parshat emor, leviticus 21
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on May 12th 2022 for a discussion of the Biblical taboo against contact with death. We explore Biblical and Rabbinic texts and wonder what the Torah’s aversion to death teaches us about life.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Today we discuss the Biblical taboo against contact with death. We wonder what the Torah’s aversion to death teaches us about life. So put away your fancy books on theology and metaphysics. Forget for the moment about mysticism and concepts of the afterlife and let’s talk about our lives. Let’s talk about life after death.
So welcome to Madlik. I am broadcasting live from Tel Aviv, Israel, and I'm joined by Rabbi Adam Mintz in New York City. So we are combining both in traditional Jewish fashion, Israel and the Galut. And I must say that I got to Israel maybe a week, a week and a half after Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day and, and all of the flags are still streaming from balconies, and from trees and from cars. And I'm reminded that in Israel, something very strange happens on Independence Day. First, there's Yom Hazicharon (Remembrance Day), which is probably the saddest day of the year, where those of you who have been in Israel, the most moving profound ceremony, ritual takes place where for one minute, the sirens are blasted. People literally stop their cars on the highway and stand at attention and respect (for the fallen soldiers) next to their cars. And then the next moment the day is over, and the happiest day of the year occurs. And I will call that for today's purposes, life after death. So we are not talking about the afterlife. As I said in the introduction, we are talking about life, and we're talking life in the shadow of death after death with death. And with that, we are going to jump right in to this week's parsha it's potshat Emor. And it's Leviticus 21. God said to Moses, speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron and say to them, none shall defile himself or any dead person among his kin. לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו, except for the relatives that are closest to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother. And then it goes on to say, They shall not shave, smooth any part of their heads or cut the side growth of their beards, or gash their flesh, they shall be holy to their God, and not profane the name of their God, for they offer God's offerings by fire, the food of their God, and so must be holy. And those rules apply to any profit to any priest or Cohen. But then in verse 10, it goes on to say, the priest who is exalted above his fellows, הַכֹּהֵן֩ הַגָּד֨וֹל, the high priest, on who's had the anointing oil has been poured, and who has been ordained to wear, the vestments shall not bear his head in warning or rent his vestments, he shall not go in where there is any dead body, he shall not defile himself, even for his father or mother. So correct me if I'm wrong, Rabbi. But really, this is the first time that the Bible in this cycle of the reading is addressing head on the laws of impurity. And the most basic cause of any impurity in Judaism is coming into contact with death. And it's so much of a taboo that a normal Cohen cannot go to a funeral of a cousin. He cannot mourn for a friend by going to a cemetery. The high priests can't even mourn and come into contact with his own parents. So first of all, am I right that the source of all impurity in the Bible is death, and two here we are what can we make of this?
Adam Mintz 04:40
So, first of all, this is an amazing beginning of the of the weekly parsha. Yes, the source of all impurity in Judaism in the Torah is death. You see, Judaism is a religion of life. The Torah says Ve'Chai Ba'hem, you should live by the laws, and therefore death is the opposite of that. And therefore death. Death is impurity. It's interesting that the idea of life versus death comes up, I'll just talk about in another context, and we'll bring it back to the Cohen. You know, we're told to choose life, That's why if someone puts a gun to your head and says, I'm going to kill you, unless you violate Shabbat, or unless you eat not kosher, you're supposed to eat not Kosher or violate Shabbat. Rather than die. Ve'Chai Ba;hem we live by the Torah, the Torah wants us to live not to die. There are only three exceptions to that. That's idolatry, adultery and murder. But those are just exceptions, basically, you're supposed to live. And here the Cohen. Who himself in this case, it's basically men, because they are the ones who worked in the temple, they are required to remain holy, to remain holy means that you are not allowed to come in contact with death. It's interesting actually, that a regular Coben is allowed to come in contact with death for a close relative, the high priest is not allowed to come in contact with death, even for a close relative. And I wonder Geoffrey, which is more surprising, is it more surprising that the Cohen is allowed to come in contact for a close relative or that the Cohen Gadol is not allowed to come in contact with a close relative, I would suggest maybe that what's surprising is that the regular Cohen can come in contact with, with death in any situation, because the Cohen needs to stay away from death, since the code needs to always be available to work in the temple.
