Book Review: The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man 5*

 

Finis Leavell Beauchamp, The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man

Kodesh Press  (New York, 2014); 396 pages; ISBN-13: 978-0692237885

Price $14.95

Philo of Alexandria once said that every person who has ever become a proselyte walks a similar path that Abraham, our Father, once walked. According to Jewish folklore, Abraham came from a highly dysfunctional home. One legend tells us that his father Terah had his son arrested for breaking the idols of his father’s business. Yes, for those people who become righteous proselytes, their journey is often a dangerous one indeed. The same may be said about the author Finis Leavell Beauchamp and his wonderful book, The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man tells about a similar spiritual odyssey about a man who came to Judaism through a most remarkable serendipitous path.

Finis Leavell Beauchamp’s The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man is fascinating story about a person who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. This Protestant movement has a substantial number of followers all over the world. When I was working on my doctorate at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, a couple of my classmates were Southern Baptists, who came from South Korea.  It was quite amusing to see them try to imitate the body language and cadence of the American preachers.

They are a highly charismatic denomination that believes in many of the folk beliefs that are mentioned in the NT, e.g., demons, exorcisms, faith healings, miracles, speaking in tongues—many of the things that Beauchamp personally experienced when he was a young boy in his parents’ home.

In the beginning of his captivating book, Beauchamp writes a lot about an exorcism he had personally experienced as a young ten-year-old boy.  In one engaging paragraph, young Beauchamp writes about the details he remembered that remarkable day in Texas:

  • The distraction of that man’s breath freed my mind for a lone moment from the terror that I felt. My body shrugged, and I suddenly exhaled laughter. In the midst of that morbid room, I could only  think of how spicy was the cinnamon flooding through my nostrils.   I was horrified that I had laughed, and glanced at the men in the room. I tried to choke back any sound rising in my throat. The exorcist grinned. “It’s ok,” he said. “They know why you’re here,” he said, pointing to the bellicose demons inhabiting my breast. “And the Devil is a mocker. . .” (Page 20.)

On the back cover of the book, Beauchamp writes, “If you were locked up in an asylum, and left for years, or worse, were born in one, how would you learn to distinguish yourself from the others? How would you come to certainly know you were the one who was sane?”

As I read this book, I had a new appreciation for the complex journeys so many Jews by choice have made. However, in Beauchamp’s case, it reminded me much about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this famous tale, Plato describes a deep subterranean cave where people have remained imprison since childhood. Enchained from the neck down to their legs, all they could see was the back of the cave and the shadows that were cast upon it. These prisoners could not even see the source of the shadows that were on the wall, much less believe that there was an outside reality—a radically different world that did not resemble anything they had ever known. However, what if the cave-dweller were given the capacity to see beyond the cave?

Judging from his experiences, Beauchamp may well have been the kind of prisoner that Plato was talking about!

Fortunately, for young Beauchamp, he survived to tell his unique tale.

As a person endowed with a profound sense of spirituality, the author continued searching until he found in Judaism a faith that spoke to his soul.  One of the most important distinctions that separate Judaism from Christianity is how each religion approaches faith. Christian across the expression prefer certainty; the knowledge that one is “saved” is the only thing that can bring solace to the Christian heart. In Judaism, there is no such thing as a justification by faith. In fact, in Judaism, the questioning of faith prods us to grow and discover—which is exactly what Beauchamp did.

As a boy, he always wanted to solve puzzles. This skill made his mother nervous, which was one of the reasons she thought he was “possessed.” But as he learned, solving puzzles is something many of the greatest philosophical and scientific minds have been doing since the beginning of recorded history.

Thomas Hobbes may have said it most eloquently: Curiosity is the lust of the mind. For heart-centered Christians like his family of origin, intellectual curiosity is always a threat because it raises uncomfortable questions and demands authenticity. In a nutshell, this is why the author continued his spiritual quest.

Finis’s decision to have an Orthodox conversion proved to be like a psychological  rollercoaster ride for the author. His observations about the political shenanigans within Ultra-Orthodoxy are absolutely on target. His insight that these rabbis possess a control over another person’s life was also accurate (cf. p. 327-331). His comment, “These rabbis may function as angels, but they may also function like tyrants” (p. 330).  It almost seemed to me as I was reading his book that the author may have felt a certain sense of déjà vu when he felt utterly helpless and subject to a controlling rabbinical sponsor, who could care less how his professional decisions impacted the life of this exceptional candidate for conversion. This is an observation that the author never explicitly makes, but I think it is implicitly obvious to anyone who reads between the lines.

