How to be a priest: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

Leviticus is the biblical book rabbis do not want you to read. Saturated with sacrificial minutiae and unsettling descriptions of ritual impurity, its countless sheep and goat offerings seem a more effective salve for insomnia than any woe that pains the heart. After all, what do wave offerings or incense recipes have in common with more substantive things, like wireless Internet or the smell of freshly brewed java in the morning?

Yet the reason why studying Leviticus is so often neglected is not because it seems boring or embarrassingly regressive. Au contraire; study of Leviticus is neglected because its contents are so revolutionary and radical that we fear giving the book anything more than a dutiful glance.

This week’s Torah Portion, Emor, begins with a command to the priestly caste that they avoid all contact with the dead, the exception being close relatives and kin. “And the Lord said unto Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say unto them: There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people” (Leviticus 21:1-2).

The law is in keeping with the general obligation that priests maintain the requisite strictures of purity and holiness. Indeed, the Sons of Aaron have already been warned not to serve in the Tabernacle while drunk (Leviticus 10:9); and they are given further rules prohibiting self-mutilation as well as strict limits about whom they can wed (Leviticus 21:4-7).

Yet if we think about this command a moment longer, it should strike us as being extraordinarily counterintuitive. The priests — Kohanim — are meant to be the spiritual leaders of Israel. Their sacred task is “to distinguish between holy and unholy, between impure and pure and to teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken unto Moses” (Leviticus 10:11). They are in essence the clerical heads — the rabbis — of the people. And yet, here they are expressly forbidden from officiating or even participating in perhaps what is one of the most trying and difficult of lifecycle events — the Jewish funeral. In almost all cases, they are banned from preparing the body for burial or even accompanying the family as they escort the departed to its final resting place. It seems fair to ask why this is so.

The Italian sage, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (1475-1550), suggested that since it is the task of the priest to give honor and glory to God, it would be a grave violation of his charge to use his station to give honor to the dead (Sforno, Leviticus 21:5.6).

More recently, modern scholars have pointed to the immense chasm between the practices of ancient Egypt and those of Israel. In contrast to Israel, Egypt’s priests made funerary rites and rituals the single most important aspect of their religion. Embalming, mummification and numerous ceremonies accompanied entombing. To appreciate the centrality of Egyptian burial rites, consider that the pyramids were not built for the living, or think back to how Joseph was embalmed and entombed in Egyptian fashion at the end of Genesis.

Against this cultural milieu, Israel’s priests are abjured from making deities of the dead or even excessive mourning. Their task is to worship a living God and to sanctify the day-to-day life of Israel instead (Jacob Milgrom on Leviticus 21:1-5).

Yet, there is something unsatisfying with this answer, primarily because the Kohanim are absent from a whole number of other lifecycle events as well. A few weeks ago, we read the portion of Tazria, which decreed that the birthmother should avoid “entering the sanctuary or touching any holy thing” for some 40 to 80 days after birth (Leviticus 12:1-8). The mother, it seems, is bid to stay well away from the Temple’s priests.

One might expect a Kohen to carry out a circumcision, but here, too, no officiant is mentioned. “On the eighth day, let the flesh of his foreskin be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). Similarly, for marriage, the Torah makes no mention of any presiding prophet or priest (Deuteronomy 24:1). Remarkably, it was not until the early Middle Ages that an officiating rabbi became obligatory at weddings.

The question, then, is if a priest was not called upon to “hatch them, match them, or dispatch them,” then just who did the presiding over these lifecycle events? The answer, quite simply, was anyone. A father would likely have circumcised his son. A relative would see to proper burial. Learned wedding guests, or the groom, would ensure that the marriage was done according to the Laws of Moses.

Indeed this is but one reason why Leviticus is so radical.

The Italian commentator, Shadal (1800-1865), remarks that this idea is encapsulated by the phrase that Israel be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6): “Every Israelite is meant to have a personal ‘priest-like’ relationship with God.” Toward that end, perhaps it is time that laity and non-laity alike give Leviticus the attention it deserves.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

Researcher tracing Jewish genes meets the Kohanim of Africa [VIDEO]

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his new book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

For many people, genetics research conjures up frightening notions of racial or religious superiority — or the possibility of genetic discrimination. David B. Goldstein isn’t worried about either of these things.

“I take the view that there isn’t anything to be afraid of in our genetic makeups. So I really think that it’s interesting, fascinating even, sometimes important, but there isn’t anything scary lurking there,” said Goldstein, a professor of molecular genetics and the director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy’s Center for Population Genomics &Pharmacogenetics.

Goldstein, 44, even applies his open-research policy to a scientific study a few years ago that linked genetic diseases to intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. He calls that work “speculative,” but he doesn’t rule out research into the issue.

“That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be really careful in how you present what’s been done,” he said. “I think you do, and I think we’ve seen mistakes in how work is presented. I think it’s really reckless to overstate results. But I don’t think there are any areas that are unwise to investigate, because I’m just not afraid of what we’re going to find.”