Geoffrey Stern 06:53
You know what's amazing to me.... And I think to answer your question about the different gradations here, I think that these are paradigms. In other words, the exceptions are and exceptions probably come from just human social concerns. I mean, a normal priest is a normal priest. He's not quite at the level of the high priest. So he can make an exception to the rule, the Cohen Gadol the high priest can make no exception to the rule. But what the statement that it's saying, what strikes me is that it associates this with being holy. Last week, we had the Parsha called Kedoshim and we talked about what holiness was. And the last thing we mentioned, was, we didn't say that holiness is not coming into contact with death. So this is really a profound statement of not simply, as you say, that Judaism is very this worldly, and, you know, you can you can almost do any sin, it says ve'chai ba'hem And when we raise up our glass, we say, L'Chaim, I get all that. But this is a level deeper a letter for a level farther, because what this is saying is part of God's message, or maybe the core of God's message is you don't need death. And the interesting thing is, I think that the classic rabbinic sources kind of take up upon this. I mean, if you think about this, the purpose of religion, normally when we talk about what is religions, most primary function, it's to explain to us the unknown. It's to comfort us when we need comfort. It's when we face the abyss, it is literally to answer the question of death. And here we are saying that in God's book, holiness, is to not dwell, not focus on death. And here's how the rabbinic sauces in my mind kind of approach it. They take the verse that is right before our verse at the beginning of our portion Leviticus 20: 27, A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones—and they shall retain the bloodguilt.. And the Tanhuma says, Why are those verses put right before the verses that we just read? It's because God says to the Jewish people, do not inquire of ghosts. Remember, many people, even up till today, will look for inspiration amongst the spirits of those who are dead with those who are past a necromancer. And what God says is you don't have that choice. I am your God, you come to me, You shall not inquire of spirits and in a sense, I think that's explaining the connection between God being holy, that his temple is holy and an aversion to dwelling, inquiring focusing on death. Do I have a leg to stand on here?
Adam Mintz 10:11
I mean, I think you do that's interesting that you connect the two. Let's let's talk bigger picture, the connection between this week's portion and last week's portion. Kedoshin means to be holy means not to be impure, not to come in contact with death. So the entire parsha actually, last week was about life, how you live your life, what you need to do fear your parents keep the Sabbath do all of those things. And then this week, it's about stay away from death. It's the flip side isn't?
Geoffrey Stern 10:55
It? Is it is there's no question about it. And you know, I'd like to focus a little bit on your insight that you said, Why is there an exception for your parents, and in the case of the Cohen Gadol even that exception doesn't exist. It's fascinating that the rabbi's say that once Rabbinic Judaism began, they say that you can make an exception also for righteous people. And for scholars. It says אין טומאה לצדיקים ולא לחכמים, and that's in the Midrash Aggadah, Leviticus. But they say that at Yehuda HaNasi's funeral, even Kohanim came and felt that because he was so righteous, they could defile themselves. So I think you're right, in asking that question. There is an aspect of this, that while we don't linger, while we don't focus on death, because we have this amazing connection with God, there are certain people that have a valid right to that connection as well. And that's our parents, both, our physical parents, but also the righteous. So I think there is the exception is real. And that's kind of fascinating.
Adam Mintz 12:16
That is fascinating that Midrash is actually fascinating that the exception is extended to righteous people. I think there are two ways to say and if you want to be Talmudic about it, you could say that those people don't have ritual defilement. Or you could say that you're allowed to ritually defile to those people. And I think the second is correct, meaning a Cohen, in the time of the temple, who went to their father's funeral, would then have to go to the mikveh, to the ritual bath, and be sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer, they would have to go through a purification process. It's not that becoming tameh, to your parents doesn't make you tameh, it makes you to tameh, it's just that your obligation to your parents overrides the prohibition against becoming today. I think that's a nuance, but I think it's an important nuance.
