Kehunah and Kedushah

The Priestly Role

July 11, 2012
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The following article was written to commemorate the second yahrtzeit of Marc Weinberg z”l, whom Rabbi Sacks described as "one of the outstanding leaders of his generation" whose "vision, faith, passion and compassion drew people to him, and he drew the best from them. In a short life he wrote a long chapter in the story of our people in our time. He will be deeply mourned and long remembered."


Marc Weinberg, of blessed memory, had Jewish responsibility written into the very fibre of his being. Almost as if he sensed that his life would be all too short, he crammed a week into a day, a day into an hour, and did as a young man more to change, lift and inspire the lives around him than most of us will ever know, however long we live.

As a youth leader, a student, a teacher and a builder of communities he took time with people, taught them, counselled them, gently but firmly guided them, and showed them possibilities within themselves that they had never known. He inspired admiration and more than that: love.

His fate was a devastating tragedy. Young, brilliant, gifted, with a devoted wife and two beautiful young children, Marc was diagnosed with leukaemia. For two and a half years, helped by advanced medical technology and lifted by the prayers of friends, he fought with all his strength against the civil war taking place within his body. In the end it was all too much, and he died still young.

At his funeral there were more than a thousand mourners, many of them his age or younger. Through their tears I saw the difference he had made to their lives. Each of them had a story to tell of how he had helped them, befriended them when they were lonely, lifted them when they were suffering some personal crisis, and each of those blessings had given rise to others in turn, in a series of ever-widening ripples of good.

We wept that day. I believe God wept too. 

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the Nobel prize winning writer, once speculated that Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, speaks not about human death but about Divine life, as if it were our way of offering comfort to God for the loss of one of His children. Mortality is written into the human condition, but so too is the possibility of immortality, in the good we do that continues, long after we are here, to beget further good. There are lives that defeat death and redeem existence from tragedy. We knew, that day, that in Marc we had known one of them.

Marc was a kohen. In this essay I have set out a philosophy of kehunah within the total structure of Judaism. It is dedicated to his memory.

Prophet, Priest and King

There are individual voices in Tanach. But Torah, the Mosaic books, represent not the voice or voices of human beings, but the word of God. Even so, God reveals himself in more than one way. He is the God of creation, who spoke and brought the universe into being. He is the God of redemption, who brought the Israelites out of slavery and led them across the wilderness to the Promised Land. And he is the God of revelation, who gave the Israelites the commandments, the laws through which they could become not just a nation but an exemplary one, and not just a phenomenon of history but – insofar as is possible within the human frame – a people of eternity.

Creation, revelation and redemption are three different activities that require different frames of understanding. And so indeed we find. There is, in Torah specifically and Tanach generally, a creation voice, a revelation voice, and a redemption voice. They correspond to the three categories of leadership in biblical times: king, priest and prophet.

The king sees God in creation. Political leadership takes place in the world that is, not the world that ought to be. A king leads the people into battles with opponents who may not, almost certainly do not, share his faith, his history, his moral commitments. A king has to lead a nation that has heroes and villains, saints and sinners, rich and poor, people who hold high office and those who are at the very margins of society. To do this requires wisdom, chokhmah. The biblical voice that corresponds to the king and to the political dimension of human life is the voice of wisdom. Its purest expression comes in the biblical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, but it is a strand in Torah also.

The prophet sees God in redemption, in vast movements of history like the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent fate of the Israelites once they crossed the Jordan and began their life as a nation in their own land. The prophet is equally sensitive to the way individuals relate to one another and to the moral tone of society as a whole. He (or she: the role of prophet is the leadership role most accessible to women in the biblical era) lives among the people. Doing so, the prophet is closer to understanding the state of the nation than either the king or the priest, both of whom belong to an elite, the former to an elite of power, the latter to the elite of organised religion. The prophet knows that the fate of the nation is tied to its morals and morale. His is an unusual role – in but not of society, an insider and outsider at once – and the prophetic voice is one of Judaism’s great gifts to the religious heritage of humankind.

