The Craft of Priesthood: Haftarat Emor – Ezekiel 44:15-31

May 2, 2014

A pious Hassid told a friend of his plans to learn from R’Dov Baer, the famous Maggid of Meziritch. What powerful Torah did the Maggid teach?, the friend asked. “I traveled to the Maggid not to hear Torah from him,” the Hassid replied, “but to see how he ties and unties his shoelaces.”

Ezekiel is something of the Wild Man of Tanach: he sees the Celestial Chariot; he subverts Torah law. Little wonder that the rabbis tried to suppress his book. (Haggigah 13a). So when we get a Haftarah from Ezekiel, we expect something juicy.

And this week, we get – Ezekiel the Haberdasher:

[W]hen [the priests] enter the gates of the inner court, they shall wear linen vestments; they shall have nothing wooden upon them when they minister inside the gates of the inner court. They shall have linen turbans on their heads and linen breeches on their loins; they shall not gird themselves with anything that causes sweat. When they go out to the outer court – the outer court where the people are – they shall remove the 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 by [contact with] their vestments.

After the clothing store, we go to the barber: “they shall neither shave their heads nor let their hair go untrimmed; they shall keep their hair trimmed.” (44:20).

What on earth is going on here? Ezekiel himself was a priest, and obviously he sweated the details (so to speak). But why should anyone care nowadays?

Let’s begin from the beginning. Ezekiel’s insists that only priests descended from “Tzadok” have the right to enter the Sanctuary and minister to God. According to the Tanach, Tzadok was a priest during King David’s reign who supported Solomon’s claim to the throne against David’s other sons; when Solomon triumphed, not surprisingly Tzadok became High Priest. (1 Kings 1:8, 32, 39-45).

But we need not understand “Tzadokite” exclusively in this way. Tzadok clearly bears the same root as Tzadik or Tzedek, and the rabbis would often reinterpret passages by replacing the vowels within particular words. Thus, a “Tzadokite” priest is not one descended from a man named Tzadok, but rather a righteous priest.

That has more to do with clothing than you might imagine.

We normally and sensibly think of the righteous person as someone who does the right thing in a particular situation. But that simple definition raises two other far more difficult questions: 1) how do we know what is the right thing? and 2) how can we train ourselves to do that thing?

Much of the western philosophical tradition since the Enlightenment has seen the answers to these two questions as deriving from reason. Ethics is the study of attempting to derive the best rules in answering moral problems. Immanuel Kant developed what he called the “categorical imperative,” which sometimes is formulated as “act as if what you do would be a universal rule of conduct” and is developed into the principle of treating human beings only as ends, not as means. Jeremy Bentham had a very different way of thinking about ethics, and formulated his utilitarian principle as seeking to establish the greatest good for the greatest number.

But there is an older tradition of ethics, deriving from the ancient world, which sees it as the study of how to improve the soul. Its goal is less the development of correct rules and more a guide for how to live an excellent life. This focus partly comes from skepticism about the very ability to deduce ethical rules; Aristotle famously argued in the Nicomachean Ethics that we can only expect such precision as the subject matter allows.

Ethics under this tradition, then, tends to dwell on aspects of human psychology and the methods of forming the best possible character. It engages less in hypothetical thought experiments, e.g., you have so many people in a lifeboat and which will you keep, than what are the sorts of characteristics we should inculcate and how should we do so? For this reason, it is sometimes called virtue ethics. In this conception, ethics is less a set of rules and more a craft, a pattern of activity in which one creates and shapes her soul. Rules or principles-based ethics and virtue ethics are not incompatible, but they do tend to focus on different questions and have different priorities.

In keeping with the patient and persistence crafting of the soul, one theme emerges strongly from virtue ethics: habit. Aristotle emphasized habit, and Maimonides, his philosophical disciple, devoted an entire ethical treatise, the Shmonah Perakim, to a virtue ethics approach based upon building good habits. “Good conduct,” Rambam argued, “is conduct that is balanced between two extremes, each of which is unfavorable; one is excess and the other restriction. [Personal] virtue refers to tendencies and habits that are equally balanced between the bad tendencies of excess and the restriction.” The mitzvot, Maimonides argued, all serve to “improve the powers of the soul” by habituating it to action lying between extremes. We do not reason our way to good character; we act our way to it. Nothing in fact could be more relevant to moderns, as contemporary neuroscience has confirmed many of its findings. NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the bestselling author of The Happiness Hypothesis, says that human character is like an elephant and a rider: the rider (our conscious minds) can order the elephant around all it wants, but the elephant (our unconscious psyche) will follow its developed habits no matter what.

For Maimonides, acting our way to good character comes both from those mitzvot with explicit ethical character and those that are not so explicit. Thus:

a man should live naturally, following the middle path, eating a moderate portion of permitted food, drinking a moderate portion of permitted drink, engaging in permitted sexual relations in a moderate way, and creating a society [based on] righteousness and justice…He need not live in caves or on mountains, nor wear sackcloth and coarse wool. There is no need to weary the body, or drain it or oppress it…

And sure enough, we find in Haftarat Emor that the priest need trim his hair, but not grow it long or shave his head. He may marry, but not everyone – some are denied to him (to be sure, there is sexism here, but let us leave that for another day). He may wear reasonable clothing, but not ostentatiously adorn himself, and as Mendel Hirsch pointed out in the late 19th century, the clothes are the property of the community.

Clothing thus serves not merely as a metaphor for righteous conduct, but as a method of establishing that conduct. Of course people can have habits without becoming righteous; the point is that linking habits with conduct can develop righteousness if we seek to do so. Even the most intimate garments a priest wears are dedicated to community service. Every action he takes is designed to remind him of his sacred and community duty, and we hope that this gets into his soul. Priesthood, then, is not an occupation: it is a craft bound up literally in every fabric of his life.

That is a craft that all of us should learn, for it forms the most powerful way of becoming an ethical human being. When we lie down, and rise up, and walk by the way, and put on our clothes, and eat, and drink, and everything else, we are crafting our souls. The question we must confront ourselves with is: what kind of souls are we making?

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