Fortunately for Finis, he met a fine rabbi who he enjoyed studying with while he was in Memphis, Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt. A good rebbe makes all the difference in the world for a Jew by Choice.

How true!

This book was not an easy read because of its naked intensity. One can only admire the courage that Beauchamp showed. His willingness to challenge the status quo is one of his most endearing qualities. It is my hope that he will never give up that trait even as he now practices Orthodox Judaism. Judaism can greatly benefit from people who have a healthy sense of curiosity, a willingness to question, and discover truth—no matter where that spiritual journey ultimately leads.  Finis Beauchamp’s candor and willingness to bare his soul is a rare quality among religious writers today, who often tend to write about other people’s spiritual narratives instead of sharing their own unique story with others.

Lastly, the author’s poetry in the back of his book as delightfully spiritual and rich.

 

A Short History of the Sabbatical Year in Late Antiquity

Sometimes even the most obvious biblical passages can be perplexing. One interesting verse is a case in point:

“Therefore, do not say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we do not then sow or reap our crop?’ I will bestow such blessings on you in the sixth year that there will then be crop enough for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will continue to eat from the old crop; and even into the ninth year, when the crop comes in, you will still have the old to eat from” (Lev. 25:20-22).

It is difficult to determine how seriously the ancient Jews observed the שמיטה‎  “Sabbatical Year” (literally “release”). The fact that people attempted to keep it at all, given the hard economic realities, is  remarkable.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem in the 5th cent. B.C.E. swore to let the ground remain fallow during the seventh year (Neh. 10:31). During the Maccabean revolution, the Syrian army led by general Lysias, took over the fortress of Beth-zur because food was in short supply during the sabbatical year when the attack was made. Its people “evacuated the city, because they had no provisions there to withstand a siege, since it was a sabbatical year for the land” (1 Maccabees 6:49, cf. vv. 53-54).

Josephus records that both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar remitted Israel’s taxes during the Sabbatical years.[1] Tactius also attests to the Jewish observance of the Sabbatical year but attributed the custom to “indolence.”[2]

Given the animosity between Judea and Rome, the Romans demanded that the Jewish remnant of Judea continue paying the crop tax. No exceptions were made whatsoever for the struggling Jewish population of the land.

In the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba revolution, the rabbis modified the law regarding the Sabbatical year during the Roman period to allow for food to be grown in order so that the people should survive, and be able to pay its taxes to a hostile Roman government.

What makes this an intriguing passage is the fact that the Sabbatical year continued to be observed even in a post-exilic era and most Halachic authorities ruled that the Sabbatical year was still a rabbinic obligation.  The only reason the Sages exempted the farmers was because the imminent danger they faced should they have disobeyed. Other authorities insisted that it was biblically required, while others still maintained it was a nothing more than a pious custom.[3] Continue reading “A Short History of the Sabbatical Year in Late Antiquity”

Disputed Origins of Idolatry: Pre-modern Views (Part 1)

The origin of idolatry is a fascinating study in and of itself. Maimonides traced the origin of idolatry to  the pre-Diluvial era of Enosh. Maimonides writes:

During the days of Enosh, humankind made a serious mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave foolish advise. Enosh himself was one of those who erred. Here is what developed: They said for as much that God created the stars and the celestial planets with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Therefore, it is only fitting to praise and glorify them and to accord them with honor. The ancients perceived this to be the will of the Blessed Holy One, that they aggrandize  and give homage to those whom He magnified and honored. Just as a king desires to be honored by the servants  who stand before him. Indeed by doing so, they thought they were in fact honoring the King.  After considering this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offered sacrifices to them. The ancients would praise and glorify the heavenly hosts with words while prostrating themselves before them, because by doing so, they thought they would be fulfilling God’s will. This was the essence of idolatry, and the  justification given by  those who worshiped them.  Originally, the ancients did not say there is any other god except for this star. . . .[1]

Maimonides contends that  the ancients eventually forgot about the one true God. It was far easier for them to believe in what was visible rather someone or something that was invisible.  They assumed that all the celestial powers were vested in whatever representation they chose to worship.