The priest sees God in revelation: in God’s word and will, His command. The task of the priest is to ensure that God’s will is done. He is an expert, a teacher, and a judge. Above all, however, he is a tender of holy spaces and holy times. The word “holy,” analysed in greater detail below, means “dedicated wholly to God.” Ideally the people of Israel would be just that. But they must also live in the empirical world of creation and redemption, the world of politics and ethics, each of which means dealing with secular or profane activities. So “the holy” in Judaism has its specific domains. God is everywhere always, but He is not always apparent to finite, physical beings. Secularity is opaque to the Divine presence. So from a human perspective holiness occupies some of the time, not all of it; a specific place, the Tabernacle or Temple, not everywhere; and a section of the people, not everyone. Originally, the Torah tells us, this was to have been the firstborn males, but eventually the role was transferred to the tribe of Levi and to a subgroup within the tribe, the family of Moses’ brother Aaron.

These are not watertight categories. Moses, for example, was both prophet and (functionally at least) a king. Ezekiel was both prophet and priest. Nor are these the only voices, but they are the primary ones. Each is a voice of God to His people and through them to humanity. The effect of combining them in the five Mosaic books yields a text that is sui generis, unique, with no counterpart elsewhere even in Tanach itself. This is how the Torah, in itself, points to something beyond itself, a vast Presence that created the stars and shapes the destiny of nations, that sometimes reveals itself through the history-changing events called miracles, and at other times in the gentle whisper of revelation, the sound that Abraham heard at the beginning of his journey and that summoned Moses at the burning bush.

The shifts of style, the changes of voice, sometimes even the seeming conflicts and contradictions, are there for a reason, namely to hint at a larger reality that goes beyond the human tendency to view things as they seem to me, here, now. The multiple voices of the Torah, combined in a single text, bespeak a larger unity that embraces them all. This technique is so subtle that it can easily be missed or misinterpreted by those who fail to understand its point, which is to reveal as much as can be revealed of the ways of God to humankind.

The Priestly Voice

Vayikra is a book written almost entirely in the priestly voice, and therefore it uses concepts that we do not find in anything like the same measure in the wisdom or prophetic voices. The key verbs for the cohen, the priest, are lehorot, to teach, instruct, deliver a judgment, make a ruling, and more generally to guide, and lehavdil, to distinguish, separate, divide. Among the most important words in the priestly vocabulary are kodesh and chol, holy and common, secular, everyday; and tahor and tamei, pure and impure, that is to say, a state that allows access to the holy and one that debars it.

These are difficult terms because they belong to areas of existence that stand outside our normal categories for engaging with the world. Sacred space and sacred time are as fraught with paradox as some of the most counterintuitive elements of modern physics: relativity, quantum mechanics, antimatter, black holes and the rest. The holy is not straightforward, commonsensical, prosaic. It is the paradoxical and dangerous meeting of finite space with infinity, quotidian time with eternity.

The task of the cohen was to keep the divine Presence in the heart of the Israelite camp. The people were to remember, every day, that God was in their midst. This had less to do with God than with the Israelites. God is everywhere at every time, but not always are we conscious of Him. Adam and Eve in Eden believed that they could hide. The continuing drama in Tanach is of God’s attention and human inattention. God is there but we forget that He is there. God cares about humanity. Humanity does not always care about God.

The critical moment for the Israelites came with the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses was on the mountain. The people, leaderless, devised their own surrogate, a moment that threatened to bring about their destruction. A people need some physical symbol of God’s presence if they are not to devise further substitutes like the Calf. Hence the Tabernacle and its daily service – so, at any rate, according to many commentators.

So the priests, assisted by the Levites, ministered to God in the Tabernacle, offering sacrifices on behalf of the community and its individuals, instructing them on matters of law, ensuring that they kept the strict regulations that governed entry to the tabernacle, and preserving the specific relationship between the people and God.

The task of the priest is what Max Weber called the routinisation of charisma. The priest takes the fire of God, the high drama of sacrificial love, and the awe of the divine Presence – life-changing experiences – and turns them into daily rituals so that they become not rare and exceptional events but routines that shape the character of a nation, forming the text and texture of its collective life. From a romantic perspective, the priest takes poetry and turns it into prose.

