Friday, February 11, 2022

The Kohen's Dilemma: Should Judaism Pander to the Crowd?


"We were greatly astonished, when we saw Eleazar engaged in the service of the Temple, at the mode of his dress, and the majesty of his appearance… (which) created such awe and confusion of mind as to make one feel that one had come into the presence of a man who belonged to a different world.” So writes the author of the Letter of Aristeas, about meeting the High Priest Eleazar, who lived from 260–245 BCE. The multi-colored garments of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) were of such “conspicuous beauty” that they left all observers “amazed” at the spectacle they had seen.

The Jewish Tabernacle & Priesthood, Needham, George C. (from old catalog), 1874
Making an impression was the very purpose of the uniform of all the kohanim. The Rambam says that for the kohanim, the clothes make the man. (A kohen without his uniform was prohibited from participating in the service). The Rambam writes in the Guide for the Perplexed that the average person who visited the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) would judge the kohanim by their clothes, “…because the multitude does not estimate man by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments…” Image is critical for the kohanim; they must strike an aristocratic pose, be well groomed, (kohanim were required to take regular haircuts), and wear beautiful, well-maintained garments. Kohanim must court public opinion, and inspire the multitude.
The regal bearing of the kohen stands in sharp contrast with another biblical leader, the navi (prophet). Amos describes himself “a cattle herder and a tender of sycamore figs.” Eliyahu is described as “a hairy man…. with a leather belt tied around his waist”; this great navi has long hair and wears a working man’s clothes. The neviim had a very different aesthetic than the kohanim, and their attire reflects a fundamental difference between them.
Ahad Ha'am wrote an influential essay contrasting the kohen and the navi. He explains that they represent “two ways of doing service in the cause of an idea,” and that “the navi is a one-sided figure, who wants to make dramatic change. The kohen is essentially the follower of the navi, who attempts to preserve the navi’s vision within the realities of society.”
A navi focuses single mindedly on his idea. “A certain moral idea fills his whole being… He can only see the world through the mirror of his idea…His whole life is spent in fighting for this ideal with all his strength.” The navi is not interested in popularity contests, and many neviim had their lives threatened by the powers that be. Not so the kohen; his job is to ensure that these ideals are broadly accepted. Ahad Ha’am explains that “instead of clinging to the narrowness of the navi, and demanding of reality what it cannot give, (the kohen) broadens his outlook, and takes a wider view … Not what ought to be, but what can be, is what he seeks.” The navi is fixated on a divine vision, and little else matters to him; the kohen is a teacher, trying to coax everyone a bit closer to the ideal. The kohen must be a master of persuasion and public relations; and for that reason, he needs to tend carefully to his image, and ensure that his garments and grooming are presentable. 
The kohen has a complex mission. He is the middleman who connects man to God, the one who brings sacrifices to God and atonement to man. And like any intermediary, there is a question of where the kohen’s primary loyalties and responsibilities lie. The Talmud ponders this question and wants to know if the kohanim are “our emissaries, or the emissaries of God?” Being a middleman means that the kohen is pulled in two opposite directions.
In Rabbinic literature, the human-centered mission of the kohen is emphasized. Aharon, the first kohen, is one who “loves peace and pursues peace, loves mankind and draws them close to the Torah.” The kohen offers the birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing) to the community, and must do so with love. For this reason, a kohen who has taken a life is disqualified from bestowing birkat kohanim.
Hillel, the great rabbi of the mishnah, saw the kohen as a role model for the rabbinic community. Hillel advocated that one ought to “be a student of Aharon,” and like Aharon and the kohanim, focus on personal connections. Hillel himself was a transformative leader because like Aharon, he was humble, open and embracing. Unlike the navi, Hillel did not rebuke and reject.
However, being a people-centered man of God can lead to serious failures. Being constantly focused on public opinion can cause the kohen to lose sight of his ultimate responsibilities; love of the community can cross the line to pandering. Aharon may be a master of personal connections, but that personality trait causes his greatest failure. When the people ask for a Golden Calf, Aharon obliges them; he doesn’t challenge their request, and avoids confrontation and controversy. In this critical moment, Aharon is too responsive to the desires of the community.
This is the kohen’s dilemma: how to connect to the crowd without losing sight of your unique vision.
Contemporary rabbis are more or less made in the image of the kohen. Yes, there are some rabbis who stand high in the pulpit to issue fire and brimstone speeches that rebuke their wayward flocks. There are communities where words of mussar, of serious self-criticism, are welcome. But for the most part, in order to succeed, contemporary rabbis must be diplomatic and discerning, and relate to the community in which they live. As Solomon Schechter put it in the 1920’s, “You can’t be a rabbi in America without understanding baseball.” Today’s rabbi may not have the kohen’s wardrobe, but he shares the same mission: to make a positive impression, and in doing so, bring people closer to Torah.
Today, American rabbis are very much a part of their community. As American Jewry diminishes in commitment and observance, the question is how rabbis will respond. When the flock keeps wandering, will the rabbi follow them?
In 2018, Jack Wertheimer published The New American Judaism, a book about how contemporary Jews practice Judaism. Wertheimer conducted 160 in-depth interviews with rabbis of every denomination, and this forms the foundation of the book. In it, you can hear the frustrations of rabbis who don’t know what they should do next; one laments they cannot get children to attend synagogue programs because “the God of soccer is a jealous God.” When Wertheimer summarizes some of the assumptions that his interviewees held, you can see how their context shapes their thinking. There is an expectation that synagogues must model themselves after successful businesses; they must be innovative, and expert in marketing and customer service. Time-honored traditions are modified to cater to a congregation that is increasingly strapped for time.
Marketing has significant religious value; the Talmud stresses making sure that ritual objects are pleasing to the eye, and make a “beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful ritual fringes, beautiful…Torah scroll, and… wrap the scroll in beautiful silk fabric.” But when there is a lack of religious commitment, the kohen’s dilemma becomes a serious challenge. One can survey the congregation to find what is popular. But that can lead to an unchallenging Judaism, one that is innocuous and banal, an amalgam of nostalgia and good feelings. Wertheimer calls this “an ersatz form of Judaism,” which re-brands popular tastes and popular political stances as a form of religious expression. It is imperative for a religious leader to meet people where they are; but the belief that “the customer is always right” is a poor fit for Judaism, which is about challenging man to achieve his best. In a market-driven culture, the rabbi is pulled between public relations and pandering.
The kohen is a man of the people. But what happens when the people are no longer interested? This is the kohen’s dilemma, and one that every American Jew needs to ponder.

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