On the Kollot Haftarah: Priests, Rabbis and Us
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 26 May 2018
A couple of weeks ago I had the extraordinary privilege of attending the installation of the new Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, at St Paul’s Cathedral.
It was a grand occasion, full of choral majesty, extraordinary pomp, and the variety of wonderful ecclesiastical dress at which the Church excels. All of which, I have to admit, normally leaves me rather cold.
Nonetheless, it was a real privilege to attend:
In part, because hers is a historic appointment – as she reminded the congregation, it was just 105 years ago that a bomb was found under the Bishops Throne at St Paul’s, placed there by suffragettes. And now the seat is occupied by a woman bishop.
In part, because she will, I think, be exceptional. She warned of her intent to place a metaphorical bomb under Christianity in London, and well she might.
It was a privilege, too, because the afternoon gave a little glimpse into another world: an insight into the power dynamics hidden behind the reality of the modern Church. Perhaps we might say a glimpse into the power struggles of England in the Middle Ages.
Before being installed – anointed with oil, noch, in an echo of the anointing of the biblical priests – the new Bishop had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen, and ‘the oath of due obedience’ to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to uphold the Statutes and Constitution of St Paul’s – doing all of this in the presence of the alderman of the city. Here, three great power bases – the church, the monarchy, and the city of London – came together in a moment of ritual springing not just from religion but from power.
It was a reminder that organised religion can rarely be fully understood unless one also sees the dynamics – political and religious – that shaped it. The same is true, of course, of our tradition. Our texts – biblical and rabbinic – come from, and reflect different times, groups, needs, agendas. We, too, have the echo of political and religious tensions shaping our traditions – our conflicts were not nearly as bloody as those in the history of the Church – but tensions between different sources of power – monarchy, tribal leaders, priests, prophets and rabbis – and their different emphases are there to see if we look closely enough.
We can see this clearly in our Torah portion this morning – a portion which, it will not surprise you to know, is normally understood by scholars to have come from a Priestly source, that is this bit of Torah was written by priests. When Molly read for us from the dedication of the mishkan, what she read would not have been out of place in a ritual at St Pauls. See described the political power – the tribal leaders –each individually giving their assent by gifts to a form of concentrated religious power – the tabernacle, and the priesthood.
And Jonah read one example of the power of that priesthood, crystallized by its priestly authors. One segment of the Jewish people set apart, given ceremonial privileges, including the right to bless the people. As Jonah has told us, this is a set of hereditary privileges which still exist in some communities but not in ours, with our fundamental belief in equality – that yes we take different roles but these should not be inherited, but earned through our work and commitment.
The job of a haftarah is often to provide a different voice – to reflect the other parts of our complex dynamic.
Were we, as is traditional, taking a text from the Prophets I would have chosen a text condemning the priests – for putting their position, their power above religion and ethics. And it would have been very easy to find such a text, because there are lots of them. The Prophetic voice challenged the power of institutions – the monarchy and the priesthood.
Our tradition in our Kollot service is to hear the voice of the rabbis, by taking our additional reading from their interpretations of Torah. And so we will hear a different voice again. The rabbis inherited the priestly tradition – indeed, it existed contemporaneously with the earliest layer of rabbinic Judaism. But they understood Judaism as fundamentally a meritocracy – power came from the intellect, each individual able to approach God themselves through prayer, study and good deeds.
So what did they do with these texts about the special place of the priests?
Through their interpretation and imagination, they subverted them.
They reframed the ritual moment of the Priestly Blessing according to their own understanding, reducing the power of the priesthood by taking this ritual act and the way in which it is done, and minimising the role of the priests within it, validating their own voice.
It has a parallel in what was the most powerful – for me – moment of the installation. It was a quote from St Augustine, addressed by the newly anointed Bishop of London, sat on the episcopal throne, to a child. “For you I am a bishop” – she said – “but with you I am a Christian”.
It was a statement that whatever those power dynamics, whatever the formalities, the pomp, the ecclesiastical dress – fundamentally in our religious life we must understand ourselves all as equals, engaged in the same task. The roles we take must not obscure that truth.
That is what is being expressed in our haftarah, too.
Midrash Tanchuma (Buber) Naso 15
THUS SHALL YOU BLESS (Numbers 6:23)
This is related to what is written [in the ritual of the first fruits] LOOK DOWN FROM YOUR HOLY DWELLING, FROM THE HEAVENS, AND BLESS YOUR PEOPLE (Deuteronomy 26:15)
And similarly, David says (in his prayer to God after becoming king) BE PLEASED, THEREFORE TO BLESS YOUR SERVANT’S HOUSE, THAT IT ABIDE BEFORE YOU FOREVER…. MAY YOUR SERVANT’S HOUSE BE BLESSED FOR EVER WITH YOUR BLESSING (2 Samuel 7:29)
[in both examples, the individual asks to be directly blessed by God, without the need for intermediaries]
[So too] the congregation of Israel said to the Holy One, “Sovereign of the World, you tell your priests to bless us. We only need you to bless us – LOOK DOWN FROM YOUR HOLY DWELLING, FROM THE HEAVENS, AND BLESS YOUR PEOPLE!”
The Holy One said to them, “Even though I have said to the priests that they will bless you, I am actually standing with them and blessing you. That is why the priests spread their hands. To say: The Holy One is standing behind us.”
Thus it says THERE HE STANDS BEHIND OUR WALL, GAZING THROUGH THE WINDOW, PEERING THROUGH THE LATTICE (Song of Songs 2:9)
GAZING THROUGH THE WINDOW – from between the fingers of the priests
PEERING THROUGH THE LATTICE – when they extend their hands.
Thus it says THUS SHALL YOU BLESS (Numbers 6:23)