Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Why is the priestly role within Judaism inherited and not “earned”? Why is honor given, to this day, to a Kohen simply because of his lineage?
A review of the Torah’s outline for Jewish society, from both a historical and a legal perspective, reveals a fascinating tension and interplay between inherited and earned roles and rights.
Certain roles within our tradition are inherited in perpetuity. All male descendents of Aharon are automatically Kohanim, while all male descendents of the tribe of Levi are, of course, Leviim (those who serve within the Temple). Within each Jewish family, firstborn males are accorded specific rights. (Devarim 21:17) Jewish men and women have different halachic obligations from birth. (Mishna Kiddushin 1:7) Once David becomes king all authentic royalty descends from the Davidic dynasty. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 1:7–10) Even Jewish identity is unalterably inherited through one’s mother. (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 68b) According to Jewish law while someone can certainly convert to Judaism, a born or converted Jew cannot “convert out.” (Ibid., Sanhedrin 44a)
On the other hand, other critical roles within Jewish society are clearly earned. Although the Torah is silent on the subject, Midrashic literature clearly reflects the position that God’s choice of Avraham is far from arbitrary. Instead, the first patriarch secures his position as the progenitor of the Jewish people only through years of lonely philosophical struggle and search. (Zohar 1:86a; Midrash Rabba Bereishit 38:13; Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 14:2) Moshe, the paradigm of leadership and the progenitor of rabbinic leadership, rises to greatness as a result of his own initiative. (Shmot 2:11–12) Sages, scholars, rabbis and teachers across the ages earn their positions of authority by dint of scholarship and character. More than a few of the scholars of the Mishna and Talmud rise from humble origins, including Shmaya and Avtalyon, (Talmud Bavli Gittin 57b) Hillel, (Ibid., Yoma 35b) Rabbi Akiva, (Ibid., Ketubot 62b; Pesachim 49b; Rambam, introduction to the Mishneh Torah) Reish Lakish (Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 84a) and others.
Most fascinating of all is the tension inherent between these two potential paths of communal participation: what happens when birth roles and earned roles collide.
The pattern established in the patriarchal era, for example, is particularly telling. On the one hand, the concept of birth privilege is already recognized, as can be seen most clearly in the struggle between Yaakov and Esav for the title of firstborn. (Bereishit 25:29–34) And yet, in each generation of this historical period, the firstborn loses his rights to a younger sibling. Yitzchak, not Yishmael, is heir to his father’s legacy. (Ibid., 21:12) Yaakov supplants his older brother, Esav, in the struggle for Yitzchak’s blessing. (Ibid., 27–28:5) Yehuda, Yosef and Levi each receive a dimension of the leadership role which was to rightfully have been Reuven’s, as the firstborn. (Ibid., 49:1–27; Devarim 33:8–11) This pattern continues in the generations that follow as Yosef’s younger son Ephraim is given precedence over the older Menashe (Bereishit 48:13–19) and as Moshe overshadows his older brother, Aharon.
Though the firstborn Israelite males are originally designated for service within the Temple, they lose that privilege through their participation in the sin of the golden calf and the Levites are appointed in their stead. (Bamidbar 3:11–13; Rashi, Bamidbar 3:2) Although not originally designated to serve as a Kohen, Aharon’s grandson, Pinchas, rises to that role and, according to some authorities, his descendents serve as Kohanim Gedolim (High Priests), in reward for Pinchas’s courageous acts in defense of God’s honor. (Bamidbar 25:10–13; Rashi, Bamidbar 25:13; Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 25:12)
Even in the less dramatic realm of daily halacha, the law dictates that a sage is given precedence over a Kohen in the distribution of honors, such as leading the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 201:1–2) Many scholars maintain that such precedence would also be shown to the sage in the order of aliyot (ascension to the Torah during the synagogue service), were it not for the need to apply an objective standard in the synagogue, thereby preserving congregational harmony. (Ibid., 135:4; Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 135; Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 135; Mishna Berura 135:11–12)
Perhaps, however, the greatest proof of the transcendence of earned rights over birthrights can be gleaned from the moment of our nation’s birth. As we have noted before, the national era of our people’s history begins with the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Revelation, in fact, becomes both the moment of the Jewish nation’s birth and the defining event for individual affiliation with that nation.
Full descendents of Avraham and Sara, who choose not to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, disappear into the mists of history. Even further, a full Hebrew who participates in the Exodus, reaches Sinai, yet refuses to accept God’s law, is also lost to his people forever. Conversely, an individual who is not a Hebrew at all, yet is present at Revelation and accepts the Torah (e.g., an Egyptian who joins in the Israelite Exodus), becomes a full member of the Jewish nation. Commitment to God’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth. (See Bereishit: Vayeshev 4, Approaches B, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon and its implications.)
The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.
Points to Ponder
A carefully crafted balance between birth and earned-roles has helped ensure the continuity of Jewish society across the ages. The collision of these roles at the cutting edge of Jewish life today may well shape the course of our people’s future.