Being Held to a Higher Standard

In biblical times and today, religious leaders must be paragons of righteousness.


Reprinted with permission of the href="">Jewish Theological Seminary.

After a profusion of dietary regulations, our parasha
reemphasizes the fundamental purpose of Judaism: "For I the Lord am your
God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44).
A pervasive sense of holiness is the key to this-worldly salvation. To live
wisely requires self-control. There is no creation without contraction. To
spring we first need to coil. The regimen of Judaism is to help us keep the big
picture in sight, make wholesome distinctions and prevent the numbing of our
spiritual sensibility. Transgressions erode our inner life, while doing mitzvot
brings an infusion of holiness. In the words of the Rabbis: "If we embark
on hallowing our lives on earth, we will be hallowed abundantly from
above" (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 39a).

Since this vision of life is a tall order for most of us,
which we approximate at best only partially, religious leadership in Judaism
carries a special burden. Its qualifications are defined by the ideal rather
than the real. As a bridge between the human and divine, religious leaders
serve as symbolic exemplars (Jack H. Bloom’s term), the embodiment of the best
to which Judaism aspires. The book of Proverbs celebrates the righteous as
"an everlasting foundation," unharmed by the whirlwind that topples
the wicked (10:25). Playing on the Hebrew of that phrase (yesod ‘olam),
the Talmud asserts that even a single righteous person can sustain the world (Babylonian
Talmud Yoma 38b). That is, the piety exhibited in one life has the power
to touch many, indeed, to ameliorate the human condition.

What brings me to reflect on the nature of religious
leadership is the narrative fragment embedded in the middle of our parasha.
There we find the consecration of Aaron and his four sons as the custodians of
the Tabernacle darkened by the calamitous death of two of them. Nadab and Abihu

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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