Holiness Is Not Elitism


Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein



Kohanim are not just beneficiaries of special privileges. They also have special restrictions (21:1). “And God said to Moses, speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and tell them, ‘Each of you shall not contaminate himself to a [dead] person among his people.’”

A puzzling question arises when we examine the sequence of the parshios in Leviticus. The first six parshios address the divine service, the investiture of the Kohanim, their priestly duties and responsibilities and the Yom Kippur service. The seventh, Parashas Kedoshim, discusses general rules that apply to laymen and Kohanim equally, giving the impression that the subject of Kohanim had been exhausted. But then, the Torah returns to the Kohanim right here in Parashas Emor. Why does the Torah digress from the subject of Kohanim only to return to it once again one parashah later?

The Kovner Rav takes notes of the aforementioned phrase “speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron.” What is the purpose, he wonders, of the seemingly redundant words “the sons of Aaron”?

 They carry an important message to the Kohanim, he explains. Having been instructed so intensively on the exclusivity of their role in Jewish life, they might consider themselves an elite group superior to other Jews, especially in view of the Kohanim’s stringent requirements for ritual purity outlined here. The Torah, therefore, reminds them that they are descended from Aaron, a man of humility and boundless love for every individual Jew, a man who looked down at no one.

Perhaps the placement of the prohibitions against priestly contamination in Parashas Emor can also be explained by the specter of elitism, but from the other side. Just as the Torah did not want the Kohanim to consider themselves an elite, it did not want the rest of the people to consider themselves second class Jews.

Had the Torah immediately presented the restrictions imposed on the priestly caste, people might have attributed to them an innate superiority, such that the Kohanim required additional protection from contamination. Instead, the Torah presents Parashas Kedoshim, which begins with an exhortation to every Jew to be holy and live a holy life. “For I am God, your Lord,” the Torah repeats time and again, teaching us to sanctify every aspect of our lives by emulating God’s ways. Once the Jewish people absorbed and understood the concept of holiness and withdrawal from the mundane, they would see clearly that the Kohanim required special restriction not because of innate superiority but because of the nature of their priestly duties.