Parshat Emor in Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1- 24:23 contains regulations for our Priestly class; their do’s and don’ts, their qualifications and disqualifications. Whenever I read Emor (or much of Leviticus), I wonder about our honoring the status of being a Kohen. What is the value of honoring status nowadays anyway? We no longer have a Temple. We no longer perform sacrificial rituals. If the Kohanim were teachers, we now have Rabbis and others engaged in teaching and who we honor and revere irrespective of their class.
It is only natural that someone with a family tradition or heritage of being one of the Kohanim or Leviim would want to perpetuate that. The Queen of England has no interest in abolishing the monarchy. On the other hand, a person who is a kohen, but who does not act to honor that status may feel it is a burden. Worse, a person who is a kohen, but whose behaviors in the outside world are anything but holy makes us want to agitate for change. It may be the history of the priesthood that led to rabbinic Judaism as we know it.
Believe it or not, the question of perpetuating status distinction is pretty controversial. Maybe you do not think about it much. Yet, it touches much of what we still do as Jews in many places. Ever hear of Pidyon Haben? We redeem the first born from Temple Service by a payment to a Kohen. If you are a first born (non-kohen) who was not redeemed, please report immediately to the Temple for assignment. Or, contact your synagogue for a volunteer opportunity right away.
Do not mistake my sarcasm for criticism. I actually support and believe in perpetuating our Kohen/Levy/Yisrael rituals. So much of our Torah is devoted to our understanding the importance of Kedusha—holiness. Part of holiness involves separating ourselves from those things that tarnish or diminish us. Emor recites in exacting detail the lengths to which Kohanim must go to maintain their ritual purity so they can properly represent the Jewish people and perform their spiritual duties. They were intended to be our role models.
I like the thought of having standards and practices to aspire to. I like being reminded by our traditions that we should all be striving constantly for higher levels of holiness in thought, word and deed. No, you can’t simply become a kohen as a reward for your holy behavior, but that is not the point. Striving for holiness is its own reward. What do you think?