In “Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History,” recently published by Yale University Press, Goldstein uses the latest genetic methods — including genetic mapping and advanced DNA testing — to illuminate compelling issues in Jewish history like the biblical priesthood, the Lost Tribes, Jewish migration, and Jewish genetic diseases.

Goldstein’s most startling finding: There are enough Y chromosome similarities among many who call themselves descendants of the Cohanim, the biblical priestly caste, to argue for genetic Cohen continuity.

He and his colleagues tested these similarities by comparing the Y chromosomes of Cohanim with the chromosomes of other Jews. Sure enough, the majority of the self-identified Cohanim, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews, had the same type of Y chromosome. Further testing by Goldstein and friends leads him to estimate that the Cohanim were founded before the Roman era — and perhaps before the Babylonian conquest in the sixth century B.C.E.

Even Goldstein was blown away.

“The apparent continuity of the Cohen Y chromosome was an out-and-out stunner; I would have never predicted that to be the case,” he said.

He also finds genetic evidence for the idea that the Lemba tribe in Africa might have some Jewish origins, a finding that the media simplified by saying he had shown the Lemba are one of Judaism’s 10 Lost Tribes.

In the section on the Lemba, and indeed throughout the book, Goldstein is careful about his conclusions. For him, the research is more about shedding light on themes of Jewish history, such as exile and Diaspora. As he puts it in the book, “What makes a people a people? What binds them together through time? What alienates them from some and aligns them to others?”

As admirable as the book’s scholarship is its readability. Goldstein’s jargon-free writing and sense of humor courts readers who are not hard-core scientists. At different points in the book, he calls himself a “lousy mathematician” and as “having a bit of the gambler in my genes,” and, in the section about the alleged link between genetic diseases and intelligence, he writes, “Now we geneticists have a genuine kerfuffle on our hands.”

Don’t be misled — Goldstein’s book isn’t “Jewish Genetics for Dummies.” But he has taken cutting-edge science and made it accessible to the general reader willing to make an effort.

It wasn’t easy, admitted Goldstein, whose academic work focuses on medical genetics — specifically, why some people control HIV better than other people and why some people respond better to some medicines than other people.

“I started writing this just about 10 years ago. The discussions of the science were dreadful, incomprehensible. And so I just tried it again and again until I found ways that worked and that people didn’t complain about when I showed it to them.”

Part of the motivation for the book, Goldstein says, stems from guilt he feels because he remained in graduate school at Stanford and didn’t go to Israel when the 1991 Gulf War broke out.

“I did feel like I should do something. And I think doing some work eventually at least gave me some kind of connection to read about Jewish history as part of my job, and that definitely made me feel better. I guess I finally got over it and started going to Israel regularly, which I still do.”

He’s frank about the limitations of genetic history. “[G]enetics can never, however, replace, or even compete with, the painstaking work of archaeology, philology, linguistics, paleobotany and the many other disciplines that have helped resurrect some of the lost stories of human history,” Goldstein writes.

Understandably, though, he’s proud that his research has yielded some insight into some vexing issues, and shares the notion that what he is doing on some issues — say, the Cohanim — borders on the fantastic.

“The continuity of the Cohen paternal line is an astounding thing,” he said. “And it’s a little tiny bit of history that genetics tells you about.”

Peter Ephross’ articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, the Forward and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.

Bimah me up, Scotty!

When Leonard Nimoy was creating the Mr. Spock character for “Star Trek” in 1966, he remembered a thrilling moment from his childhood Orthodox synagogue. It was Yom Kippur, and the Kohanim, representatives of the priestly tribe, swayed on the bimah, their long tallitot draped over their heads, their fingers spread in a V-shape.

“These men didn't say the blessing, they shouted it,” Nimoy said in his resonant, gravelly voice. “They chanted and wailed, and everyone had their eyes covered, and my father said to me, 'Don't Look!' And of course, being 8 years old, I peeked, and I saw them doing this with their hands, and it was very chilling, passionate, ecstatic, fervent, theatrical.”

Twenty-seven years later, Nimoy remembered the V-sign while inventing a greeting for Spock, whom he saw as a kind of Wandering Jew: half-human, half-alien, at home neither on Earth nor on Vulcan.

“That's how the blessing that mesmerized me in shul became the gesture for 'Live Long and Prosper,'” he said, spreading both hands into perfect V's.

This month, he hopes to create some memorable moments at his current shul, Temple Israel of Hollywood, when his Nimoy Concert Series kicks off its second season Dec. 14. He will narrate “The Chanukah Story,” a series of holiday texts set to Chassidic, Israeli and Sephardic music, sung by the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble. The concert is the first in a 2003-2004 season that will include appearances by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony chamber players and the all-woman klezmer band, Mikveh.

“The goal is to present a broad range of world-class Jewish music performed by world-class talent,” Nimoy said.

“The series is Leonard's gift to the community,” said Temple Israel's Rabbi John Rosove. “He is a passionate Jewish artist and humanitarian.”

