A King­dom of Priests: Ances­try and Mer­it in Ancient Judaism

Martha Him­mel­farb
  • Review
By – March 23, 2012

To the aver­age syn­a­gogue-goer, the priv­i­leges still accord­ed to Priests and Levites seem a quaint reminder of their once awe­some respon­si­bil­i­ties. Cer­tain­ly, the impor­tance accord­ed to the Tribe of Levi in the Torah is some­thing that may have mat­tered thou­sands of years ago, and per­haps, to the mes­sian­i­cal­ly-inclined, to a dis­tant future as well. In the present, how­ev­er, it should hold almost no inter­est. In her recent study, Martha Him­mel­farb pon­ders the dichoto­my of ances­try and mer­it and seeks to deter­mine the rea­sons and mean­ing behind this under­ly­ing tension. 

Most inter­pret the bib­li­cal verse call­ing all Israel a King­dom of Priests as the ulti­mate demo­c­ra­t­ic claim, por­tray­ing every Jew as an equal, in both hon­or and respon­si­bil­i­ty. No Priest, after all, is nec­es­sary any longer to func­tion as an inter­ces­sor in Heav­en on behalf of Earth. Addi­tion­al­ly, one would imag­ine that as the impor­tance of the Rab­bis grew after the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple, the impe­tus to show hon­or to the Priest­ly her­itage would decline. The Rab­bis, by their ele­va­tion of Torah study as the sine qua non of Jew­ish life, rep­re­sent the ulti­mate aris­toc­ra­cy of mer­it ver­sus the ancient one of mere descent from Aaron and his sons. And yet, we see an intense and ongo­ing inter­est in the Tal­mud and oth­er rab­bini­cal works on the Priest and his duties. 

Him­mel­farb posits that this seem­ing dis­crep­an­cy finds its ori­gins in the tumul­tuous divi­sion between Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty dur­ing late antiq­ui­ty. To com­plete­ly aban­don birth in favor of mer­it could have been seen as strength­en­ing the Chris­t­ian claim of redemp­tion through faith, not that of God’s cho­sen peo­ple fol­low­ing His immutable law. A fine entry into a crowd­ed and excit­ing field of study, A King­dom of Priests stakes out inter­est­ing new ground.

Jeff Bogursky reads a lot, writes a lit­tle and talks quite a bit. He is a media exec­u­tive and expert in dig­i­tal media.

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