Some theories dating back to the ancient Greeks proposed an equally intriguing theory about the origin of religion. The founder of atomism,  Democritus (ca. 460?-370? BCE), was among the first thinkers to suggest that the gods were nothing more than physical phenomena that appear to mankind, and only  “appeared” to speak. This belief arouse from early man’s terror of the solar eclipse, thunder, and so on.  The belief in these “deities” made it necessary for the ignorant, ethically stunted to refrain from wrongdoing only through the fear of punishment, and not because they regarded morality as essential for their happiness.

In some of Plato’s writings, the famed philosopher felt that the belief in gods were necessary, in order to curb human wickedness and corruption. The belief in gods presupposed there is an order to the universe, and if there were indeed no gods, then the order of the heavens must be an accident. [2]  Several other Greek and Roman thinkers saw a kinship between superstition and religion. In its earliest Latin literary usage by Plautus and Ennius, superstitio was already a negative term describing divination, magic, and “bad religion” in general. Cicero gives a concrete example, explaining that “those who spent whole days in prayer and offered sacrifices, that their children might outlive them, are called superstitious” [3].

For classical Roman observers like Seneca, Lucretius, and Cicero, and Livy superstition meant erroneous, false, or excessive religious behaviors stemming from ignorance of philosophical and scientific truths about the laws of nature.  Such ignorance was associated with the common people (vulgus) and with the countryside (pagus), so that superstitious behavior as practiced by simple old men and women.

In Cicero’s On Divination, the philosopher concludes that religion was useful because it helped to control human behavior and could be used as a tool for public policy; and in this context divination could be useful too (as when an unwise political decision was prevented by the announcement that the omens were unfavorable). To many of these thinkers, the ancients “invented” the belief in gods as “a noble lie,” a necessary crutch (or as an “illusion” as formulated by Freud) or simple and ignorant people to believe that these deities have the means for securing blessing and avoiding disaster. Continue reading “Disputed Origins of Idolatry: Pre-modern Views (Part 1)”

From The Age of “Seducing By Scents” to “The Emergence of Ortho-Feminism”

I have often felt that misogyny has been one of the oldest sins since Adam and Eve.  The woman’s liberation movement has some remarkable antecedents in American history. It is remarkable how much the 20th century fight for gender rights have completely overturned thousands of years of  male hegemony.  It is no wonder why traditional religious societies across the globe fear it–change is necessary as it is inevitable.

Seducing By Scents

I came across an interesting article from House and Garden Magazine that illustrates just how much we have changed as a society over the last 300 years. It reads, “Legislation proposed in England in the 1700s: All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high‑heeled shoes or bolstered hips shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and the like misdemeanors and that marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.” —- Act of Parliament, 1670

Incidentally, one of our readers (see comments) points out that this story was originally a joke that appeared in the magazine. That is an interesting thought, but who really knows for sure?

The Humble Beginnings of Women’s Liberation

Now move the clock ahead about 100 years later . . . Abagail Adams penned one of the most famous letters of her era, demanding that the new Declaration of Independence respect the rights of its female citizens, which she unabashedly says:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy, willingly give tip the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?” [1]

—-Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818), Letter to John Adams, [March 31, 1776]

John Adam’s Fear of “Petticoat Despotism

Her husband John Adams replied:

I cannot but laugh…We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out. Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight. [2]

Back to the Future: The early 2oth Century  Debate Concerning Women’s Suffrage

It is remarkable that the world has changed so much over the last 250 years. Some of you might be surprised to know that back in the 1915 many Orthodox rabbis opposed the right for women to vote. Woman’s suffrage proved to be a very divisive issue among American Orthodox Jews. Some rabbis felt that a women’s place is in the home. The rabbis feared that society will become corrupt should women invade the institutions of political power.

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ben Tzion Uziel pointed out that there was nothing in the Torah to forbid women voting.  However, other rabbis argued, it’s against tradition—a woman’s place is in her home. Let the men worry about the politics!