But from another perspective that sees how thin is the veneer of civilisation, and how dark are the undercurrents of the unconscious mind, the priest takes prose and etches it with poetry and the drama of the encounter with the Divine.

The Idea of the Holy

Holiness – kedushah – is a key concept of the book of Vayikra. The root k-d-sh appears 152 times. It appears only once in Genesis, 16 times in the non-priestly parts of Exodus (chs. 1- 24), and 15 times in Deuteronomy. Its use is overwhelmingly concentrated in those parts of the Mosaic books that speak in the priestly voice. The priest is a holy person performing holy acts in the holy place. But what does the word mean?

At the most prosaic level, k-d-sh means “to dedicate, to set aside, to designate for a particular purpose.” A marriage is called kiddushin in Hebrew, meaning that a woman has been dedicated to this particular man in an exclusive relationship. When God sanctifies the Jewish people to become “a holy nation” it has the same connotation as in marriage, that is, the people are designated by God to be exclusively His, to worship Him alone. Monotheism is like monogamy, a one-to-one relationship between a people and God.

However, the term clearly means more than this. In his famous book, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto called holiness the mysterium tremendans et fascinans, the sense at once frightening and enthralling of the great mystery of the infinite.[1] The holy is that in the presence of which one feels awe. By contrast, Eliezer Berkovits argued that in Judaism the holiness of God means also the closeness of God. God the infinite is also God the intimate.[2]

In an early article, ‘Sacred and Profane,’ Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik spoke of holiness as at-homeness in space and time. The Jew who is at home in sacred space (kedushat makom) finds God everywhere. The one who is at home in sacred time (kedushat zeman) finds God in all times, in the distant past and dimly glimpsed future.[3] For Rav Kook the holy was that dimension within which all things found their unity within the unity of God and His infinite light. The secular is the world of separation, division and conflict. To ascend to the holy is to see each object, person, discipline, perspective as a part of the whole, with its own integrity in the scheme of things. Therefore all things secular can in principle be sanctified once we place them in the service of God, the unity that gives light and life to all.[4]

Beneath each of these is a deeper phenomenon, to understand which we must turn to the two focal points of holiness in the Torah. The first is the Sabbath, the seventh day of Creation:

Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

The essence of Shabbat is that it is a day of not-doing, a cessation, a stopping-point, a pause, an absence of activity. In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, this is the reason given for the Israelites to do likewise: “ Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Ex. 20:8-11)" The Sabbath is empty time.

The second key instance of the holy is the Mikdash, the Tabernacle or Temple. The primary nature of the Mikdash is that it defined a certain space. The Tabernacle was a structure of poles and drapes marking out certain areas with different degrees of holiness. Although the Tabernacle had furnishings, it was a defined space that contained little. The Holy of Holies contained only the ark holding the tablets of stone, and its covering on which were the figures of the cherubim. The sanctuary was, predominantly, empty space.

What is the connection between holiness and emptiness? The most suggestive answer is to be found in Jewish mysticism, specifically the kabbalistic doctrine associated with the school of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria. For the mystic, the invisible is real, the visible unreal, a mere mask hiding the Divine. The rationalist sees the universe and wonders whether God exists. The mystic sees God and wonders whether the universe exists. How are we to reconcile the existence of an infinite, omniscient and omnipotent God and a finite universe in which humans have physical existence and freewill? Surely at every point the Infinite must crowd out the finite. How can a universe exist at all?

The answer given by the kabbalists is that it exists because of Divine self- effacement, tzimtzum. God conceals himself, as it were, to allow the emergence of a universe in the space left by his self-limitation. “Truly,” says Isaiah, “you are a God who hides himself.” Although Jewish mysticism is a post-biblical phenomenon, there is a basic insight here that accurately describes what is happening in the Torah’s account of creation. Human freedom especially exists because of Divine self- limitation. So Adam and Eve find that they are able to sin, and Cain even to commit murder, without God stepping in to intervene. Through voluntary self-restraint, God makes space for man.