At his Spanish-style home in Bel Air on a recent afternoon, Nimoy sat in an airy den, surrounded by Judaica and “Star Trek” memorabilia. A Kabbalah book rested on a director's chair from the film, “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock;” pointy Vulcan ears shared a bookshelf with a photo from Nimoy's TV movie on Golda Meir. His tone veered from schmaltzy nostalgia to Spock-like understatement as he described how his Jewish roots have influenced his life and career.

The son of a Ukrainian-born barber, Nimoy grew up speaking Yiddish in a one-bedroom apartment shared by six relatives in Boston's West End, a Jewish enclave in the predominantly Catholic city. Klezmer music, performed by an uncle and four cousins, provided the backdrop at social events.

After Nimoy left home at 18 to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, his knowledge of the mamaloshen helped him land roles with visiting Yiddish theater troupes. One highlight was meeting legendary star Maurice Schwartz: “I had an appointment to audition for him at a theater on La Cienega, and as I was waiting for him to acknowledge me I heard his wife say, in Yiddish, 'He looks like the gentile in 'It's Hard to be a Jew,'” Nimoy recalled with gusto. “She didn't know I spoke the language, and I thought, 'This is going to be a snap.'”

The young actor promptly landed the role and bleached his hair platinum blond for the play's 16-week run.

When asked how the ultralogical Spock would have viewed the melodramatic Yiddish theater, Nimoy heartily laughed.

“I think he would have had the same problem with it that my parents, who were from the shtetl, had with 'Star Trek,'” he said. “They just didn't get it, didn't understand it, although they were delighted that it made me a success.”

Yet the fictional Spock felt anything but alien to Nimoy after he landed the science fiction TV series in 1966. He identified with the character's outsider status amid the human crew of the Starship Enterprise: “As a Jew from Catholic Boston, I understood what it was like to feel alienated, apart from the mainstream,” he said.

“There were a number of values in 'Star Trek' that I felt very comfortable with as a Jew,” he added. “The futuristic society is a meritocracy that values education, social justice and tikkun olam, repairing the world. That's exactly what we were out there doing on the Starship Enterprise: trying to heal the universe.”

Playing the outsider Spock made Nimoy the ultimate insider as “Star Trek” went into syndication in the late 1960s, creating legions of “Trekkies” and entering the pop culture lexicon. But the public's fascination with the series initially proved taxing for the performer. “During the 11 years that there was no 'Star Trek' production, I wrote poetry, had a couple of books published, and constantly tried to work at my acting craft in other projects,” he said. “I had a one-man show, 'Vincent,' about Vincent van Gogh, but wherever I went, no matter what I did, people were interested in me only because of 'Star Trek,' 'Star Trek,' Star Trek.' The questions were always, 'How do you feel about the series, how did it happen and whose idea was the pointed ears?'”

The questions became hostile after the publication of Nimoy's 1975 memoir, “I Am Not Spock,” when, he said, fans erroneously assumed “There was no 'Star Trek' production because I hated the series and would not play Spock.”

The rumors dissipated after he starred in 1979's “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” the first of a dozen “Trek” movie sequels; Nimoy went on to direct two of the films, to star in six of them, and to write a less defiantly titled 1995 memoir, “I Am Spock.” The popularity of the franchise gave him the clout to embark upon treasured, Jewish-themed projects, such as the TV movies “A Woman Called Golda” and the Holocaust-denial drama, “Never Forget.”

Because of the Holocaust, Nimoy consistently refused invitations to speak at “Star Trek” conventions in Germany — until a fateful conversation with Rosove about five years ago.

“I challenged Leonard because he was really hesitant to go,” the rabbi told The Journal. “I said, 'You can help transform their view of what Jews are.' So he went and he was overwhelmed by the experience.”

“There was such intense emotion emanating from that audience,” Nimoy recalled of the Bonn convention. “The subtext was, 'Thank you for presenting yourself as a Jew here in front of us. Thank you for dealing with us as a new generation.'”

Several years later, a discussion with Rosove led Nimoy to begin another unexpected journey: creating his first major art project. It began when he asked the rabbi why his father had warned against peeking at the Kohanim: “He told me that their benediction beckons the Shekhina, the feminine presence of God, into the sanctuary, and you dare not look because it could be fatal,” Nimoy said.

The conversation inspired his controversial 2002 photography book, “Shekhina,” an exploration of God's feminine side that includes nude images of women in tefillin.

These days, Nimoy has given up acting and directing to focus on photography, philanthropy and Jewish activities; he serves on an advisory board of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, funds a recording project for the National Yiddish Book Center and sponsors the Temple Israel concerts, among other endeavors.

“'Star Trek' has made it possible for me to make choices, and Jewish projects are what I choose to do,” he said, because they connect him to his roots. “I feel authentic doing them. They make me feel at home.”

“The Chanukah Story” concert takes place Dec. 14, 3 p.m. at Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd. To obtain tickets ($8-$25) or for more information about the season, contact the Nimoy Concert Series c/o Los Angeles Jewish Symphony at (310) 478-6332 or e-mail A special donor category, Shalom Circle, is also available; tickets are $150 per person and include premiere seating for all concerts, programs autographed by the artists and invitations to special events, including a year-end celebration hosted by Nimoy and his wife, Susan Bay.