Rabbi Uziel replied that in the olden days, men used to live in tents, in the desert, should we all go back to living in the wilderness just like our ancestors did? Ah, but the rabbis replied. If we give women equal rights to vote, they will want more freedom tomorrow, and who knows where that will lead to?

And That was Only the Beginning . . .

In a way, those early 20th century Orthodox rabbis were right.

An interesting debate has been developing in the Orthodox Jewish community. And that is the issue of Women’s “Prayer Groups.” Some have taken offense to women having “Minyanim” because only men can have Minyans.

Outraged by the growth of Ortho-feminism, a Queens-Long Island council of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the event symbolized a larger, possibly dangerous trend – the growing acceptance of women’s prayer groups.

Its action this month to ban groups such as the one in Hillcrest that hosted the bat mitzvah has shocked hundreds of observant women worldwide and a number of Orthodox leaders, elicited at least two letters urging reconsideration, and caused one leader of the rabbinical council to resign. Continue reading “From The Age of “Seducing By Scents” to “The Emergence of Ortho-Feminism””

When Numbers Become Obscene

In the beginning of Exodus 30:12-13, God commands Moses not conduct a head count of the Israelites before they go into battle against future adversaries:

“When you take a census of the Israelites who are to be registered, each one, as he is enrolled, shall give the LORD a forfeit for his life, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. Everyone who enters the registered group must pay a half-shekel, according to the standard of the sanctuary shekel, twenty gerahs to the shekel. This payment of a half-shekel is a contribution to the LORD . . . ”

Interesting passage, isn’t it? Why not conduct an actual head count? The biblical writer may also  indirectly be alluding to a census that King David carried out toward the end of his reign, which produced disastrous consequences (2 Sam 24ff.).

The answer to this question has a lot to do with the ancient’s fascination with numbers and the process of counting. Here’s the background information: Numbers play a very important part in our everyday lives. Life constantly demands that we measure and count. Numbers have always played a role in all civilizations from mathematics to astrology. Numbers also play an important symbolic role in much of the Bible, e.g.,  one, two, three, four, five, seven, twelve, forty, fifty, seventy, hundred and thousand. This is not the place to examine the significance of each of these numbers, but they often have symbolic and rhetorical significance.

The famous anthropologist Sr. James Frazer notes that certain African tribes were afraid to count children for fear that the evil spirits might hear. They also believed that cattle should not be counted because it might impede the increase of the herd. [1]  In Denmark, there was a tradition not to count hatched chickens lest some be lost. In German cultures it is believed that the more you count your money, the more likely you will decrease it. [2] Continue reading “When Numbers Become Obscene”

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 2)

Shmarya Rosenberg posted a correspondence he had with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on the plight of Ethiopian Jewry. It is a valuable historical document–one that will most likely be studied by future generations. Here is the record of  his correspondence with Rav Moshe  Feinstein.

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Recently, I found Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s 1984 teshuva-letter on Ethiopian Jews stuck between two file folders. (You can click the thumbnail image for a larger, more readable image or download a PDF.[1]) This letter was written in response to a question I asked through Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rav Moshe’s son-in-law. He referred the question to his son, Mordechai, who then served as Rav Moshe’s secretary-assistant. What follows is a (rough) translation:

With the Help of HaShem

26 Sivan 5744

To the honored, my beloved grandson ha rav ha-gaon moreinu ha-rav Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, shlit’a, with blessings of peace and blessing and all good:

With my best regards,

Here as per your request, I reaffirm what you wrote in my name several years ago regarding the “Falashas,” that it is known what is written in the Responsa of the Radba”z, section seven, §9, that it is understood he considers them to be Jews; however for practical application of the law it is difficult to rely on this, for it is not clear if the Radba”z knew well the reality regarding them, nor is it clear whether up until our time their status has [remained the same and] not changed. But in regard to practical application of the law they are not mamzerim or the like, for the Radba”z mentions there that many many doubts apply to them. Review my responsa where I detail at length the qualifications of the rabbinical prohibitions regarding the legal status of ‘an illegitimate child of unknown fatherhood’ and ‘a child found in the street whose parents are (both) unknown’. Continue reading “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 2)”

Beyond the Five-Sensory Zone of Consciousness

Redefining the role of prayer in a modern age is  one  of modern Judaism’s greatest challenges. This is true not only of Judaism, but of all religion as well. I see prayer primarily in existential terms.