Geoffrey Stern 13:19
You know, so far, we've talked about these laws almost in a vacuum. We've said that, you know, any religion is there to explain death, any religion talks about how you react with those who have passed into the nether world. And, we really said that if you read this text as straightforwardly, it's making a stand. It's saying that we Jews have a direct connection to God. And therefore, we push back from the dead and the nether world and all that, but I want to explore something that has always fascinated me. And this week, I actually explored it because it seems so obvious to me in terms of a historical context, you know, the Jews came out of Egypt. And you don't have to be an Egypt scholar, to know what the Egyptian religion was all about. I mean, the pyramids are the wonders of the world, you have to believe that every citizen of the Near East knew about Egyptian metaphysics and the Egyptian belief in the next world. And then if you look at the Jewish people, and after all, what were we building? We were building pyramids, which were literally to take the pharaohs and the upper class to the next world. So I said to myself, isn't this a rejection also, of all that Egypt represented? We have that theme throughout the Bible. So I look back and you know, the first interesting thing About the Cohanim, the priests in Egypt, is that they had land, and our priests have no land. So if you look at a Genesis 47, and it talks about Joseph, taking away all the land of all the people as they had to come and get food for the seven year famine, it says in 47: 22, only the land of the priests רַ֛ק אַדְמַ֥ת הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים, he did not take over for the priests had an allotment for Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment. So here we definitely have this contrast already, between the priests in Egypt, and the priests, in Judaism in biblical Judaism, where they never had any land. And then you start to think about other parts of our verses. For instance, if you noticed by the high priest, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it says, You shall not shave, you shall not cut the corners of your beard. And all of us who have ever seen pictures of the Egyptians, as opposed to Babylonians, who had a healthy beard, and Persian kings, they were saved. So it seems to me that part of this is a rejection of all that Egypt represented. And before I asked you for your opinion, you know, Rabbi, one other data point was when Joseph died, and it said that he was embalmed. But he was it was done so in a way that ensured, not that he would go into the nether world, but that he could be taken with them. So it just seems to me that there were these minor reference points to facts about the Egyptian religion, and that if one was reading it from this context, this is just one more rejection of everything that Egypt represented, does that resonate with you?
Adam Mintz 17:22
It's fantastic. Actually, I mean, the idea of connecting the Cohan of Egypt, with the Jewish Cohen, I think, is a really interesting thing. First of all, you have to know the Torah never makes that connection. I mean, the Torah talks about Cohanim. But the Torah never makes that connection. But what you're saying is that our priesthood is actually the opposite of the Egyptian priesthood. And that the purpose of our priesthood is to show that the Egyptians did not have it, right. Meaning we don't have a priesthood where the where the priests owns everything. It's a priesthood where the priest has nothing. So the purpose of the introduction of priests and the tau raise to show what's important in Judaism. That's a great idea isn't that we kind of we kind of undermine the pagan society.
Geoffrey Stern 18:21
Well, but it's not only pagan, if you think I mean, the easiest, I'm sure I could pick any religion. But if you look at the Catholic religion, for instance, what is the power that the church has over the people? It's the pearly gates, it's damnation, or it's go to heaven. And literally, it is the biggest cudgel, the biggest stick of that religion. And I argue that Egypt again was all about that. It was all about the afterlife. And here we have a religion that yes, that's why the Kohanim in Egypt and it uses the same word. We always think of Cohanim like Cohen... Cohen's a nice Jewish name. But Cohanim means priests. And when the Bible refers to Egyptian priests, it refers to Kohanim but no wonder they had land because they had all the power. They controlled everything and here we have, the Jewish Priest doesn't have that land doesn't have that power. And to me, the punch line if you'd look at the opposite of the pyramids, is Deuteronomy 34: 6 and God buried him meeting Moses in the valley in the land of Moab near Beth poor, and no one knows his burial place to this day. Here our leader, and in the Bible at times it says Moshe was like a god Moshe was like a pharaoh. Here our leader is buried in an unmarked grave. You cannot but have a takeaway from This, that this is a radical rejection of all that was Egyptian and that's kind of natural, is it not? We were freed slaves.
Adam Mintz 20:08
Yeah. Good. I think that's all good and I gotta make one additional point, the story of Hanukkah, right B'yemai Matityahou ben Yohanan Cohen Gadol. The story of Hanukah was actually the victory of the Cohanim. And what happened was after the story of Hanukkah, the Cohen, the High Priest actually became the king. And Ramban, Nachmanides says that that family was punished, because the Cohen is not allowed to be the king. There's a separation between church and state, the Cohen is not allowed to be the king separation of church and state, that's not great.
