Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ethnocentrism vs. Striving for Holiness: Lessons from Parashat Emor

   Are we better than everyone else?  So often in Jewish contexts, we refer to ourselves as “chosen,” “a light unto the nations,” or “a holy people, set apart.”  But often, as English speakers or as folks not listening carefully enough, we miss important nuances in our Hebrew texts.  We are now in the middle of Leviticus, the book of the Bible that most intensely focuses on holiness.  In last week’s portion,
parashat Kedoshim we are told, “you shall be a holy people.”  In this week’s portion, parashat Emor, we are given on instructions on how the priestly class should attain the holiness needed for their work.  We learn in the following in Leviticus 21:6, and in Rashi’s commentary:

21:6. They [the priests] shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their God's Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food offering of their God, so they shall be holy.
ו. קְדשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם כִּי אֶת אִשֵּׁי יְהֹוָה לֶחֶם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֵם מַקְרִיבִם וְהָיוּ קֹדֶשׁ:
RASHI: They shall be holy: [Since Scripture does not state “They are holy,” but rather “They shall be holy,” it means that if kohanim wish to defile themselves over the dead and thereby desecrate their holiness]-against their will, the court must [prevent them from doing so, and thereby] sanctify them in this respect. — [Mizrachi; Torath Kohanim 21:13]
קדשים יהיו: על כרחם יקדישום בית דין בכך:
Taken from chabad.org

The Children of Israel and our priestly leaders are not inherently holy -- we are commanded to act in accordance with Law in order to attain holiness and illumine the world.  Holiness, specialness, luminescence are not gifts of birth; they are hard won attributes gained through a life of mitzvot.  We all have the choice to live a life of integrity and purity or to choose a path of defilement and shame.  Our choices not only affect our lives, but the entire moral identity of our people.  It is for that reason that Rashi teaches us that the (non-priestly) rabbinical courts are responsible for guiding the priests toward a life in accordance with the Divine Will and ritual purity.

It is not a coincidence that last week’s Torah portion is paired with a very strongly worded hafatarah from the Book of Amos.  In Amos 9:7-8, God has strong words for a Jewish community that believed it was inherently special and beyond rebuke:

ז  הֲלוֹא כִבְנֵי כֻשִׁיִּים אַתֶּם לִי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְאֻם-יְהוָה:  הֲלוֹא אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וּפְלִשְׁתִּיִּים מִכַּפְתּוֹר, וַאֲרָם מִקִּיר.
7 Are you not like the Ethiopians, O children of Israel? said the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?
ח  הִנֵּה עֵינֵי אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, בַּמַּמְלָכָה הַחַטָּאָה, וְהִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֹתָהּ, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:  אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא הַשְׁמֵיד אַשְׁמִיד אֶת-בֵּית יַעֲקֹב--נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
8 Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from off the face of the earth; saving that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, saith the LORD.

Many peoples, God says, I have redeemed from slavery.  They are all my children, and they have all had their exoduses.  If you sin, you shall be punished.  If you correct your ways, you will be taken back in love.  This is the human journey, and in my Divine Court, you do not stand on any pedestal.

As Jews, we are a people drawn together by a common mission to achieve holiness, not a people connected by the foolish belief that we are beyond frailty.  When we fall into the trap of ethnocentrism, we not only sin against our fellow human beings, but we also instantly betray our foundational mission.  We must always remember our responsibility to imitate God’s ways -- and to remind ourselves constantly -- we are not yet there.