Prayer is rooted in the conviction that there is more to human life and consciousness than just the five-sensory world we experience. Our hunger and yearning the meaning of the universe and our lives  prompts us to move from the ordinary to a reality that is extraordinary and profound. It is precisely when this impulse is frustrated, we feel alienated and apart from the deepest spiritual dimension of our lives. Human loneliness can be transcended if we can discover the Ultimate that is not only Present within the world, but beyond it as well. Sufi tales, like the Hassidic stories, touch upon the universal truths that bind us together.

Once somebody dared the Sufi master Halqavi to go before the presence of a certain king and say a disparaging remark that would most likely cost him his life.  Without hesitation, he accepted the challenge. As soon as he was shown the throne-room, the king–a capricious character said, “Since you are reputed to be so clever, for my amusement, to say something which nobody who is  present can say.” Once again, without the slightest pause, the Sufi said, “I am not in Your Presence.”

This Sufi story has its parallels in the old Midrashic stories depicting the ever-closeness of God. When we pray, we become aware that we are  standing in the Presence of God, before Whom, our tradition says, “There is no place that is void of the Divine Presence.”

It is funny how our language is couched in the geometry of time and space. Sometimes we imagine that God is “out there,” when we pray “to” God. However, in truth,  our prayers do not have to travel through some ethereal space to God.  God’s Presence is much more non-localized then we ever imagined possible. He is here at this moment and not here at the same time — Hidden but yet revealed — all at the same time. Prayer awakens within us a sense of unity we feel in the heart of our soul.

Although God transcends the world, He infuses it with soul and existence. He is paradoxically close and yet infinitely distant. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is not perceivable even when His Presence is encountered, yet He is present even when His absence is most felt. He is inherent in the world and but not contained in it; He embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. God’s Presence surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.

Now, thus far I have used masculine imagery to explain God’s relationship to the world. Let’s use  feminine metaphors to convey the same truth, which should present to the reader an altogether different perspective.

Although God transcends the world, She infuses it with soul and existence. She is paradoxically close and yet infinitely distant. She is closer to us than we are to ourselves. She is not perceivable even when Her Presence is encountered, yet She is present even when Her absence is most felt. She is inherent in the world and but not contained in it; She embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. Her Presence surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.

The time has finally come for us to realize that our concepts of God are invariably mediated through human language, which reveals concepts much like a prism refracts light. We cannot help but conceive of God through our unique cognitive and cultural lens. The Zohar certainly intimates this truth in one of its more profound statements concerning the gender inclusiveness of the Divine,“High mysteries are revealed in these two verses ‘Male and Female He created them’ (Gen. 1:27) to make known the Glory on high, the mystery of faith, out of this mystery, Adam was created. . . . Any image that does not embrace male and female is not a high and true image.”[1]


Notes:


[1] Daniel Matt, Zohar, The Book of Enlightenment (Philadelphia: Paulist Press, 1983), 55.

Authentic Mysticism vs. McMysticism

A true Jewish mystic doesn’t need to use hype or self-promotion like  Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri’s snake-oil charms. Any self-respecting Kabbalist shouldn’t live for the next photo-op.

Martin Buber has always been a great inspiration to me. His views on Jewish mysticism are grounded in the interpersonal realm of the ethical. We meet God when we respect the Other who is before us. Emmanuel Levinas expresses a similar thought in many of his writings as well, but Buber still remains my favorite.

Historically, people have often tried to control God through any kind of magical means at their disposal. The scriptural prohibition against making graven images is predicated upon the belief that man can control God; only in one’s imagination is such an absurd thought possible. Buber touches on this theme in a number of different works, but in the interest of time, I will cite one of my favorite quotes Buber is best known for concerning the danger of gnosis and magic that I think cuts to the heart of our problem today among certain types of hucksters like Rabbi Batzri.

