May 5, 2007
Much has been made of the halachic discrepancies between what is found in the books of Leviticus and Ezekiel concerning Temple practice and the role of the kohanim in the ritual life of the Temple. These debates were current in the rabbinic period and are still current today in modern biblical scholarship. The discussion in traditional circles most often centers on attempts to resolve the differences between these two books. There is, however, the possibility that the practices in these two books represent a basic difference of opinion regarding attitudes towards certain very fundamental religious values. In particular, it is possible that we see a basic religious difference between Leviticus and Ezekiel concerning the proper relationship required of common people toward things that are \”kodesh – holy\”.
This dialectic is recognizable in what seems to be a rather unremarkable detail in this week\’s haftarah: \”When they [the kohanim] go out to the outer courtyard – the outer courtyard where the people are – they shall remove their vestments in which they minister and shall deposit them in the sacred chambers; they shall put on other garments, lest they make the people consecrated [rendering the people unfit for common activity] by [contact with] their [the priestly] vestments.\” (Verse 19)
As this verse indicates, Ezekiel holds that contact with the vestments of kohanim (priests) render those who have contact with them \”holy\” and consequently unfit for common activity. In contrast, according to the book of Leviticus, people do not acquire this state of \”holiness\” from contact with priestly clothing. They only acquire this state from sanctified things like the altar, the sanctuary and its utensils. (See Leviticus 29:37; 30:26-9; 6:11) Clothing, according to Leviticus, had \”holiness\” but does not transmit this quality. Ezekiel does not share this view and holds a more extreme view with regard to \”holiness\”. He wants to distance the common person from sources of holiness. He wants to preserve the sanctity of the Temple and therefore wants to distance the common person. The prohibition against touching sanctified clothing fits into this pattern. Ezekiel wants to distance anyone other than priests from the source of holiness and the book of Leviticus wants to draw them closer. (R. Kasher, Ezekiel, Mikra L\’Yisrael, pp. 862-3)
This disagreement represents our conflicted relationship with the \”holy\”. We, on the one hand, yearn to bring holiness to everyplace and to everyone, to make religion as democratic as possible both in practice and in decision making. Yet, there is a very real danger in doing so, as Ezekiel makes us aware, that the holy will become pedestrian and profane, being lost as a source of inspiration and sanctity. We, as Jews, are destined to struggle over this conflict.