Parashat Emor

Leviticus 21:1–24:23
May 12, 2012 / 20 Iyyar 5772

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Vice Chancellor, JTS.

Who would have thought that holiness could be so regulated? Now weeks into the book of Leviticus, and the section we refer to as the Holiness Code (chapters 17–26), we seem to be overrun with rules and regulations on how to make holiness manifest in the world. There is a complexity and breadth to the system that, as The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus notes, encompasses rules and regulations that teach us much about what Judaism values about a wide range of issues:

. . . proper worship, observance of the Sabbath, and also the avoidance of actions that are taboo, such as mixing planting and consumption of fruit from trees during the first three years after planting. What is less expected in ritual legislation is the emphasis on human relations: respect for parents, concern for the poor and the stranger, prompt payment of wages, justice in all dealings, and honest conduct of business. (257, excursus 6)

As much as we learn about ritual practice, the search for holiness, and Jewish belief from the litany of rules that unfold in these chapters within the Holiness Code, from the exceptions to those rules we can begin to understand how Judaism negotiates conflicting values. Sometimes, it is the exception to the rule that offers the deepest insight.

The rules related to the kohanim, the priests, are more stringent than for the rest of Israel. For all of Israel, contact with a corpse makes one ritually tameh, unprepared for service. While we bury our dead and accept the status that comes along with it, the kohanim are prohibited from becoming ritually tameh through contact with a dead body. We learn this value—of protecting the sacred—from the rules already established in the Holiness Code. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler write in The Jewish Study Bible, "The sacred, which belongs to the divine sphere and has been 'saturated' with holiness is vulnerable to attack; it is subject to desecration if it is not kept apart from impurity, disqualifying imperfections, and unauthorized contact or use" (258). The kohanim themselves must be protected from desecration, and thus are generally prohibited from coming into contact with a dead body. However, at the beginning of Parashat Emor, we encounter an exception to the rule that introduces competing values around loss, mourning, and community:

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. (21:1–3)

Allowing—or better yet, mandating—that kohanim personally handle their immediate deceased relatives and become ritually unfit for a period of time teaches us that when presented with the conflicting values of the individual and community, the family responsibility trumps the communal. The text is asking how we can expect the kohen to properly execute his duties when faced with the loss of someone dear to him. We cannot. It is simply impossible to assume that the leaders of people can adequately grieve and fulfill their community responsibilities at the same time. We must give them space to mourn, and what we know to be the rule on the books has an exception.

This translates to the contemporary Jewish experience as well. How do we comfort our comforters? Our clergy—rabbis and cantors—and Jewish educators must be granted—and make—a similar distance from their communal duties to mourn. Trained and taught to be present for those grieving in their communities, many of our Jewish leaders find it difficult to take that space—and some communities sometimes find it difficult to grant it. But this exception to our Holiness Code is one that has definite practical applications to our communities.

This tension—and the exceptions developed because of it—between the conflicting values of the individual and the community has other examples in the rules of mourning. Shiv'ah—the seven-day mourning period we observe for the deaths of our nearest—is a time when the community and the individual come together to comfort and grieve. The rules that provide the framework for that grief and consolation are one of the greatest gifts the rabbis have given the Jewish community. The psychological journey that begins shortly before death and continues through the mourning process of seven-day, 30-day, 11-month, and then annual rituals is carefully crafted to bring both the individual and the community into a relationship designed to move the mourner through stages of grief into consolation.

For those with the unfortunate experience of having been welcomed into the community of mourners and moving through these stages, the rules generally provide great comfort and support. However, as with the kohanim, there is an exception to the rule.

When sitting shiv'ah during the week when a Jewish holiday occurs, when that holiday comes, shiv'ah ends—whether or not the entire seven-day period has been observed. If someone were to bury a loved one on the day that Passover begins, for example, "shiv'ah" could be an hour or two. More strikingly, if a loved one is buried during the intermediate days of the holidays of Sukkot or Passover, the exception to the rule is that there is no shiv'ah. Many who have encountered this exception to the rule feel the psychological slap in the face when their grief is not given the space to be consoled. In this case, the tension between the values of the individual and the community play out differently. With our kohanim, we learn that the individual grief is emphasized more than the communal responsibility. The Babylonian Talmud, when discussing the case of ending shiv'ah for a holiday in Mo'ed Katan (14b), declares that the communal simhah—the joy—of the holiday is the value that reigns.

I have great difficulty with this exception, and try to understand it from two points of view. First, from the communal point of view, we can imagine how it might be difficult to expect the community to be able to be fully present for the mourner when focused on simhah. If the mourning rituals have two parties—the grieving and the consoling—then we might actually do a disservice to the mourner and increase his or her grief if the community cannot adequately console. Second, from the point of view of the mourner, often the Torah asks us to take a broader view and see things from the perspective of the community. The exception to this rule is asking each individual mourner to recognize that he or she is a member of the greater community, and to enter that community even though the observance of the holiday could never be a full celebration of it.

I have yet to come to terms with this exception—but learn this week that Judaism negotiates its conflicting tensions through the rules we observe and the exceptions that give us insight into the values we live and have passed on to our children for generations.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.