Jewish Journal


March 9, 2010

The Rabbis' Priestly Robes

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudey (Exodus 35:1-40:38)


“Of the blue, purple and crimson yarns they also made the service vestments for officiating in the sanctuary ... they hammered out sheets of gold and cut threads to
be worked into design among the blue, the purple and the crimson yarns and the fine linen.” (Exodus 39:1-3).

The sight of the high priest leaving the sanctuary on Yom Kippur was a captivating and awe-inspiring one, according to rabbis who lived during the Temple period. They also tell us that there was a kind of “Project Runway” competition between the high priests, and that one received robes made of the most expensive Egyptian linen — a gift from his mother. The fabric was so fine and delicate that it was almost transparent; the other priests would not let the pampered high priest wear it.

Why did the Torah pay such attention to the priestly wardrobe? Why was priesthood at all necessary? Aren’t we all meant to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? And if the priests are so important, where are they today?

The priests were originally chosen based on character traits they demonstrated as a group. They were given special robes and accessories to strengthen their status and grant them authority. But they also had great responsibility as religious leaders. They were supposed to teach and educate, judge and reconcile, help the needy and sustain a just social system.

With time, however, they forgot their noble mission, concentrated on the superficial, glamorous side of priesthood and indulged themselves in all the benefits their position had to offer. In fact, the corruption led to violent, murderous attacks on candidates to the high priesthood.

The rabbis eventually staged a revolution during the first century B.C.E., dethroning the corrupt priests, who were left with only ceremonial duties. However, those aristocratic rabbis, who put a strong emphasis on the lineage of the Davidic dynasty, were later removed from power by ordinary, hard-working sages, who claimed the
Torah is an open field and religious leadership should be based on abilities and not priestly or royal lineage, as the Talmud relates in tractate Berakhot (27:2).

The Jewish world from then on was ruled by the academies of Israel and Babylonia, with the latter taking over during the second half of the first millennium and producing magnificent works in all fields of Jewish knowledge, including philosophy and linguistics. But decadence and corruption found their way to the heart of these academies, whose heads had a monopoly over the interpretation of the Talmud, maintained an almost royal court and collected heavy taxes from Jewish communities. Those rabbis
became administrators rather than teachers.

It was this situation that probably led the rabbis of northern France and Germany to issue a bold and revolutionary ruling that challenged the normative law. Whereas a rabbi was previously not allowed to teach and rule in a place controlled by his master or another sage, an independent and individual voice was now given to any capable scholar of Torah.

All of these revolutions infused Judaism with an incredible vitality and creativity, telling the faithful that anyone is subject to criticism and that there is no such thing as clerical immunity.

Unfortunately, it seems that we have not advanced much since that last, early Medieval revolution. A fleeting review of recent Israeli news reveals several scandals involving prominent rabbis. They run the gamut from coercion to sexual harassment — but what is most disturbing is not the sin by the individuals but rather the cover-up offered by the religious leadership.

It turns out that, just like the Catholic church, the members of the Takanah forum in Israel, which is supposed to monitor cases of sexual abuse by rabbis, preferred to send a known offender — Rabbi Moti Elon — to exile in a small village in northern Israel rather than expose him publicly. The result? Continued harassment.

The magnificent priestly robes, which survive only in text and not texture, should serve as a reminder to the religious community and especially the leaders: The garments, and today the title or position of rabbi, only serve as a backup for an authority that stems from solid knowledge coupled with honesty, ethics and morality. If these cannot be found, the public deserves to know, to criticize and to condemn.

In the words of our sages: Only if the rabbi or the priest is clean of sin can he be your master.

Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills (magendavid.org), a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue, and a faculty member with the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. He can be reached via e-mail at hovadia@gmail.com.

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