When Religious Leadership Fails

Shemini By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 25, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

“Joy waits around for no one. The person who celebrates today may not be celebrating tomorrow, nor the person who is afflicted today may not be afflicted tomorrow.” This is the sober comment of the midrash on Aaron’s tragedy. At the culmination of his installation as priest of the Tabernacle, his two sons are struck down by God’s wrath. The same divine fire which had just descended from above to consume Aaron’s altar offering, a public sign of God’s favor, returns to kill Nadab and Abihu when they commit a cultic infraction. What began with exaltation ends in grief (Leviticus 9:23-24; 10:1-3).

The point of the midrash, with its supporting biblical evidence, is to reaffirm the ultimate instability of human life. Despite the lavish expenditure of materials to erect the Tabernacle, its presence will not eliminate the recurrence of periodic, unexpected misfortune. How striking that this brief and cryptic narrative is the very first we come across in the book of Leviticus, after nine dense chapters of cultic prescriptions! Its apt insertion disabuses us of the idea that the Divine has been tamed. On the contrary, the proximity of God by virtue of the Tabernacle raises the standards of human behavior—and also the risks.

Moses comforts his stricken brother with the thought that those closest to God bear the greatest responsibility: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people (Leviticus 10:3).” Religious leaders ought to embody the values of the Torah in their purest form, aspiring to be a speck of perfection in an imperfect world. Their smallest transgression is magnified many times over because of their role as mediators. Whatever the deviation committed by Aaron’s sons, wittingly or unwittingly, they obscured and diminished God’s presence.

The 12th-century Spanish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, brings a verse from Amos to illuminate the meaning of Moses’s counsel: “You alone [Israel] have I singled out of all the families of the earth and that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities (Amos 3:2).” To accept the task of imbuing the world with holiness is to work for an exacting Master. The sons of Aaron and the people of Israel were destined to personify and disseminate a Godly way of life. Both paid dearly for falling short.

And Aaron’s answer to Moses’s gentle rebuke is one of utter silence. There is nothing to say. The pain is too deep and the risks of chosenness too frightful to paper over with hollow words. “And Aaron was silent (Lev. 10:3).”

I believe that this intriguing narrative fragment introduces one of the Bible’s central themes: the price of being chosen. Those who presume to speak for God must live beyond reproach. Their private lives must correspond to and reinforce their public lives. None other than Moses himself is undone by this axiom. But one slip in carrying out God’s will costs Moses what would have been the culmination of his own career—the conquest of the land under his leadership. It matters little whether the people knew of God’s instructions to Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water, when he chose instead to strike it in anger and disgust. When working for the Lord, there are no mitigating circumstances.

The book of Samuel is appalled by the abusive behavior of the young priests Hophni and Phinehas at the Shiloh sanctuary. Fully expecting to succeed their aged father, the chief priest, Eli, they brazenly exploit their privilege and power. From the sacrifices brought by the people, they took more than their allotted portion before it was even offered to God on the altar. They had sexual relations “with the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (I Samuel 2:22).” And they scorned the scolding of their elderly father. Once defeated by the Philistines, they acted without precedent by taking the Ark of the Covenant into the field of battle. To no avail: the Philistines triumphed again, captured the Ark and killed the sons of Eli on the same day.

But the problem of religious leaders who have betrayed their trust is not a matter restricted to the hoary past. Currently both the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Israel Lau, are rightly under attack for compromising behavior. In the first case, Rabbi Sacks would not attend the funeral of a prominent Reform rabbi and Holocaust survivor, Hugo Gryn. He did, however, agree to participate at a memorial for Rabbi Gryn, provided it was not held in a synagogue. Though he spoke forcefully against the rising tide of intolerance among Jews, he did so as president of an interfaith council of Christians and Jews and not as Chief Rabbi.

Worse, in a private letter (now made public) to a vocal Orthodox critic of his participation (Dayan Chanoch Padwa), Rabbi Sacks spoke disparagingly of the man whose memory he honored in public. The dismay ignited by Rabbi Sack’s duplicity could be enough to bring down the institution of the Chief Rabbinate itself.

In Israel, an investigative reporter for the intellectual daily Ha-Aretz has uncovered that Rabbi Lau, who lives in a large home in the wealthiest neighborhood in Tel Aviv, receives between $500 to $2,500 for officiating at a wedding, a practice that violates the guidelines of the Ministry of Religion. Rabbi Lau insists that he never charges; people are simply moved by the emotion of the event to give him a gift. But state officials are forbidden to accept gifts! Without admitting any wrongdoing, Rabbi Lau has promised not to do it again. Henceforth, he will make public each year a list of worthy charitable institutions to which appreciative newlyweds and their families can give in his honor.

The Talmud tells the eerie story that as the First Temple went up in flames, young priests ascended to its roof with the keys of the sanctuary in their hands. Full of misgiving, they addressed God: “Lord of the Universe, since we failed to be trustworthy guardians, we return the keys of the Temple to You.” Whereupon they threw them high into the air and a hand came out to take them back, at which point the young priests threw themselves into the flames.

Nothing discredits Judaism more grievously than religious leaders unworthy of God’s holy name.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

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