April 27, 2002
Ostensibly Ezekiel’s message in the haftarah is part of a larger vision of the role of priests in the restored Temple. Ezekiel, who prophesied soon after the destruction of the first Temple, envisioned a priesthood with expanded responsibilities and regulations. He clearly saw the “cohanim” – priests as both the spiritual and the temporal leadership of the nation. The priests were accorded, among their many roles, judicial responsibility: “In lawsuits, too, it is they who shall act as judges, they shall decide them (qere: yishpetuhu) in accordance with My rules.” (Ezekiel 44:24)
This translation is based on what we call the “qere” or “read tradition” of the Biblical text. It is to be contrasted with the “ketiv” or “written tradition” of the text. The “ketiv” represents the text as it is found in the Biblical text itself. The “qere”, on the other hand, is a parallel tradition of how the text is to be read. It is usually found in the margins of the Biblical text. The “pshat” or plain meaning of the text that Jews accept as authoritative usually follows the “qere” reading. Consequently, the verse quoted above, refers to the judicial responsibilities of the priests as leaders of the people.
Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen from Dvinsk, the prominent 19th-20th century Lithuanian Talmudist, chose, however, to interpret the “ketiv” tradition of this text. Instead of reading the text as “they shall decide them”, he adopts the reading “and be judged” (ketiv: v’shaphtuhu). According to this interpretation the verse reads: “In a lawsuit, they too shall stand trial, and they shall be judged according to my rules.” This leads him to discuss the idea that no legal system should hold its leaders to a different standard of laws. Rather, when they need to be judged they should be tried by the same standards as everyone else. (See Meshech Hochmah Parshat Emor) This interpretation conforms to the following teaching from the Mishnah: “A High Priest (kohen gadol) may judge and be judged.” (Sanhedrin 2:1) The Jewish tradition holds its leadership responsible not only as leaders but also as human beings. Position does not carry with it exemption from the consequences of the law. Rather, each of us is responsible for his/her actions, no matter what position one holds.