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September 4, 2015 / 20 Elul, 5775
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The Counterpoint of Leadership

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

One of the most important Jewish contributions to our understanding of leadership is its early insistence of what, in the eighteenth century, Montesquieu called “the separation of powers.” Neither authority nor power was to be located in a single individual or office. Instead, leadership was divided between different kinds of roles.

One of the most important of these divisions – anticipating by millennia the “separation of church and state” – was between the king, the head of state, on the one hand, and the high priest, the most senior religious officer, on the other.

This was revolutionary. The kings of Mesopotamian city-states and the Pharaohs of Egypt were considered demigods, or chief intermediary with the gods. They officiated at supreme religious festivals. They were regarded as the representatives of heaven on earth.

In Judaism, by stark contrast, monarchy had little or no religious function (other than the recital by the king of the book of the covenant every seven years in the ritual known as hakhel). Indeed the chief objection to the Hasmonean kings on the part of the sages was that they broke this ancient rule, some of them declaring themselves high priests also. The Talmud, in Kiddushin 66a, records the objection: “Let the crown of kingship be sufficient for you. Leave the crown of priesthood to the sons of Aaron.” The effect of this principle was to secularize power. (In Judaism power, except that exercised by God, is not holy.)

No less fundamental was the division of religious leadership itself into two distinct functions: that of the prophet and the priest. That is dramatized in this week’s parshah, focusing as it does on the role of the priest to the exclusion of that of the prophet. Tetzaveh is the first parshah since the beginning of the book of Exodus in which Moses’ name is missing. It is supremely the priestly, as opposed to prophetic, parshah.

Priests and prophets were very different in their roles, despite the fact that some prophets, most famously Ezekiel, were priests also. Here are the differences:

1) The role of priest was dynastic, that of prophet was charismatic. Priests were the sons of Aaron. They were born into the role. Parenthood had no part in the role of the prophet. Moses’s own children were not prophets.

2) The priest wore robes of office. There was no official uniform for a prophet.

3) The priesthood was exclusively male; not so prophecy. The Talmud lists seven women prophets: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther.

4) The role of the priest did not change over time. There was a precise annual timetable of sacrifices that did not vary from year to year. The prophet, by contrast, could not know what his mission would be until God revealed it to him. Prophecy was never a matter of routine.

5) As a result, prophet and priest had different senses of time. Time for the priest was what it was for Plato: the “moving image of eternity,” a matter of everlasting recurrence and return. The prophet lived in historical time. His today was not the same as yesterday, and tomorrow would be different again. One way of putting this is that the priest heard the word of God for all time. The prophet heard the word of God for this time.

6) The priest was holy, and therefore set apart from the people. He had to eat his food in a state of purity, and had to avoid contact with the dead. The prophet, by contrast, often lived among the people and spoke a language they understood. Prophets could come from any social class.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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