Parashat Tzav 5776

Cantor Gershon Silins, 25 March 2016


The description of the High Priest and his vestments in Tzav, our portion for this week, is one of awesome magnificence. He wears a tunic, a sash, a robe, a headdress, an ephod (which appears to be an apron-like article of clothing associated with divination,) a breastpiece, and, placed in the breastpiece, the ummim and tummim, which are used for divination. He wears a gold frontlet and a holy diadem. He is anointed with oil. Anyone who saw this man in all his glory would have seen a person already special by birth, who was then ceremonially transformed into something (in the overused words of today) totally awesome. Throughout the years of wandering and as long as the Temple stood, the glory of this role continued. In Judaism in the First Century, Hyam Maccoby draws our attention to some aspects of his role: “It is natural for a modern reader … to think of [the High Priest] as the Jewish equivalent of the Pope in Roman Catholicism, or the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England. This, however, is a mistake. In Christianity the priests combine the sacerdotal (priestly) and teaching roles, whereas in Judaism they are separate. It is therefore hard to understand a situation in which the sacerdotal head, who took the leading role in the most impressive rituals of Judaism, was nevertheless regarded by the vast majority of Jews … as an ignorant person with nothing to say in matters of faith or doctrine. Indeed, he was regarded as highly suspect in matters of doctrine…” Not to be too flippant about it, he was – an empty suit. In a way, this emptiness reflects something important, and not necessarily bad, in the organisation of religious society in the days when the Temple stood. The High Priest’s ignorance was merely a minor obstacle to be negotiated by those who knew better. As a member of the faction called the Sadducees, who valued tradition above all, the High Priest could be relied upon to carry out the important work of the Temple ritual.

There was, of course, another faction besides the Sadducees in late Temple times, the Pharisees. In his Heirs of the Pharisees, Jakob J. Petuchowski sees the roots of modern Judaism in the Pharisaic tradition. “In contrast to the Sadducean effort to keep religion within the narrow confines of the Written Law, the Pharisees infused the whole of life with religious idealism, and insisted that the written law must be supplemented by the Oral Law.” Ultimately, the enterprise of the Pharisees – the development of the Written Law through the creation of the Oral Law – became something flexible, supple, poetic and legally adventurous – indeed, it developed into what we now call Rabbinic Judaism. Bound by piety and faithfulness to the traditions they inherited, the rabbis created varieties of text that brought the Hebrew Bible face to face with their world. They did this in a way that allowed a faith that had been so bound to institutions (like the High Priests) that were now defunct, to change and take new forms. It is amazing that we as a people were able to grow and develop past the ancient sacrificial cult, which had been the main focus of religious life, and that had been traumatically destroyed along with the Temple. It was the openness and resilience of rabbinic interpretation that allowed this growth. That creativity needed to be channeled, and it is that channeling that created the traditional Judaism of today, which now seems more and more focused inwards, rather outwards towards engagement with the world. Jaroslav Pelikan once said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Progressive Judaism, inheriting the Pharisaic tradition, provides us an opportunity engage the world as Jews and modern people.

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