“The two spiritual powers of gnosis and magic, masquerading under the cloak of religion, threaten more than any other powers the insight into the religious reality, into man’s dialogical situation. They do not attack religion from the outside; they penetrate into religion, and once inside it, pretend to be its essence. Because Judaism has always had to hold them at bay and to keep separate from them, its struggle has been largely internal. This struggle has often been misunderstood as a fight against myth. But only an abstract-theological monotheism can do without myth, and may even see it as its enemy; living monotheism needs myth, as all religious life needs it, as the specific form in which its central events can be kept safe and lastingly remembered and incorporated. Continue reading “Authentic Mysticism vs. McMysticism”

Believing in something vs. believing in nothing

Dorothy Sayers observes, “In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair… the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

The absence of passion in the face of evil explains why evil is so virulent in the world. Such a listless existence is no way for a good person to live. Winston Churchill said it best, “The malice of the wicked is reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.”

In terms of biblical theology, God’s ethos never occurs without pathos, as Heschel correctly observes. When the biblical prophets condemn injustice, they in turn mirror God’s own concern about societal evolution. Far from being a Deity that merely spends eternity reflecting upon His own Divine nature, the God of Scriptures incessantly demands ethical awareness and calls upon all of us to discover ultimate meaning by participation in the world’s redemption. In the Judaic consciousness, God’s role as Liberator is more important than His role as Creator. The One Who redeemed our ancestors, likewise expects us to emulate this role; paradoxically, the human hand resembles the Divine hand–not physically, but in terms of functionality.

Each person has a distinctive role to play and contribute toward this goal.  We cannot be good by simply avoiding evil; indifference toward human suffering only compounds it–whether we realize it or not. When a world stands begging for help, there can be only one ethical and spiritual response–Hineni–Here I am; I am ready to make a difference.

God expects all of us to embody the passion of liberation.

A “Priestly Kingdom” (Exodus 19:6)

What does it mean to be a “priestly kingdom”  in the Torah?

There was nothing  intrinsic holy about the priest, he was not spiritually superior when compared to ordinary Israelites by the virtue of him being a born into a priestly family. The priests’ vocation was not one of privilege but of obligation and responsibility–noblige oblige.

According to the philosophers Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) and Moses Maimonides (ca. 12th century), birth alone doesn’t guarantee uniqueness.  So too, when classical Judaism speaks of Israel’s election as God’s “Chosen People,” this concept is not due to any sense of  racial superiority, but rather to the fact that we are the nation which lives in accordance with the  ethical and moral lifestyle prescribed by the Torah.  Indeed, any person from any race can become a member of the Israelite people through conversion.

Just as a nation is composed of all types of citizens from various walks of life and backgrounds, so too does every member of the Israelite commonwealth play a vital role in the spiritual life of the nation. Regardless of age, sex, background, or vocation; whether one  be a priest, a seer, a prophet, a sage or a commoner – plays a vital role as a “priest” of the Divine.

The life of a priest is rooted in personal consecration and dedication to the Lord. Priestly consecration demands that the priest consciously separate himself from anything that defiles and diminishes the respect and reverence for human life. As a priestly kingdom,” God requires that Israel guard herself from the forces of death, impurity and corruption that  petrifies its collective  heart and soul. Israel’s corporate vocation is both purely spiritual and socially transformative in that we bear witness to the reality of ethical monotheism.

The main purpose of the priesthood is mediate between the sphere of the divine and the ordinary world. A priest through his ritual conduct  facilitates communication across the ethereal boundary separating the holy from the profane.  Being a priest to the people demands vigilance and mindfulness in how the one carries out the  priestly duties. Every thought, word, and deed requires sublimation and holiness. By way of metaphor,  Israel  too must be conscious of how it acts in the realm of secular realm. Every holy thought, every considerate word, and especially every good deed–when performed with nobility of spirit–reflects sanctity.

Just as the priest conducts himself with grace and with dignity, so too does God’s holy people. Most importantly, just as the priest acts as a conduit for God’s blessing to the general community, Israel also serves as a  medium through which all the nations of the world become blessed (Gen 12:2-3). Israel’s recent involvement in Haiti and other places affected by natural catastrophe derives from her spiritual sense of priestly service and ethical responsibility.

Jewish law teaches that any priest who does not get along with his community is not allowed to bless his congregation with the priestly benediction, since the blessing demands that the priest feel love toward the people he serves. Given the mercurial nature of his community, this is certainly no easy task!