The Spirit of Jewish Leadership
Two themes in this week’s Torah portion strike me with particular urgency and force: how Israelites should mourn the dead, and the qualifications required for the priesthood. These themes are important in any time or circumstance, and especially so in the wake of a tragedy such as the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Our commentators have of course had a lot to say about both of these matters over the centuries, and my colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary and I focus on them quite a bit as well—and, in particular, on the relationship between the two. For JTS prepares religious and spiritual leaders for the community of Israel, a major task for whom—carrying forward the work of the ancient priesthood—is to help individuals and families deal with illness, bereavement, and death. Our future rabbis are now required to undergo rigorous training in Clinical Pastoral Education. I want to explain why by reflecting on the directions for confronting loss and training clergy that Parashat Emor provides.
Let’s begin, as the Torah does, with mourning. The priest is not to “defile himself” by coming close to death, the Torah commands, except for deceased parents, children, and siblings. (Lev. 21:2). He is not to shave his head, gash his flesh, or trim the “side-growth” of his beard. The priest was to function as a kind of life force to the community: an arbiter and source of purity. Death, in the absence of these regulations, might have become a major preoccupation for Israelite priests, as it was for priests of other religions. It threatened to shatter the sacred order that priests were meant to build and protect.
One can’t help but ponder the implications of these verses for Jews who are not priests or ancient Israelites (and perhaps for people who are not Jews). Leviticus time and again reminds us that we are bodies. We are frail. We are imperfect, subject to illness and error; we suffer contagion, and face mortality. The point of the Torah’s insistence on these hard facts of existence is not to have us run from or repress them. Neither should we allow awareness of these matters to prevent us from embracing life, pronouncing it good, making it holy. The Torah, we might say, seeks to contain confrontation with death and disease inside a sacred order of community and meaning, in the same way these regulations in Leviticus are contained in the larger book and in the Torah as a whole.
Consider two comments made by our Sages in connection with death and mourning that drive this lesson home.
It was taught: R. Meir used to say: What is meant by the Scriptural text, ‘it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting. for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart’ (Ecclesiastes 7:2)? . . . [Let him realize] that if a man mourns for other people, others will also mourn for him; if he buries other people, others will also bury him; if he lifts up [his voice to lament] for others, others will [lift up their voices to lament] for him; if he escorts others [to the grave] others will also escort him; if he carries others [to their last resting place] others will also carry him. (BT Ketubbot 72a)
There is a measure of self-interest in the decision to do the right thing, accompany the deceased to the grave, and comfort those who mourn. It is hard to do these things, because as we stand before the coffin and watch it lowered into the earth, we know that our time will soon come. In one reading, then, Rabbi Meir is advising us to do for others what we want them to do for us when that happens. But I think he is saying something more. Sacred order is built one action at a time, one person at a time. If we want to live in a certain kind of community, we have to act in a way that helps maintain such a community. There is no moment “in life” after infancy when each of us is so totally dependent on other people as we are just after death: having needs we cannot supply; lacking agency to help ourselves; being unable to repay kindnesses bestowed on us.
That is why another rabbinic teaching asserts that caring for the dead is in fact an example of imitatio dei:
R. Hamason of R. Hanina further said: ‘Ye shall walk after the Lord your God?’ (Deuteronomy 13:5) Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah? But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He.(BT Sotah 14a)
As God clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts mourners, and buries the dead, so should we. Rabbi Hama provides proof texts from the Torah for each of these divine actions, signs of intimacy with Moses and the patriarchs and modes of instruction in the early days of God’s relationship with Israel about the covenantal work that we are called upon to undertake. There is no human civilization that does not take on the tasks of burial (or cremation) in some form, none that does not guide the living through the process of mourning. Life must go on. A community as committed as Jews are to the notion that life is good and can be made holy is especially obligated to maximum care when it comes to these boundary moments that threaten to plunge individuals into despair and rend communities asunder.
I believe Israelite priests would have been incapable of performing their life-giving tasks had they been prevented from mourning those closest to them. One cannot be an agent of holiness in any time or place, including our own, if one does not share the experience of the people whom one serves. The priest of old—or contemporary rabbi—has to know—really know—that he or she is frail, has limits, commits transgressions, and sometimes fails in order to love, fully respect, and have empathy with the members of his or her community—all of whom, being human, do all of these things. I understand, I think, why the Torah wants the chosen representatives of the Highest, the True, the Good to be free of physical defect or impairment—prohibiting, for example, those with broken limbs, a growth in the eye, or a boil-scar. It wants the people urging their community on heights and depths of Holiness to reflect in all they do and are, body and soul, outwardly and inwardly, the wholeness for which they stand as representatives of God. It wants their flaws to be correctable.
There is no denying, I think, that the exclusions pronounced by Leviticus 21:16–23 are difficult to accept today. I’d urge us to accomplish Leviticus’s purpose with focus not on bodily form but on qualities of mind, heart, and soul. I want rabbis and cantors who deeply and unreservedly love Judaism and the Jewish People, and are prepared to proclaim and demonstrate that love. I want men and women so knowledgeable about their tradition, so immersed in and permeated with Jewish learning and Jewish practice, that they can transmit that learning and practice effectively, keep it ever relevant to their communities, and, when necessary, garb Torah in new interpretations that keep it alive in new conditions. I want them loyal to Jews and Judaism and also respectful of other communities and faiths. I yearn for souls on fire to serve God and hearts open to the human beings they serve, particularly when those people need them the most. This tends to be when they are most vulnerable, at the boundary moments, in a shiv’ah house or hospital, astride the grave. It takes exceptional qualities of character to get Jews to listen to hard truths that life and Torah need them to confront—and to be worthy of that attention.
Broken arms and legs are not an impediment to such religious leadership, but broken spirits are. Absence of hope for the future, confidence in life, or respect for one’s community are absolutely fatal. “Defects” of body should not bar the way to rabbinic service, but lack of integrity should and does preclude that service. Aaron’s sons and grandsons inherited the mantle of priesthood, while today’s clergy choose the role, often with a sincere sense of calling. The jobs are comparable, nonetheless, because the human situation has not fundamentally changed. I am grateful that so many Jewish young people (and some not young) continue to take on the responsibility of serving their communities. JTS is pledged to give them the very finest preparation imaginable.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.