The Evolution of Sacred Service

The launch of an online journal dedicated to the training of rabbis towards 21st century communal leadership through religious service-learning is cause for celebration. Its emergence in the first institution of rabbinic education in the western hemisphere, here in Cincinnati, Ohio, says much about our College-Institute. Most importantly, it reflects an ongoing commitment to the original mission of our pioneering school: the formation of a learned, modern rabbinate that is both rooted in Jewish tradition and experience and inspired to advance the promise of Judaism in increasingly diverse and rapidly changing communities. In a constantly transforming Jewish world, the rabbi is called to be at once a religious exemplar, guide, and teacher of our rich heritage as well as its negotiator, adapter, and reformer. This rabbinic tension is our story, and in certain ways it is as old as the rabbinate itself. A vast, rich corpus of rabbinic literature displays the unfolding of this dynamic―sometimes one problem or difficulty at a time. Part of the challenge of maintaining this balance between tradition and change relates to עבודה (avodah), which is often translated as “work,” but also means religious service, worship, or observance. However, rabbinic engagement with change, novelty, challenge, and crisis also demonstrates a broader concern for the boundaries between קדש (kodesh)―the sacred, dedicated to a higher, divinely-ordained purpose―and חל (hol)―the profane, with which we engage in building our lives, but which  also impinges upon the sacred and undermines it. As I explain below, the relation between קדש and חל informs our understanding of the term עבדת הקדש (avodat ha-kodesh). Its relevance to our educational task and the mission of this publication is worthy of exploration.

The construct “עבדת הקדש” is biblical, and occurs in association with the priesthood and its functions. In the books of Exodus and Numbers (Exodus 36:1,3; Numbers 7:9) it relates to the building, maintenance, and transport of the משכן (Tabernacle), the אהל מועד (the Tent of Meeting), their contents, and the vestments of the priests. The biblical account reflects its own tension: on the one hand it highlights the participation of Israelites in the building of a divine presence among them through the donation of valuable raw materials. On the other, it designates specific individuals and groups as responsible for the transformation of these gifts into sacred structures and accessories. It also specifies the separation of those charged with the safe-keeping and ritual use of sacred items from the rest of Israel. The sons of Kehat deserve special mention in this regard: while others bearing sacred responsibilities are reportedly granted the means to transport various ritual objects, the sons of Kehat are charged with carrying specific items― the Ark of the Covenant among others―on their shoulders (see the Rashi and Mussaf Rashi commentaries on Numbers 7:9). Part of Numbers 7:9 reinforces this message with the words:”כי עבדת הקדש עליהם”―“for the sacred work was upon them.” Without much elaboration, we may note that in a most general sense the context of the term עבדת הקדש in the Hebrew Bible expresses an ancient aspiration: to construct and maintain evidence of the divine presence and its protection and blessing in the midst of Israel. These words and the specific tasks they entail lend themselves to an emphasis on the separation of the individuals charged with these sacred responsibilities from the rest of Israel (and this fits well with the connotation of the word קדש in other contexts). In contrast, the focus of our service-learning effort and of this publication, “עבדת הקדש“, is the religious integration of service and learning towards successful and effective rabbinic leadership.

Rabbis throughout the generations have produced hundreds of references to the verses cited here, as well as specific allusions to the biblical “עבדת הקדש”. In this context, we will only mention a very small selection. To the best of my knowledge, the first major rabbinic treatise titled “עבודת הקדש” is the essay by Rashba (Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, a leading rabbinic authority in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries who lived in Christian Spain) on dietary laws and the preparation of foods for days of rest and special observance. Rashba’s title for this work is both imaginative and instructive. In his introduction he writes:

“And so I saw [fit] to compose this additional essay, and to include in it the labors [preparations] that result in eating on the holy days, in accordance with the regulation of entryways [alleys] and courtyards and other properties, and the collective boundaries in courtyards, and shared entryways, and domain boundaries … and therefore I called this book עבודת הקדש” (Sefer Avodat ha-Kodesh, The Institute for Publication of Books and Study of Manuscripts, Zichron Ya’akov, 1979, p. 18).

Rashba explains that the focus of his work is not the sacred itself but the boundaries and interactions between the profane and the sacred that are part of common Jewish experience. His choice of title does not relate to elite or highly specialized religious functions, but to definitions of sacred space and time that are relevant to all halakha-observant Jews. Here, עבודת הקדש acquires a new, integrative dimension that adapts the term to Jewish needs at the time of the book’s composition. Rashba’s choice of title also clearly underscores the importance of the subject matter through this biblical reference to sacred priestly functions. In time, other rabbis (R. Haim Joseph David Azoulay, known as the Hida, and R. Meir Ibn Gabbay) follow Rashba’s lead and compose monographs using the same title. While references like Rashba’s offer us an opportunity to consider the record of rabbinic uses and adaptations of עבודת הקדש, two more recent rabbinic citations of these words are directly relevant to our project and highly informative. One occurs in a responsum of a rabbi known as the Natziv (R. Naftali Zvi Judah Berlin, Head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, 1854-1892), and the other in a celebrated ruling by Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (Chief Sepharadi Rabbi in Palestine and Israel, 1936-1953).

