The Role of Religious Leaders

Shemini By :  Marc Wolf Posted On Mar 29, 2008 / 5768 | Torah Commentary | Israel

In an email newsletter distributed by the Martin Marty Center Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago, Martin E. Marty, a prominent voice of religion in America, recently commented on a new book about the role of preachers in politics. He noted,

Preachers seldom have had it so good, or so bad, as they have it during the current campaign, as treated not so much by campaigners as by media commentators. So good? The commentators propagate the idea that preachers have enormous and spellbinding power. This implies that if a preacher says something, everyone will hear and, unless restrained, act upon what they heard, for good or evil. (Sightings, March 24, 2008)

While it is true that the pulpit can provide a forum for religious leaders to put forward religiously charged views, Marty’s comment speaks to the heart of an issue that runs much deeper than the political climate in the United States.

It is nearly three weeks since the attack on Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Eight students—mostly teenage boys—were gunned down as they studied Torah within what they thought were the protective walls of their yeshiva. In the wake of this terror, though, prominent religious leaders posted signs around Israel calling for retribution, using language that smacks of religious obligation: “Each and everyone is required to imagine what the enemy is plotting to do to us, and to match it measure for measure” (Haaretz, March 12, 2008). Invoking language that echoes the gruesome end of the Purim story, the proclamation anticipated the time when Jews would rise up against those who wished to do them harm. What makes this even more disturbing is that their statement is rooted in the idea of Da’as Torah—a religious doctrine in the Orthodox world giving rabbis authority in matters well beyond the realm of what we would understand the Torah to address. Plastered on walls and posted without filter, their words incite a response that I cannot accept to be consistent with Judaism.

There is an incongruity here. Their response seems to fly in the face of what we are taught about living ethically and being guided by tradition. We exist to follow God’s will and teach others the meaning of righteousness and compassion, but with this rash reaction we negate our very essence—everything we stand for, everything we preach, everything our ancestors have done.

There is a lesson to be learned in this week’s parashah. After the consecration of the tabernacle and its first days of operation, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring an offering of “strange fire” before God and are killed in a gruesome, unexplainable firestorm. The commentators are very vocal on the potential sin that these two newly ordained priests committed, but the Torah itself is silent and offers no indictment. Baruch Levine, in the JPS Commentary, recognizes that when the text states that they “died before the Lord,” it is not providing a rationale, but a locale: the physical place of their deaths (Lev. 10:2; 59).

Moses, in seeking to offer some words of consolation, approaches Aaron in his grief and states, “This is what the Lord meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people’” (Lev. 10:3). Without even breaking verse, the Torah records that Aaron is silent. There is nothing to say to adequately respond to this senseless violence; terror breeds shock, and when faced with such horror, we are rightfully dumbstruck. But that is not the last we hear from Aaron in the parashah.

Toward the end of our parashah, Moses inquires about the priestly duties. He questions Aaron about the goat of the sin offering, and learns that the priests did not follow their instructions:

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said, “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. (Lev. 10:16-17)

We learn earlier in Leviticus that the priestly class had the right to consume portions of the sacrifices brought before God; however, here we understand that it is not only a right, but an obligation. The remaining sons of Aaron seemingly fail in their duty to the people and to God, and Moses responds with chastisement. What we do not expect is what follows: Aaron’s response to Moses. Incredulous, Aaron questions the effectiveness of his role as a religious leader. If Aaron engaged with the community and partook of the sacrifice as ordered, “would the Lord have approved?” (Lev. 10:19).

At this moment of anguish, how could Aaron and his sons possibly stand in the breach between the people and God? How could they occupy their position of authority? The priests, while continuing to fulfill their role, briefly distance themselves from the people, allowing grief to occupy their souls. Aaron recognizes that he and the other priests are not in the position to pastor to the people. They need their moment of grief. Without it, their response would be filled with anger and not motivated by their responsibility to their people.

Aaron and his sons come to teach us that religious leaders cannot allow anger to drive response. While a position of religious authority has both right and responsibility, one of its greatest responsibilities is to recognize the limits of that authority. Terror demands response. Response demands responsibility.

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