But there is a problem here, and it haunts the Bible’s narrative. What is the difference between a hidden God and no God? The very existence of the universe testifies to a concealment on the part of God. The word olam, “universe,” is semantically linked to ne’elam, “hidden.” That is the Divine dilemma. If God were always visible humans could not exist at all. “No one can see me and live,” says God. “If we continue to hear the voice of God we will die” say the Israelites at Sinai. But if God is always invisible, hidden, imperceptible, then what difference does His existence make? It will be as if He were not there.

The answer to this dilemma is holiness. Holiness represents those points in space and time where God becomes vivid, tangible, a felt Presence. Holiness is a break in the self-sufficiency of the material world, where infinity enters space and eternity enters time. In relation to time it is the Sabbath. In relation to space it is the Tabernacle. These are the epicenters of the sacred.

We can now understand what makes them holy. The Sabbath is the time when humans cease, for a day, to be creators and become conscious of themselves as creations. The Tabernacle is the space in which humans cease to be masters – “fill the earth and subdue it” – and become servants. Just as God had to practice self-restraint to make space for the finite, so human beings have to practice self-restraint to make space for the Infinite. The holy, in short, is where human beings renounce their independence and self- sufficiency, the very things that are the mark of their humanity, and for a moment acknowledge their utter dependence on He who spoke and brought the universe into being.

The universe is the space God makes for man. The holy is the space man makes for God. The secular is the emptiness created by God to be filled by a finite universe. The holy is the emptiness in time and space vacated by humans so that it can be filled by the infinite presence of God.

The opposite of kodesh, the holy, in biblical Hebrew is cholChol means “empty.” Chillel means “to violate, desecrate, profane.” Challal means “hollow, a void, empty space.” It also means “dead, slain, bereft of life.” Hence the paradox: space or time that is unholy is full of finitude and therefore empty of the Divine. Space or time that is holy is empty of human devices and desires, and into this emptiness comes the Divine presence, the glory of God. We make space for God in the same way that God makes space for us, by tzimtzum, self-effacement, self-renunciation.

The most precious thing people can offer to God is their freedom, their will. God does not ask this of everyone, all the time, for were He to do so He would frustrate the very purpose of the creation of humankind. Instead He asks it of some of the people, in differential ways. He asks it of one people, the Israelites; one land, the land of Israel; one day, the Sabbath; and one place, the Sanctuary. Within the people are a tribe, the Levites, and within them an inner group, the cohanim, whose lives are given over to the holy. These constitute breaks in the fabric of finitude, windows through which an infinite light flows into the world.

That light can be dangerous. Stare too long at sunlight and you go blind. The energy pent up in the holy is like antimatter. Without careful guarding it is destructive, as the deaths of Nadav and Avihu on the day the Tabernacle was consecrated showed. The holy needs to be protected, guarded, insulated almost like nuclear energy. The priests are the guardians of the sacred, and must themselves be kept as far as possible from the ordinary, the mundane, the mortal; above all from death.

That is the holy, the point at which humans temporarily renounce their creativity and freedom in order to allow the creativity and freedom of God to be sensed – to cast off, as it were, their cloak of concealment and become palpable, tangible. The priests inhabit this liminal space, the point midway between the Infinite and finite, the holy and the everyday. They are to Israel what Israel is to humanity, a signal of transcendence, representatives of God to humanity and humanity to God.

The holy, then, is a time or space that in itself testifies to the existence of something beyond itself. The Sabbath points to a time beyond time: to creation. The Tabernacle points to a space beyond space. As King Solomon said at the dedication of the Temple: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8: 27).

The Israelites point, by their very history, to a power more than merely human: “Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? . . . Has any God ever tried to take for Himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (Deut. 4:32-34).

The holy is where transcendence becomes immanence, where within the universe we encounter the presence of the One beyond the universe. That was the task of the cohen within the Jewish people. It remains the task of the Jewish people in the world.

[1] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: an Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

[2]“The Concept of Holiness”, in Eliezer Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism, Jerusalem, Shalem Press, 2002, 247-314.

[3] “Sacred and Profane,” in Joseph Epstein (ed.), Shiurei HaRav: A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, New York, Ktav, 1994, 4-34.

[4] Rabbi Abraham Kook, Orot HaKodesh, 3 vols., Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1985.