Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Priests and Mudbloods - Torah portion Tetzaveh

Genealogy of Egyptian High Priests at Memphis, 946-736 BCE.
Tetzaveh is the first Torah portion which is primarily about the kohanim, the priests.  The entire Israelite nation is called a "kingdom of priests." Yet even these "priests" have their priests. The Israelites are bound by restrictions, a set of strict laws. Yet the kohanim have even further restrictions. The Israelites are "chosen" from among the nations (Deut 7:6, 14:2). Yet the priests are chosen from among them (Deut 18:5, 21:5).

Likewise, the Torah talks about "seed" largely in relation to Israel - that the patriarchs' seed will be like the stars of the heaven, that the land of Canaan is promised to their seed, that the seed of Israel should not be given to the Molech (sacrificed by fire), etc. And "seed" is also used to describe the priestly lineage within the lineage of Israel:
וְהָיְתָה לָהֶם חָק עוֹלָם לוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ לְדֹרֹתָם
"And it shall be for them a perpetual statute, for [Aaron] and his seed, for all their generations." (Ex 30:41)
Only unlike the Israelite nation, which while having its basis in "seed" also accepts proselytes, with the priesthood, there's no conversion. You're either born into it or you're not. It's seed all the way.

I'm a kohen myself, part of the priestly lineage. But I have to say that the idea of "bloodlines" doesn't particularly resonate well to my modern, Western, democratic, post-Enlightenment ears. Shouldn't we choose the best person for the job? Why should someone be "born" into it? Haven't we moved past the idea of "noble" or "privileged" classes and into the age of meritocracy? Even children grasp this idea. It's one of the main themes of Harry Potter, fighting against the idea that only "pure bloods" should be taught magic, that people from outside the noble bloodlines are "mudbloods" who need to be expunged from the magical world. It's not the family you were born into but what you do with your life, the choices you make, that counts. This is modern moral literacy 101!

So how do we understand Judaism's placing stock in genetic descent? Once again, I think we have to first put it in perspective and look at the historical context. For millennium upon millennium, dynastic rule and succession were the way societies around the world functioned. Chinese dynasties go back over 4000 years. Egyptian dynasties over 5000 years. You had the ruling "house," i.e. the family. In monarchic Israel, it was (largely, or at least in principle) the house of David. In modern-day England, Queen Elizabeth II is from the house of Windsor.

And hereditary succession was not only the case for the sovereign of the state, but also for priests. In Egypt for instance, there were established priestly families, the office handed down from father to son. In a few cases however, the pharaoh appointed someone not of the traditional lineage to the office, and this was the cause of considerable consternation within the old priestly families.

Families, bloodlines, classes - the noble aristocracy and the various strata of classes underneath - this was the way of the civilized world up until very recent history. You were born into whatever class you happened to be, and - with very few exceptions - that was it. Granted, we still have de facto "classes" in the Western world, based on wealth. Yes, "privilege" based on family, ethnicity, etc. is still an issue. And all you have to do is look at the Bushes and Clintons of the world to know that it's not all meritocracy - the dynastic model still puts up a venerable fight. But still I think it's fair to say that the depth of the class system of even 200 years ago would seem totally foreign to modern Western sensibilities. For us, if upward mobility is limited by who or where a person is "from," that's considered an embarrassment. It's something wrong in the system that needs to be corrected.

And yet... It's not exactly accurate to say that the idea of aristocratic family lines is something modern people eschew. There's a mystique around the British royal family, around celebrity families, and of course political dynasties. What is it about royal or quasi-royal lineage that catches people's fancy? Is it the name itself, e.g. anyone named "Kennedy"? Is it the physical family resemblance? A sense of tradition and continuity? A desire to recapture the past? Is there in fact something deep within the human psyche, maybe rooted in evolutionary psychology, that longs for an "elite" within the clan, those to whom we can only look in admiration but never hope to be a part of themselves, maybe analogous to God? (Or possibly the opposite - maybe our conception of God is analogous to a venerated upper class to which we submit ourselves as humble subjects.)

A friend recently related to me the "yichus" (blood relations) of someone he knows - the great great granddaughter of such-and-such Hasidic rabbi on one side, the great niece of such-and-such Torah scholar on the other. Like I say, I understand the mystique factor. But other than that, why should the fact of someone's birth family be in any way significant? I suppose beyond mystique, or mysticism, there's also a rational, straightforward significance to descending from a "prominent" family - expectations.

When someone grows up in a "house" (i.e. an aristocratic family dynasty), there is a built-in expectation from birth of taking one's place in that family's legacy. People can be groomed psychologically and behaviorally throughout their lives to become leaders or fulfill a certain role.

Similarly, the priests of ancient Israel were sequestered and instructed from their youth. They were bred to fulfill their role as kohanim. And that training, that instruction, from a very early age, makes an indelible impression on a person. Almost as if they seem "inherently" suited to lead in that way. Only in all probability, it's largely a product of grooming and acculturation rather than DNA.

And when you think about it, grooming priests (or anyone) from birth based on family is possibly a more efficient alternative to a merit-based system. Imagine having to individually gauge the "merit" of every small child in a society for a job they won't take on until adulthood. It's much easier to simply designate a certain group of people to take on the role of priesthood, since they have to be conditioned from their youth. It also manages expectations - both the expectations of those filling that role, as well as those not filling that role, so that (in principle) there's an agreement as to who's doing the job, and you're not having to manage constant coup attempts. So on multiple levels, hereditary succession of the priesthood probably made sense.

Nowadays, in the diminished role that kohanim play, it's not a particularly controversial issue. Priests have some additional halachic restrictions, get the first alliyah to the Torah, do the priestly blessing. But they have no "power" per se. The hereditary aspect, while decidedly non-democratic, is fairly benign. It serves as a link to the past and offers the hopeful sense that the "seed" lives on.

That's what I suppose I would take from this. Yes, we've largely moved on from hard and fast class distinctions and bloodlines dominating our leadership roles. Which is a good thing. Within that context, to the extent that people find it intriguing, awe-inspiring, nostalgic or otherwise psychologically satisfying, there's a place for a little aristocracy. As long as people aren't prevented from being upwardly mobile. As long as it doesn't draw too much of a society's attention or resources. As long as the out-group isn't looked at as "mudbloods." As Jews, too much emphasis on yichus is a corruption of values.

I'll close with a well-known Mishna:
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁלשָׁה כְתָרִים הֵם, כֶּתֶר תּוֹרָה וְכֶתֶר כְּהֻנָּה וְכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת, וְכֶתֶר שֵׁם טוֹב עוֹלֶה עַל גַּבֵּיהֶן
"Rabbi Shimon says: There are three crowns - the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood, and the crown of Kingship, but the crown of a Good Name is above them all." (Avot 4:13)
In other words, the highest honor we should accord people should not be based on birth, and not even on the amount of knowledge they've accrued, but on their positive actions in the world.

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