Finding Sanctity in Community

Emor By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 17, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary

In Judaism certain religious acts require a minyan. We do not chant from the Torah scroll or recite a haftara without a quorum. For a cantor to lead services that include the recitation of the blessing barkhu or the kedusha in the amida or a mourner’s kaddish likewise needs the presence of a minyan. So does a wedding. Moments of peak sanctity call for community. We attain a sense of God’s concern by entering a space filled with kindred souls. In public worship, Jews past and present are united to in fuse us with the spiritual power to reach for the transcendent.

The Rabbis interpret a verse in this week’s parasha to ground that basic Jewish principle in the text of the Torah. At the end of a section dealing with prescriptions for the Tabernacle, God tells Moses: “You shall not profane My holy name that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people (Leviticus 22:32).” The verse seems to imply that the sanctification of God must take place in the public eye and not in the privacy of one’s home or heart. Rav Ada bar Ahava makes the implicit explicit: How do we know that the individual Jew is not to recite the kedusha on his own? Because the Torah stresses “that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people.” (In Hebrew kedusha and ve–nikdashti both come from the same root kaddesh –– to sanctify.) And elsewhere in the Torah, the same word midst (tokh) appears when God tells Moses to distance himself from the rebellious party of Korah: “Stand back from this (mi–tokh) community (ha–eda) that I may annihilate them in an instant (Numbers 16:21).” Hence in both verses where the word tokh is present, we are dealing with an assembly of people.

Why specifically ten and not, say, twenty–five (Korah’s group numbered 250)? Because the word eda, community, is explicitly associated with the number ten in a verse from the story of the twelve spies. God is exasperated with the negative report of the land of Canaan given by ten of them (excluding Joshua and Caleb) and says to Moses: “How much longer shall that wicked community (ha–eda) keep muttering against Me (Numbers 14:26)?” At last we have a correlation that establishes the word eda, community, as signifying the number ten. If A=B=C, then A must also equal C. Thus the passage from the spy story defines the size of eda in the camp of Korah, which in turn, through the word tokh (midst) limits kedusha in any passage to a congregation of ten.

While all these equivalences may sound a bit pedantic and trivial to the modern ear, it is a wonderful example of the precision with which the Rabbis read the Torah. Since the basic thrust of Judaism is to express its religious impulse and sensibility in legal norms and institutions, the Rabbis treated the Torah as a legal text, subject to constant perusal and reinterpretation. As with the American Constitution, momentous issues often hang on the reading of a few words.

And yet the Rabbis are not utterly arbitrary in their exegetical effort to link the sacred to a communal setting, that is, injecting an alien value into an ancient text, thereby doing violence to is original meaning and intent. In our parasha, there is an echo of community as the dominant vehicle for expression of holiness which hinges on how we understand the enigmatic term for holy days, mikra’e kodesh, which the new Jewish Publication Society translation renders as “the sacred occasions” but the old JPS translation (preserved in the Hertz Humash) as “holy convocations (Leviticus 23:4).” I can still hear the discussion on this disputed point between Gerson Cohen and George Steiner in the Seminary elevator (interminably slow but conducive for good conversation) in 1985 when the cosmopolitan Steiner came to deliver his faintly anti–Zionist address “Our Homeland, the Text.”

At issue is whether the book of Leviticus, in describing Israel’s holy days as mikra’e kodesh intends to stress the attribute of time or space. I prefer the older translation which follows the commentary of Nachmanides (13th century) because it envisions assemblies of people gathered to celebrate the festival in community. I find the translation of “sacred occasions” adding little that is not already there in the designation moade Ha–Shem, “My fixed times.” Thus the festivals stipulated in this rendition of the priestly calendar are occasions to reinforce a sense of community, as indeed the three pilgrimage festivals were designed to do. Even as community intensifies our experience of the holy, sacred days deepens the bonds of family and community. The interplay of time and space, calendar and community, communal worship and religious experience is exquisite.

It is not for nothing that in the liturgy for Passover, Shavuot and Succot we repeatedly invoke God as the One Who sanctifies certain times of the year more than others. Calendar is the seedbed for community. As Jews we do not seek God in the self–absorption of our aloneness, but rather by losing our selves in the embrace of a “holy convocation.”

At the beginning of every morning service as we enter the synagogue we intone softly a few magnificently appropriate verses from the Torah. Among them, one gives voice to our hope that this might be the right moment to draw near to God: “I pray that this be an acceptable time for my prayer, O God (Psalms 69:14).” The Talmud asks: “What constitutes an acceptable time? The moment a congregation is assembled for prayer.” Judaism posits a strong preference for communal prayer. God does not make light of the fervent prayers of many Jews uttered in unison.

This is both what Judaism has to offer and teach our confused and self–indulgent age. “Blessed are they who dwell in your house (Psalms l45:1).” The circuitous path to God leads away from the constricted focus on the self through the expansive world of the other. When we find renewal in the synagogue, we will have gained access to Judaism’s greatest boon — this–worldly–salvation.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Emor are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.