Moral Priesthood

April 15th: Metzora (and Shabbat Hagadol)
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Last week, I spoke about the latitude afforded to religious authorities in making the relationship with the Divine fit our human needs and sensibilities. There are clearly limits to this flexibility, but our Tradition teaches that both structure/strictness and accommodation/understanding are vital parts of our relationship with God. 

An example would be the way that the ancient priests had to use their judgment in diagnosing leprosy—a term used for certain skin diseases and also for outbreaks of mold in a home. Like modern physicians, the priests had to observe phenomena and then apply various standards and parameters in deciding whether or not an outbreak of tzara’at/leprosy had occurred. As you read the following instructions (Leviticus 14.34-38), notice how both exact and inexact the description of tzara’at is: When a homeowner thinks his house may have nega’ tzara’at, an eruptive plague, “The owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ‘Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.’ The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become unclean; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house. If, when he examines the plague, the plague in the walls of the house is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, the priest shall come out of the house to the entrance of the house, and close up the house for seven days.” Though one figures that the priests were well-trained, one can imagine that, while some possible infestations were clearly leprosy and other were clearly not leprosy, some were hard to call.

In our times, the diagnosis of physical ailments in both our bodies and our homes has been removed from the religious realm. However, the imperatives of the religious life can charge us with a kind of moral priesthood. We are moral people, commanded by Heaven to behave in a godly manner and to “let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5.25). As such, we feel a responsibility to make moral judgments about a variety of people, causes, and institutions. Are they social or moral lepers, and should everyone steer clear, or are they just different and not a threat?

I first learned this lesson about our moral priesthood from Dr. Eugene Mihaly, a great Talmudist and Midrash scholar at the Hebrew Union College. The moral question that day was over a plan in Cincinnati to place a group home for developmentally disabled adults in a residential neighborhood. Some neighbors objected to the group home, citing danger. The word lepers was not used, but the same sense of peril was invoked. Dr. Mihaly, however, invoked the ancient power of the priesthood and asked—in a moral sense, “Are these developmentally disabled people lepers, or are they not?” Knowing what we know about these citizens and the supervision the group home would afford them, Dr. Mihaly called on us to declare them clean and not leprous. I have always been struck how he combined this principled social justice stand with the methodology of Torah.

If one were to review the history of social activism over the last 200 years, one could see a similar kind of struggle or process. For a variety of reasons, certain persons have been considered less acceptable in society and democracy. Led by our moral priesthood, however, we have been called to re-examine some of these discriminations. 

Was the enslavement of Africans in the New World reasonable or fair—or even necessary for their own good (!)? Were they incapable of freedom and personal responsibility? Or, was the particular institution of slavery a kind of moral leprosy that needed to be declared unclean and dismantled? There were many religious leaders who rose up as moral priests, and, among the abolitionists was Rabbi David Einhorn, a father of the Reform Movement. His first posting in the United States was at Congregation Har Sinai in Baltimore, but an angry mob chased him out of town, and he continued his career at congregations in Philadelphia and New York. As an architect of what came to be called Classical Reform Judaism, Rabbi Einhorn spoke about our obligations to be modern-day prophets and to make judgments that proclaim God’s justice in the world.

After Emancipation, there were voices that questioned Black people’s ability to participate responsibly in the democratic process. Similar arguments were voiced about women, and the prevailing opinion was that Blacks and women were intellectual and hormonal lepers who were therefore unsuitable for professional pursuits and voting. In this case, the moral priesthood rose up and—though it took many years—declared that skin color and gender are not impediments to full participation in society. Socially, intellectually, and economically, they are not lepers.

One can also see the struggle for equality and empowerment for the disabled in these terms. The problem here was the belief/assumption that one form of disability makes one unsuitable for all kinds of work. The practical wisdom of the American with Disabilities Act and similar legislation is that job qualification is tied to ability, and reasonable accommodations have enabled many disabled citizens to participate much more fully in society—rather than being cast out and kept from the world of service and fulfillment.

In the case of the liberation of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgender individuals, the parallel with the ancient situation with leprosy was/is a fear of contagion—sometimes the contagion of disease and sometimes the contagion of influence. Fortunately, our moral priesthood has risen—in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism as well as other religious denominations—and declared unequivocally: GLBT persons are not lepers. These gender and sexual orientations may be different, but they are not dangerous.

One other group that fits this scenario may surprise you—since it is often seen as opposing the full affirmation and incorporation of other groups. What we now call Evangelical Christians have had their own struggle for acceptance in mainstream society. Prior to World War II, the Evangelicals were by and large rural people, practicing their forms of Fundamentalist or Charismatic Christianity in places that were considered insignificant. With post-war urbanization and education financed by the G.I. Bill, thousands of former country people found themselves in population centers, prosperous and civically powerful. Many observers thought that the explosion of Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity in the second half of the 20th Century was growth in this form of religion, but the eminent religious scholar Martin Marty sees it as no more than a population movement—from the hollers and hills and farms of obscurity into mainstream places: their sudden prominence is a result of their new-found wealth, status, and technological acumen. What I find interesting is how, despite their social importance and political power, there is still among many Evangelicals a defensiveness against persecution and dismissal—a sensibility developed during all those years when people who mattered thought of them as intellectual lepers.

We can continue this kind of analysis for a variety of different groups and individuals—some of whom are unjustly shunned and others who are actually dangerous. There are people who threaten us and our communities, and it is right and just that we protect ourselves against them. However, justice and righteousness require that we look carefully and exercise good judgment. Is it leprosy, or is it not? Are differences dangerous, or are we just looking at diversity? Fairness and accuracy require a moral priesthood that is judicious—and willing to do the hard work of careful examination.