Geoffrey Stern 20:48
Well, absolutely. And you can almost equate the downfall of [Temple] Judaism. That was the beginning of that slippery slope, all the way to Herod. And all that when we we gave up that separation of literally, of church and state, you're absolutely correct. That absolutely amplifies what I was saying. I mentioned a few minutes ago, that the rabbi's kind of took away from these biblical verses some lessons and the first lesson they took was that you can defile yourself for a teacher. And that there's something profound in Judaism in terms of the respect we have for our parents for our past, and for the education and the transmission of our tradition, that is at the same level, possibly, or gets close to the same level as this relationship that we have with God. But the rabbi's went even further, and I'd like to explore some rabbinic texts that relate to the way they valued life. So one interesting, and this is a piece of Talmud that I searched for, because I knew it was there. And I said, you know, it's the old question of you know, two guys walk into a bar. What happens if a funeral possession and a wedding possession meet on a crossroad. In Ketubot 17a it says the sages taught one reroutes the funeral procession for a burial of a corpse to yield before the wedding possession of a bride. מַעֲבִירִין אֶת הַמֵּת מִלִּפְנֵי כַלָּה And the reason they do that is because the wedding represents the future. And the burial is the past. And again, I put it within the context of other religions, that deify, that make this realm of the afterlife as the fulcrum that guides our observance, and just a very simple rule like this is a profound statement, is it not?
Adam Mintz 23:08
It really is. These great Talmudic statements where you have one thing versus the other, you know, they have a case where yet where you have a chance to save your father or your teacher, who do you say first. What is considered to be more important, a funeral or a wedding, which is considered to be more important. I always like to study those pieces of the Talmud by asking the following question, what would we have thought if the Talmud hadn't given us an answer? What would you have thought to a bit in the right answer?
Geoffrey Stern 23:38
I don't want to get into social commentary. And maybe this doesn't apply to your synagogue and to modern, Orthodox, observant Jews, but I belong to a conservative synagogue. And I know that around the holidays, they will say services begin at this time, and Yizkor is at this time. Even Lincoln Square synagogue has a free Yizkor service. Yizkor is when we remember those who have passed away and it seems that even till today, even within our Judaism, we focus upon that aspect because we know that's what brings in people to our religion, but at the end of the day, those of us who are involved in our religion 365 days knows that it's really the wedding's not the funerals. It's really the Simchat Torah and the Purim and the Hanukkah, but nonetheless we default to using the hook of the afterlife the Netherworld? Am I wrong, am I being facetious and cynical?
Adam Mintz 24:54
What about the fact that what brings people to shul is Kaddish? Right?.
Geoffrey Stern 25:00
Yeah. And neither one of us is putting it down obviously. But nonetheless, you can ask the question: Why is Kaddish such a draw and not? You know, listening to the Torah? You know, why did you say the Torah reading begins sharply at 10:00?
Adam Mintz 25:18
We know the answer and I guess that's the that's the problem, right?
Geoffrey Stern 25:22
Yup. So I want to dig a little bit deeper. We it's very trite to say that the rabbi's were this worldly, and they loved life. But there's another thread that I find fascinating and Ketubot 103b It says: When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi fell ill, Rabbi Ḥiyya entered to be with him and found him crying. He said to him: My teacher, for what reason are you crying? Isn’t it taught in a baraita: If one dies while laughing, it is a good sign for him; while crying, it is a bad sign for him?... Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said to him: I am crying for the Torah and the mitzvot that I will be unable to fulfill after I die. The sense that only someone of flesh and blood can feed the poor, can put tephilin on his arm can make the decision whether to be faithful to his wife or not, can study the Torah, this lack of looking at the next world as the ultimate goal and reward. It's absolutely lacking here. This gives religious substance to our life on Earth. Is it powerful?
Adam Mintz 26:44
Very powerful. So what do you make of that statement? I think it's great.