Responding to an editorial that appeared in an Orthodox periodical (“מחזיקי הדת”), the Natziv addresses the editors’ “new-old” division of Jewish approaches to the faith into three categories: those leaning to the right, those leaning to the left, and those in  the middle. In the editors’ view, right-leaning Jews are the righteous and innocent who separate themselves from all that is current in the world that surrounds them. At the extreme right end of the spectrum, they withdraw to the point of not benefiting from or enjoying the gifts of the world “even in their little finger.”. In stark contrast, those to the far left have fully abandoned both Torah and the fear of God. They are transgressors who have either rejected Judaism knowingly and intentionally or out of ignorance. They are fully ensconced in the world’s distractions. Those in the middle continue to follow the ways of Torah, but engage with the world and follow its ways. The Natziv (in his responsa, She’elot u-Teshuvot Meshiv Davar, 1:44) starts by correcting this categorization of Jews, and offers a re-definition: those on the right are Jews who realize the positive commandment to love the Lord our God― they are willing to dedicate themselves and their possessions to God, and continually seek to attach themselves to רוח הקדש (the Divine Spirit). This mindset does require a withdrawal from the world and sustained concentration on the divine. Human interactions, even for the sake of teaching or discussing Torah, may divert the believer from such focus. The Natziv cites Moses as a unique exception to this rule, for on the one hand Moses achieved an extraordinary attachment and closeness to God, and on the other he also engaged with the people of Israel. According to the Natziv, left- leaning Jews are followers of Torah and its commandments but “do not know the taste” of love and attachment to God. These Jews do not even attempt to attain such goals. Rather, like the ancient philosophers, they follow divine dicta and teach about God’s glorious attributes. At the very left end of the continuum, they are distant from God’s providence and the Holy Spirit in the extreme. Jews who occupy the middle ground are able to experience the love of God and דבקות―human attachment to the divine―and succeed in doing so during the reading of the shema passage, or in prayer. However, throughout the rest of their day, they occupy themselves with the profane world and its concerns. The Natziv’s most significant statement about these  Jews who occupy the middle ground is that they are worthy of the title  חסידים― “pious”― not by virtue of their love of and attachment to God, but on account of their outstanding deeds.

Another point of disagreement between the authors of the editorial  and the Natziv concerns  the observation made  at that time that the “middle ground” of Jewry was facing an unprecedented threat. In previous generations, it was argued, there was little likelihood that the middle group would abandon Torah. Yet, towards the late 19th century, this danger was regarded by some to have become acute, The Natziv rejected this contention. Although he recognized the special needs of his time, he reminded his readers of the impressive record of trouble experienced by past generations, including the persistent scourge of idolatry and its implications, repeatedly cited in biblical and rabbinic texts. In this context he wrote

“And Josiah, the pious king, when he [fore] saw the destruction, and Israel’s exile from its land, and there was reason to fear that, heaven forefend, Judaism and Torah would be lost to Israel, what did he do? As it is written (Chronicle 2 35:3): “And Josiah said to the Levites who inform all of Israel, give over the Holy Ark [of the Covenant] into the house that Solomon son of David, King of Israel, built; you do not have [its] burden on your shoulder[s]. Now, serve the Lord your God and his people Israel.” And the Sages of blessed memory (in B. Talmud Yoma 52) said “give over the holy Ark” meant that he [Josiah] had ordered the safe-keeping or locking of the Ark, but his statement “now, serve the Lord your God and his people Israel” was not clarified; how would they now serve [God] differently from their practice in the past? And also, it is difficult to understand his utterance “you do not have [its] burden on your shoulder” – can it be that up to that point they had been carrying the Ark? … Rather the issue is that up to that point the High Priests were immersed in seclusion, and [in] love and attachment to God, and so were the Levites separated [sanctified] to the High One, and therefore they could not vigorously teach Torah among the multitude and increase the number of students, because these [activities] would interrupt their [focus on] attachment [to God] … And at that point the pious King [Josiah] warned that “you do not have this burden upon you”, meaning that you must not seclude yourselves and be immersed in the love of God .. Rather, now, serve the Lord, God of Israel and his people at the same time – that is, by teaching Torah among the multitude … and in this way Torah and Judaism were maintained in Israel.”

Thus, not only does the Natziv argue for engagement with the community as an alternative to self-imposed isolation  for the individual’s religious benefit; his explanation of Josiah’s instruction associates the holy service imposed upon the sons of Kehat with the Judean King’s demand that the Levites go out among the people and teach. The burden of the Ark is transformed into the task of instruction. In this way, Josiah’s reaction to crisis―his reframing of עבודת הקדש ―succeeds in securing Judaism for future generations. As if this were not clear, the Natziv concludes his argument for “the Jewish middle” with the following prescription for his time:

“If we truly and wholeheartedly come to reinforce our religion, there is no solution but for engagement in the study of Torah, in spite of [our wish to verify if] it is [undertaken by our students] for its own sake or not. And how [do we teach Torah] to allow the learner to succeed [in developing a love of God and attachment to the Holy Spirit]? This [kind of spiritual elevation] is only given to the [student’s] heart, and [only] known to the Holy One Blessed Be He, but we [the teachers of Torah] do not know [whether we are succeeding in our religious mission or not] and [should avoid] thinking about this at all. And in this way [if we become less exclusive and extend our teaching to larger number of students], the learners of Torah should increase more and more, and even those who consider themselves wiser [than we are, and who oppose us] will recognize that the persistence of [Torah] study is our [protective] wall.”

