The Book of Leviticus is indeed a conundrum for the modern Jew. Leviticus, Vayikra, challenges our modern social mores, promotes a ritualism that is often out of sync with modernity, and obsesses about tribal delineations that should be meaningless in today's Judaism. And yet, there are passages in Leviticus that promote ethical and holy behavior that guide us still to higher spiritual planes.
Each year, as I turn to Leviticus, I am reminded of an 1893 essay called “Priest and Prophet.” It was written by the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha-am. In the essay, he used these two archetypes — priest and prophet — to represent two ideas about religious engagement. For Ahad Ha-am, the prophet is the radical voice of absolute righteousness. The prophet is extreme in devotion as he or she demands a just society and accepts nothing less. We love this voice.
And tugging at the other side of the Jewish soul is that of the priest. The priest “develops laws, rituals, and institutions to make the prophetic ideals function in society. The priest seeks ‘not what ought to be, but only what can be’ ” (Alfred Gottschalk, Ahad Ha-Am As Biblical Critic [Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1983], p. 112).
For Ahad Ha’am, the priest creates a social and ritual order and thereby accommodates the passion of the prophet into a livable Jewish life.
I have these two figures fighting in my Jewish soul — the prophet who wants to scream out for social justice — whom I love, and the priest who wants to create structure and ritual and order — whom I need. Each has a place and purpose in guiding the Jewish soul to holiness.
Each year, as I approach the Book of Leviticus, I am guided by this imagery. I appreciate the tempering voice of the priest that I encounter throughout the book. And I recognize the role that it plays in guiding me to holiness.
Rabbi Neal Katz is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Tyler, TX. He was ordained from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is also a Jewish and folk music singer/songwriter.