Tuesday, May 24th | 23 Iyyar 5782

April 8, 2022 9:29 am

Failed Priests and Prophets — and Reflections on Modern Israel

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

There seems to be a permanent state of conflict in all religions — between religious authority and individual spirituality, or mysticism.

Religious authority values conformity, control, and stability, whereas mystics have been individualists who have challenged the established structures and encouraged different ways of interacting with the world and its mysteries. Invariably, the non-conformist individualists have been isolated, excluded, and disparaged by the authorities, and sometimes excommunicated, imprisoned, and even burnt at the stake. Some have doubtlessly gone overboard. Some have become false messiahs, fake gurus, and corrupt egomaniacs. But religious life without them can often be boring, stifling, and ultimately lead to a state of paralysis from which only mystical revolutions like those of the Essenes, the Kabbalists, or the Hasidim can free it.

In the Torah, and during the first period of Jewish history — the hereditary priesthood — the Cohanim (descended from Aaron) oversaw the sanctuaries. This role was ceremonial. But priests also functioned as the teachers, healers, and civil servants working in league with the monarchy. They were not given tribal lands, and they relied on tithes, offerings, and sacrifices. But the priesthood became corrupt,  and turned into a privileged aristocracy that had more in common with the upper classes of other societies than with the poor of their own. They were the first to assimilate during the Persian, Greek, and Roman eras.

They bring to mind the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church who are supporting and encouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin to behave like an evil maniac in Ukraine, in complete disregard of their own stated values. Interestingly, Jewish law has always insisted that in the event of besieging a city, one must always leave a path open and free to allow inhabitants to escape if they want to. Just think how barbaric the Russian forces are in refusing this ancient religious principle.

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The prophets, on the other hand, were not hereditary. A prophet was the charismatic mystic, often living amongst and catering to the poor and downtrodden, and on the run from authorities, preaching challenging messages of morality and spirituality.

They were charismatic individuals who attracted followers by their personalities, which is why you find women prophets, although there were never women priests. The prophets were the ones who kept the religion alive among the people while idolatry was encouraged by all the kings of Israel and half the kings of Judea.

Yet the prophets were far from perfect as a group either. There were just as many false, dishonest prophets as there were good ones. A healthy religion (indeed any kind of society) needs priests and prophets. Authority provides continuity, safeguards, and comfort. This maintains the system. But without creativity and challenge, all authorities retreat behind bureaucracy and safety, and they end up driving too many marginal people away.

But what of those individualists who do not fit into any sub-set or sect? Shouldn’t a healthy society accept individuality, not suppress it?

The trouble is that during times of crisis or oppression, the natural tendency is to close up, man the barricades, and abandon weak links. During the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, many Jews converted to Christianity to escape oppression, not to be different. Some tried to have it both ways — Christian or Muslim in public, but Jewish in private. Many simply assimilated and others turned into fierce opponents of Judaism, as if to prove how committed they were to their new religion.

In our day, it is not conversion to another religion that represents the biggest challenge, but the drift out of committed or knowledgeable Judaism towards the dominant culture.

Some simply have no experience of a Jewish way of life, and see no good reason to go on identifying with it in any practical way. Others want to assert their individuality by rejecting the burden of their past. And we have all met those, both Israelis and others, who are passionately opposed to the very idea of a Jewish state and feel alienated by much of Israeli society. And that is their right. Many of us still believe in freedom of thought and expression, even if we are rapidly going out of fashion.

What shall we make of the synagogue in Chicago that proudly declared it is the first anti-Zionist synagogue? We have been there before, of course. Some Reform American synagogues at the start of the 20th century had rejected Jewish law, or were anti-Zionist. And don’t forget the Neturei Karta Haredi Jews, who ally with Iran and march in New York with those who want Israel destroyed. But also note that the gunmen who mowed down inhabitants of Bnei Brak, a Haredi and non-Zionist city in Israel, did not care or differentiate between anti-Zionists and Zionists.

We are a nation of priests, as the Bible says. But I am not sure that is always a compliment.

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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