Geoffrey Stern 26:48
I think you can only take it at face value that just as those of us who come into contact with, with a friend or family who passes away, and we walk out we go, you know, we got to savor every moment on this beautiful earth. It's as good as it gets. There's such a focus on the only thing that we can do is in this world. You know, it reminds you of that Midrash where the angels were arguing with God, saying, why God are you giving the Torah to Moses, give it to us we're pure. And all the arguments are because Moses can sin and he's human, and he's hungry, and he has to work and he has to make sure he's ethical. You don't have any of those issues. That's kind of the way the Rabbi's, especially in a text like this are looking at the next world. Maybe it's a place for reward. But it's not a place for spiritual growth. It's not a place where you can learn one day what you didn't know the day before.
Adam Mintz 27:49
Yeah, I think that that's all good. I mean, the idea of this world versus the next world, how do we live our life? Are we supposed to worry about this world? Are we supposed to be concerned about the next word?
Geoffrey Stern 28:03
You know, and you don't even have to go to rabbinic sources. If you go to the psalms that we read when we sing Hallell it says lלֹ֣א הַ֭מֵּתִים יְהַֽלְלוּ־יָ֑הּ וְ֝לֹ֗א כׇּל־יֹרְדֵ֥י דוּמָֽה. The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence. I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of the LORD. The LORD punished me severely, but did not hand me over to death.
Adam Mintz 28:28
I mean, King David knew the answer, right?
Geoffrey Stern 28:31
So you could look at it from the point of view of someone who's in pain and someone dying. But from the perspective that we're looking at, it's no this is the best life that we have. And it's fascinating that when the rabbi's did put together an afterlife, it was Techiyat Hameytim it was coming back with a body they were so focused, so committed to life as we know it. I just want to share one law that actually is in the Misheneh Brura and the Shulchan Aruch till today and the Gomora Berachot says one may not walk in a cemetery with tephilin on his head and a Torah in his arm and read from it. If one does so he commits a transgression due to the verse. He who mocks the poor blasphemed his creator. לוֹעֵג לָרָשׁ חֵרֵף עוֹשֵׂהוּ And there are other laws. In the Mishna Brura that says you can't wear ztitzit, a talit in a cemetery. And again, it harps on what Rob Yehuda HaNasi said, You can be the biggest tzadik in the world buried and visited by by 1000s of Hasidim. But you can't do mitzvot anymore. And so if somebody shows up to a beit kevarot to a cemetery wearing tephilin, he is mocking the dead. And the flip side of that is that every breathing moment that we have the obligation but the privilege of being alive.
Adam Mintz 30:04
I think that's the best thing. That's the best word so far. And that is, we have the privilege to do all these things. Isn't that a great thing? We have the privilege to do these things. Once you die, you no longer have the privilege to do these things anymore.
Geoffrey Stern 30:21
Yep. And and, and it comes across, not as some sort of ethical message or a drash. But it goes all the way through to the Halacha and the fact that when you leave the cemetery, you wash your hands, we give great respect for the dead. And I should say that the laws even for a Cohen, if there's no one else to bury somebody, you got to do it. It's called a Meit Mitzvah.
Adam Mintz 30:49
I'll tell you another interesting thing about respect for the dead, you know, some people wear their tzitizit out of their shirts, you know, they wear they wear their tzitzit hanging. You know, that when you go into a cemetery, you're not allowed to have your tzitzit hanging out, because that would be embarrassing for the dead. We take that so literally, that would be considered embarrassing for the dead. Isn't that interesting?
Geoffrey Stern 31:13
It's interesting. But again, it's a it's a little trivial example of a profound message.
Adam Mintz 31:20
One more example of the same message.
Geoffrey Stern 31:24
And that love of life that we have isn't just a simple L'Chaim. It's a love of everything that we can do with every breath that we have in every blessed moment that we have. And that ultimately, is why a rejection of death is something that is holy, and it is an affirmation of our relationship with God and life and that to me is an amazing message.
Adam Mintz 31:51
Fantastic. Enjoy Israel. Shabbat shalom, everyone else Shabbat Shalom and we look forward next week to returning to our regular scheduled time at 8pm Shabbat Shalom everybody
Geoffrey Stern 32:00
Shabbat Shalom to everybody. Bye bye
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