Vayikra: Religion and State

This week's dvar Torah is by Rabbi Herzl Hefter, head of the Harel Beit Medrash and first Rosh Kollel of Torah Mitzion in Cleveland.

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Surprisingly, an analysis of the sin offerings in Torah readingt Vayikra will teach us some very important principles regarding the ideal relationship between religion and state. In this week’s Torah reading we read of the sin offerings (Hatat) which one must bring to atone for various crimes. There are two personages who stand out as distinct from the general population and must bring “custom offerings” so to speak. Whereas the simple citizen’s offering is a female goat or lamb (4:28, 32) the anointed Kohen must bring a male bullock (4:3) and the ruler must bring a male goat (4:23).

When a leader (the Kohen or the ruler) transgresses the Law, the ramifications are national and require special atonement. The status of the two leaders seems to be analogous. Upon closer examination of the sources from chazal, our Sages, however, significant differences emerge. The Mishnah in Horayot 3:1 states that an anointed Kohen who no longer occupies his official position would still bring the custom offering of the anointed Kohen. In contradistinction, the past ruler reverts back to his previous status and brings the offering of a simple citizen.

The Talmud Yerushalmi explains this as follows: “’He shall be holy to thee’ (Vayikra 21:8) Just as I [namely God], so to speak, remain holy so does Aharon remain holy.”

The status of the anointed Kohen is one of intrinsic and immutable holiness while the status of the ruler (the king) is merely instrumental; when he possesses authority the monarch enjoys a special status. If the monarch should lose his authority for one reason or another, his special status is revoked. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Horayot 3:2) states this very clearly. “R. Huna said, all those six months that David had fled before Abshalom a she goat would have atoned for him as a simple citizen.” Simply put, the king is only the king when he is king, but once a Kohen Gadol (High Priest), always a Kohen Gadol.

A hint to the meaning behind this distinction can be found in a rejected possibility in the Torat Kohanim Parshat Emor. “ ‘And he[the Kohen Gadol] shall marry a virgin.’ He - and not the king.” This midrash finds it necessary to delimit the king from the law requiring the Kohen Gadol to marry a virgin. Just in case one might think that the king has a holy status like the Kohen Gadol, we are reminded that only the Kohen Gadol must marry a virgin; only he has kedushah, holiness - not the king.

Professor Ya’akov  Blidstein in his book, “Political Concepts in Maimonidean Halakha” points out that in the ancient world the king was a sacral personality – in other words- a god. Our sages go out of their way in the Mishnah, the Talmud and the midrash halakha to reject this idea. Sanctity belongs to the Kohen, not to the king.

This insight has important ramifications for us today. Though no one in their right mind would attribute divinity to a head of state, we do find, particularly in religious Zionist circles, those who would wish to attribute sanctity to the institutions of the State.

By extension, the relationship between the Kohen and the king can be applied to the relationship between religion and state. Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (1320-1380) (Drashot ha Ran number 11) says that the function of Torah laws is ritualistic and, on the societal level, theoretical. There are simply too many loopholes in the halakha (for example the if we would follow the rigorous laws of evidence then all of today's criminal law would be eliminated) at this point. The Torah may have created the institution of monarchy – a secular authority - because the halakha is not always a practical way to run a civil society.

A close look at the opening chapters of the Book of Vayikra, which seems to deal with laws that are so not relevant today, yields important insight for the present day State of Israel.  The challenge that all the citizens of our state face is to build a society inspired by our Torah heritage and founded upon principles of fairness and equality which are indispensable for the running of a modern  state in the Twenty First Century.