Inspired by the example of King Josiah, the Natziv identifies teaching Torah and increasing the circle of learning as עבודת הקדש that would counter the dilution of Jewish identity and of religious faith in a modernizing Europe.

Writing in the land of Israel in the midst of the effort to create a Jewish state, R. Uziel was drawn to address the controversy surrounding the participation of women in political life. Unlike the Natziv, he did not need to address the challenges to Jewish identity and religious faith presented by European societies. His core efforts were directed at the reinforcement of his religious constituency and the demonstration to religious and non-religious proto-Israelis that religion is consistent with the nation-building project under way. Whereas the Natziv sought to inculcate and reinforce distinctly Jewish values and sensibilities among those who lived in, and wished to advance in non-Jewish modern settings R. Uziel, only a few decades later, was compelled to make a case for the relevance and coherence of religious Judaism to a modern, largely irreligious Jewish nation-building effort.

R. Uziel remarks that the issue he addresses is so divisive that he delays the publication of his text until it is largely resolved. In establishing  the framework for his analysis, he lays out two principal questions: one is whether a woman may exercise the right to vote and elect a representative to office, and the other is whether a woman may be elected to hold public office herself. One of the arguments that R. Uziel offers  in both regards relates to the threat of פריצות – licentiousness and indecency. In a prescient observation, he wonders if restricting women’s ability to vote for fear of promiscuity would lead to the separation of men and women on the streets, in enclosed spaces (like shops), and in work-settings. Having dismissed פריצות as a halakhic basis for restricting women’s right to vote, he returns to consider it as an extra-halakhic (or “soft halakhic”) ethical basis for denying women the opportunity to be elected. He writes:

“Reason allows us to say that in any serious and productive conversation there is no [case for restriction] on the basis of licentiousness, for every day men meet women in commercial transactions and negotiate, and there is neither breach nor outcry. And even those who have a proclivity for promiscuity would not think of prohibited relations while focusing in earnest on their trade. And our Sages did not say “do not extend conversation with a woman” (Mishna, Avot 1:5) but [only] with respect to an idle conversation that has no [valid] purpose, and such discourse does lead to transgression, but not an exchange of debate in important and public matters. And it is not the case that sitting in shared space and proximity for the sake of public service, which is עבודת הקדש, habituates towards wrongdoing and leads to light-headedness…”

Evidently, R. Uziel considers public service and participation in the Jewish nation-building exercise to be עבודת הקדש that men and women are called upon to join. In this regard, he offers something of a departure from other rabbinic interpretations of this term. To recapitulate, the biblical conception of עבודת הקדש focuses on clearly defined ritual functions, and the use of  sacred religious items in an exclusive, separate, closed, and highly regulated space. It applies to  a select few on the basis of descent. Rashba’s reinterpreted עבודת הקדש relates to the interface between the sacred and the profane in the preparation and consumption of food, and the rabbinic definition and strengthening of appropriate boundaries that protect the sacred in Jews’ lives. For the Natziv, עבודת הקדש entails a vigorous and strategic effort on the part of  trustworthy, learned, and committed religious leaders to teach Torah to the Jewish multitude and counter the weakening of faith and commitment. This is a biblically-inspired model, one that draws on the successful experience of King Josiah and adapts it to modern needs. Finally, R. Uziel’s עבודת הקדש entails a collective effort by lay, religious and non-religious Jewish men and women in the land of Israel who would democratically elect and be elected, and who would then function under the public’s gaze. In the texts we have examined, עבודת הקדש tends to reflect the rabbinic leadership’s guidance, teaching, and service of the Jewish interest, or their response to a perceived interest or need. However, in R. Uziel’s unique understanding, עבודת הקדש is not a “top down” exertion. Rather, it is an all-inclusive, grassroots effort involving  both leadership and service.

The implications of these rabbinic insights for our rabbinic leadership program and its new publication cannot be summarized in few words, and will hopefully become the subject of sustained study and discussion. Suffice it to mention that the launch of this ambitious sacred service- learning program refocuses our attention on the fine and shifting boundaries between the sacred and the profane, and our approaches to learning, teaching, service, and community- building. It also offers us an opportunity to contextualize our attempts to identify and respond to both contemporary and projected trends in an evolving Jewish community. Not least, the study of עבודת הקדש offers us occasion to reflect upon the place of our effort within the rich and complex religious narrative that has come to define the rabbinic enterprise. May this new start lead us toward an increasingly integrated, sophisticated, and effective learning and teaching of our tradition, to a greater reflective capacity with regard to the development of tomorrow’s Jewish leadership, and to the strengthening of the communal bonds that sustain us.

Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D., is Dean & Associate Professor of Talmud and Halakhic Literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati

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