to engage in the rites of burial — in such a case, the priest is permitted to do so. In the same section, the Torah also details marriage restriction for priests. An ordinary “kohen” (“priest”) may marry either a virgin or a widow; the high priest may marry only a virgin.
My dear and much-lamented friend and mentor Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi had a Yiddish joke about this passage, in which a teacher back in the old country was testing his young pupil on the weekly portion.
“Whom may a high priest marry?” he asked the boy. “May a high priest marry a divorcee?”
“No, rabbi, he may not marry a divorcee.”
“Correct,” he said. “May a high priest marry a widow?”
“No, rabbi, he may not marry a widow.”
“Correct again” was the answer. “May a high priest marry a virgin?”
“No, rabbi, he may not marry a virgin.”
“Not marry a virgin? Whom may a high priest marry, then?”
“A met mitzvah, rabbi. He may marry an abandoned corpse.”
The kid is probably young enough that he has no idea what the word “virgin” means, and so focused on memorization that he isn’t even thinking about the absurdity of the answer he has offered. He is just reciting back — and probably failing to understand as well as thoroughly confusing — various categories from his lessons about the High Priest.
My real concern, however, is with the passage in Parshat Emor that immediately follows (Leviticus 21:17-24), with its own extensive categorizations. Here, we have a list of all the various afflictions that might disqualify one from priestly service. Not only must you be male and marry a (female!) virgin and stay away from the dead — you can’t be blind, lame or mutilated in any way. You can’t have a broken leg, a broken arm, a spot in your eye or crushed testicles. You can’t be a hunchback or a dwarf, or suffer from scaly skin.
What a lovely list! God here sounds a bit like a stereotypical Jewish parent who comes with a long set of criteria to prove that “no one is good enough to marry my precious child!” Add to this list the “mamzer” (someone born of a forbidden union), who may never marry anyone except another such unfortunate, and it sounds like hardly anyone would be left.
But maybe that’s the point. If we look hard enough, none of us is really qualified for such a priesthood. Somewhere in your family tree, there’s undoubtedly something to be questioned. Or maybe it’s that teenage acne that left a few scars, or that broken arm that never healed quite perfectly. If none of these fits the bill, how about your sinful thoughts or your wandering eye? Might they be enough to disqualify you from the priesthood?
That, as much as the destruction of the Second Temple, may be precisely why Judaism did not emerge as a priestly religion. By the end of Second Temple times, the priesthood had already moved to a marginal position in Jewish society. Family lineage stopped mattering in the new world of the rabbis, which emphasized instead the chain of teachers and students. The important questions were no longer about proper ancestry or bodily perfection, but about learning and practice, about whom you had chosen as your teachers and models and how much effort you were putting into your own devotional life.
The triumphant cry of rabbinic Judaism was a rejection of the values of priestly purity. “A mamzer who is a wise disciple takes precedence over an ignorant high priest (Talmud Horayot 13a)!” Lineage alone gets you nowhere — it’s what you’ve learned, or the effort you’ve made at learning, that matters. And lest we suspect that the old elite of priesthood was just replaced by a new one of scholars, we remember that these same rabbis taught: “One [does or learns] more, another less — so long as they turn their hearts toward heaven” (Talmud Berakhot 5b).
How far we have strayed from that vision of what it means to be a good Jew — or a good person! Pious families go endlessly poking around in the lineage of potential mates for their children. High-achiever secular Jews expect Ivy League degrees in the same way. We even see ads for dating services that specialize in the “good genes” of highly educated potential mates.
We live in a society addicted to success, to coming as near to perfection as we possibly can. Bodily perfection has also risen to dizzying heights of importance in our self-image and the way we are seen by others. Those endless TV ads about “sculpting” one or another body parts to attain the perfect look are testimony to a deep sickness in the realm of values. If we need to be that beautiful to find a lover, we may begin questioning whether we can ever really be loved by someone who cares that much about our abs, hips or thighs.
What we need now is a priesthood of the imperfect — in which all of us who are “disqualified” in one way or another (which is to say, I’d venture, all of us) accept and embrace our imperfections, learning from each other and teaching each other what we have learned in the course of our lives. Can we all get together and find simple ways to “turn our hearts toward heaven” — and maybe toward one another as well? Who knows what kind of great religion we might create?
Rabbi Arthur Green is the Irving Brudnick Professor of Philosophy and Religion, and rector of the Rabbinical School, at Hebrew College.