Tradition Today: Priestly teachings

There is no contradiction between the basic teachings of the priests and those of the prophets.

Ever since Ahad Ha'am wrote his essay "Kohen v'navi" (Priest and Prophet) it has been taken for granted that of those two types of religious leadership, the prophet stands far superior to the priest in passionate devotion to morality and ethical ideals. Indeed the priests and priestly literature were often maligned by Protestant biblical critics in the 19th century. There may be some truth to Ahad Ha'am's contention, and it is certainly the case that during the days of the Second Temple there were corrupt priests whose devotion to anything except money and position was suspect. Yet it is also true that the sages always made a distinction between individual priests and the teachings of the "true" priests which were highly prized. The great sage Hillel used Aaron - not Moses - as his prototype of the ideal religious leader, teaching: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and drawing them closer to the Torah." Similarly midrash frequently contrasts Moses the prophet with Aaron the priest, favoring Aaron over Moses as the symbol of mercy, while Moses symbolizes harsh justice. This may seem particularly strange when we consider that the sages saw themselves as the spiritual heirs of Moses and the prophets, while their opponents, the Sadducees, were truly the party of the priests. Again it was the ideal priests, the true priests, that the sages lauded, perhaps in contrast to and even as a reproach to the corrupt priests that they encountered. The sages were also aware of the fact that there was no prophecy in their day, whereas the priesthood was very much alive and could be a force for good. It is also important to stress that the teachings of the priests, as we have them in the Book of Leviticus and elsewhere, are hardly lacking in moral passion, even if Leviticus also contains much that is of a purely ritual nature. We should remember that of all the Torah there is no section that is more invested with high morality, with concern for the poor and with social justice, than the so-called holiness code found in Leviticus 19-20. It is there that the verse Hillel and Akiva both singled out as the very foundation of all of Judaism is to be found - "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Psalm 24, the daily psalm of the first day of the week, depicts a dialogue between pilgrims coming to the Temple, and the priestly guardians of the Temple and makes clear the moral requirements of attendance there. (The attribution of this and many other psalms to David is most likely a later addition and need not be taken literally. After all, the Temple did not even exist in his day. The midrash does not hesitate to ascribe it to Solomon!) "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?" ask the pilgrims, seeking permission to go up to the Temple. And the guardians, standing at the gate reply, "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully..." One might have expected some mention of tithing, of the gifts to the priests, or at least of sacrifice - but no: clean hands and a pure heart. It would be equivalent to having someone standing at the door of the synagogue on Rosh Hashana and asking each person not if he has a ticket, but if he has lived an honest and pure life. Only they are worthy of entering God's house. Only for them will be the gates be opened. In truth there is no contradiction between the basic teachings of the priests and those of the prophets. It needed no Amos to teach concern for justice and help to the poor. The priests and their codes taught these as well. It is thoroughly fitting that the Va'ad Halacha (Law Committee) of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly in 1987 concluded its discussion of the possibility of visiting the Temple Mount by requiring all who do so to scrutinize their own deeds and "remember that in ancient days the requirements for entry into the Temple were not those of ritual purity alone but also of moral purity" by reciting the ancient words of Psalm 24 or the even more explicit words of Psalm 15, "Lord, who may sojourn in Your tent, who may dwell on Your holy mountain? He who lives without blame, who does what is right and in his heart acknowledges the truth; whose tongue is not given to evil; who has never done harm to his fellow or borne reproach toward his neighbor; for whom a contemptible man is abhorrent but who honors those who fear the Lord; who stands by his oath even to his own harm; who has never lent money on interest or accepted a bribe against the innocent..." Perhaps these priestly words should be incorporated into the oath taken by every member of the Knesset and all our civil servants. The ideals taught by the priests are every bit as important today as they were in days of old. Clean hands and a pure heart are surely desirable criteria for entering the house of the Knesset as they were for entering the Temple. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.