Weekly Letter: Hereditary Classes in Judaism?
This week, as we read in the Torah Parshas Emor El Hakohanim, we present a letter from the Rebbe dealing with the question of hereditary classes in Judaism, such as the aristocracy of Kohanim and Levyim, which seem to not be consistent “with the otherwise democratic orientation of Judaism.” The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s personal trusted secretary, Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
By the Grace of G-d
27th Marcheshvan, 5719
I was duly informed of the conversation which our representatives had with you recently. It is the tradition of men of action, going back to our Father Abraham, to “speak little and do much”. I trust that it will be so in this case and that you will succeed more than you anticipate.
I have read your articles… On the basis of the Talmudic statement (B.M. 84a) concerning the superiority of Resh Lakish’s method over that of R. Elazar ben Pdos on the ground that debate helps to clarify an issue. I will take the liberty of offering some critical observations. I want to say at the outset, however, that on the whole, the articles make a favorable impression and are certainly of timely interest.
Referring, first, to your article on the Kohanim, although you offer an ingenious explanation as to why it was necessary to have an hereditary aristocracy in the persons of Kohanim and Leviim, the main problem is thereby not solved, for the explanation amounts to an admission that such aristocracy does exist; hence the inconsistency “with the otherwise democratic orientation of Judaism “remains.
The fact is, moreover, that Judaism does recognize a distinction of hereditary classes in certain instances, as witness the Mishnaic declaration regarding the “Ten Yuhasin”, and their further subdivision into categories, all of which were hereditary. At the same time, needless to say, the essential spirit of Judaism is reflected in the view that the “entire congregation are all holy.” The apparent inconsistency is even more accentuated in the light of the teachings of Chassidism beginning with the Baal Shem Tov, who emphasized the sublime origin of the souls of all Jews, without distinction, even those of the lowliest, who by virtue of their Divine soul can attain the highest degree of worship, namely, union with G-d.
To reconcile the inconsistency, we must, in my opinion, probe deeper into the problem and ask, does an inconsistency exist? I contend that there is no real inconsistency, for the following reasons:
It is generally recognized that everything in the world has essential and secondary aspects, and there are numerous gradations in each. In everything there is the “core” of the thing itself, to which all other aspects or attributes are subsidiary, even essential attributes.
In regard to our problem, we recognize that there are essential hereditary attributes which give rise to the Ten Yuhasin. However, there are more sublime aspects, which are overriding, and in the face of which even essential attributes give way and the erstwhile distinction is overshadowed and pales into insignificance. A case in point is the example which you cite, namely the superiority of the scholar over the Kohen Gadol, where the sanctity of the Torah subordinates that of the High Priesthood. And let it be noted that this is not a matter of purely academic interest, but a law which touches upon questions of life and death, as in the case of Pidyon Shevuim, with which the Mishnah deals there.
On a higher plane still is the very essence of the Jew, which is his union with the Creator, touching the very core of the Jewish soul, to the point of martyrdom, transcending any reason or intellect. Here is a realm where not only the distinction of the Ten Yuhasin melts away, but even that of Torah scholarship as against sheer ignorance, as our Sages say, “Yesh koine oilomoi bsho’o achas.” Surely, the essential aspect of true democracy is that which recognizes no distinction or limitations, not alone in essential matters, but in the very core of things – and this holds good of all Jews.
Parenthetically, it should be noted that what has been said applies to Jews in relation to each other. As for Jews in relation to non-Jews – however “chauvinistic” some people might label it – the fact is that we justly claim to be the “chosen people.”
Turning to your article, I note that – if I may say so – you seem to have used “silk gloves” in refuting the Conservative and Reform movements. Surely there is room to point out the glaring inconsistency and illogic that are inherent in a system which, though clearly man-made and cut to size, yet claims a Divine basis for it. Not only is there a contradiction in terms, but also plain dishonesty and false pretenses. Be it as it may, the important thing is, which is also my prayerful hope and wish to you (which I also expressed during your visit), that your position in regard to this vital and timely problem, as expressed in said article, should find expression in actual deed and facts, through the fullest exercise of the utmost influence which your public position offers you. I refer particularly to your statement that “many have placed a ban on cooperation with non-Orthodox synagogues and rabbinic groups.” I trust that you will make yourself felt among these “many”, and still take along with you those under your influence who have not yet recognized the vital necessity for it. The urgency of the matter cannot be overemphasized in our present age, the so-called Atomic age, where time and speed have become so much more of the essence than ever before.
I wish to conclude on the felicitous note of the happy addition to your family by the birth of your grandchild. May G-d grant her parents to bring her up to a life of Torah, huppah and Good Deeds and that you and your wife share in their true Yiddisher nachas to a ripe old age and in good health.
The above letter is from The Letter and the Spirit by Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP).
These letters were written originally in English and were prepared for publication by Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, whose responsibility it was the Rebbe’s correspondence in English and several other languages.
We thank Rabbi Shalom Ber Schapiro, who was entrusted by his father-in-law Rabbi Mindel with his archives and who is Director of the Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP), for making the Rebbe’s letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.