Priests, Rabbis and Clowns: The Illusive Search for “Authentic” Judaism | Parashat Tzav

The controversy over the recent Israeli Cabinet decision to affirm a pluralistic space in the southern area of the Kotel (Robinson’s Arch) continues to gain force, even threatening to bring down the present coalition government. Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) rabbinic figures have once again resorted to lambasting Reform Judaism and our rabbis with outrageous slurs:

*M.K.Yaakov Litzman, Chairman of the United Torah Judaism Party and Minister of Health called Reform Judaism “counterfeit” and stated: “We will not sit in a government that recognizes the Reform”.

*M.K. Yisrael Eichler compared the Reform Movement “to someone who is mentally ill”.

*Rabbi David Yosef, son of former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, declared that the Reform Movement is not Jewish and its members are “idolators”.

* M.K. Moshe Gafni, member of the United Torah Judaism party, went so far as to claim that “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the Torah”.

These and many other denunciations of the legitimacy and authenticity of Reform Judaism are heard not only in Israel but throughout the world. The claim is simple: only Haredi Judaism is authentic Judaism and only Haredi rabbis are authentic rabbis. “Authentic”, we are told, means those who follow the strict Haredi interpretation of Jewish law (Halacha) and observe the commandments (Mitzvot) as preserved in the legal texts of our tradition (Talmud, Shulchan Auruch, etc.) which trace their roots back to the early centuries of the Common Era (CE).

As I was reading our weekly Torah portion, Tzav (Levitus 6:1-8:36) complete with detailed instructions for how the Priests (Aaron and his sons) were to oversee the sacrificial cult and descriptions of the various categories of offerings (sacrifices), I was struck by the absurdity of the term “Authentic” Judaism. Our precious Torah in the Book of Leviticus describes what was “Authentic” Judaism in its period. No one doubted the authority of Aaron and his male descendants (Priestly class) to perform the rituals associated with worship of Adonai. Our Torah portion, Tzav, is crystal clear regarding the role the Priests are to play and the fact that only the Priests are duly “ordained” (consecrated) to perform the sacrificial rites (see Leviticus 8:1-13 for description of how Aaron and his sons were anointed and consecrated to serve as religious leaders).

Was Judaism as practiced in the journey through the desert leading to the land of Israel any less authentic than it became once the Israelites reached the land and erected the Temple in Jerusalem? Was the Priestly service on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem as described in our Torah any less authentic than the Priestly function in the desert when the Ark was portable and sacrifices were made outside the land?

And can we truly say that after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans when the sacrificial cult ended and the religious leadership of the people evolved from Priest to Rabbi, that Rabbinic Judaism was inauthentic because it was no longer based on Priestly authority? The rabbis in the Talmud were quick to explain that after the destruction of the Temple, Divine worship evolved from sacrifice to prayer. The role of the Priest as the religious authority who was “ordained” to conduct worship through the sacrificial cult was transformed to the authority of the rabbi who was “ordained” to interpret and adjudicate the will of God as expressed in Torah and Mitzvot.

For the past 2000 years under Rabbinic not priestly authority, Judaism has continued to evolve and change as a result of changing social, historical, cultural and political forces. Are Haredi rabbis in Israel in 2016 actually trying to argue that their Judaism is the authentic Judaism and not the Judaism of the Book of Leviticus or the Judaism of Rabbi Hillel or the Judaism of the Rambam, or the Judaism of Yosef Karo or the Judaism of HaRav Abraham Isaac Kook or the Judaism of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik? Each of these illustrious rabbis, and many others within Reform and Conservative Judaism as well, understood Judaism differently, understood the Mitzvot differently, understood God’s meaning and existence differently. There has not been, nor will there ever be, one authentic Judaism; one authority in Jewish life; one ritual practice or one way to worship God. The only One we definitively understand in Judaism, is the One God – yet even the One God has many names and many authenticities.

How poetic that this latest pathetic attack on the legitimacy and authenticity of Reform Judaism is related to the very same area around the Temple, the place where the Priests conducted their sacrifices to God centuries earlier. Forms of worship have indeed changed, but the sense of Holiness (Kedudsha) of the place remains unchanged.

So what is it about the Kotel which represents a place of Holiness for Reform Jews who have no design or intention of ever wanting to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute the sacrificial cult? Why should Reform Jews be fighting this fight and supporting the committed Women of the Wall organization against the Haredi forces in Israel which far outnumber us, outspend us, and have far more political support in the Knesset?

I believe we Reform Jews have been drawn into this conflict around the Kotel because the Kotel has become for the modern State of Israel our national synagogue – our national house of prayer – and because we Reform Jews are inextricably bound to the family of Israel, then we must have a place for our prayers within the family’s national synagogue. It is not about the Temple or the Priests or the sacrificial cult which bonds Reform Jews to the Kotel – it is the fact that all of these have been part of our collective national historical memory and we cherish that memory and honor it no less than any other member of the Jewish family.

Let us all move beyond the need to claim authenticity as Jews and simply be the Jews our noble tradition demands of us to be: “to seek peace, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).


About the Author:

Rabbi Joel Oseran is the Vice President Emeritus of International Development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism. 


The above was previously published as #318 in our Torah from Around the World series.

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