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The Counterpoint of Leadership

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

7) The key words for the priest were tahor, tamei, kodesh, and chol: pure, impure, sacred, and secular. The key words for the prophets were tzedek, mishpat, chesed, and rachamim: righteousness, justice, love, and compassion. It is not that the prophets were concerned with morality while the priests were not. Some of the key moral imperatives, such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” come from priestly sections of the Torah. It is rather that priests think in terms of a moral order embedded in the structure of reality, sometimes called a “sacred ontology.” (See Philip Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks, University of Virginia Press, 2006.) Prophets tended to think not of things or acts in themselves but in terms of relationships between persons or social classes.

8) The task of the priest is boundary maintenance. The key priestly verbs are lehavdil and lehorot, to distinguish one thing from another and apply the appropriate rules. Priests gave rulings while prophets gave warnings.

9) There is nothing personal about the role of a priest. If one – even a high priest – was unable to officiate at a given service, another could be substituted. Prophecy was essentially personal. The sages said that “no two prophets prophesied in the same style” (Sanhedrin 89a). Hosea was not Amos. Isaiah was not Jeremiah. Each prophet had a distinctive voice.

10) Priests constituted a religious establishment. The prophets, at least those whose messages have been eternalized in Tanach, were not an establishment but an anti-establishment, critical of the powers-that-be.

The roles of priest and prophet varied over time. The priests always officiated at the sacrificial service of the Temple. But they were also judges. The Torah says that if a case is too difficult to be dealt with by the local court, you should “go to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict” (Deuteronomy 17:9). Moses blesses the tribe of Levi, saying that “They will teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10) – suggesting that they had a teaching role as well.

Malachi, a prophet of the Second Temple period, says: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7). The priest was guardian of Israel’s sacred social order. Yet it is clear throughout Tanach that the priesthood was liable to corruption. There were times when priests took bribes, others when they compromised Israel’s faith and performed idolatrous practices. Sometimes they became involved in politics. Some held themselves as an elite apart from, and disdainful toward, the people as a whole.

At such times the prophet became the voice of God and the conscience of society, reminding the people of their spiritual and moral vocation; calling on them to return and repent; reminding the people of their duties to God and to their fellow humans; and warning of the consequences if they did not.

The priesthood became massively politicized and corrupted during the Hellenistic era, especially under the Seleucids in the second century BCE. Hellenized high priests like Jason and Menelaus introduced idolatrous practices, even at one stage a statue of Zeus, into the Temple. This provoked the internal revolt that led to the events we recall on the festival of Chanukah.

Yet despite the fact that the initiator of the revolt, Matityahu, was himself a righteous priest, corruption re-emerged under the Hasmonean kings. The Qumran sect known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls was particularly critical of the priesthood in Jerusalem. It is striking that the sages traced their spiritual ancestry to the prophets, not the priests (Avot 1:1).

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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