Parashat Naso

Surrogate Judaism

Some try to "outsource" their Judaism, but this approach has severe limits.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

This week's parashah, Naso, includes one of Judaism's most time-honored liturgical texts, the priestly blessing:

"May Adonai bless you and keep you

May Adonai cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you

May Adonai turn His face towards you, and grant you peace"
 (Numbers 6:24-26).

These three short, beautiful verses, which God commanded Aaron and his sons to use to bless the Jewish people with the gift of God's presence, indeed God's face, are deeply ingrained in Jewish cultural memory. They also pose some important questions about the balance between the value of personal participation and the role intermediaries play in religious life.

An Old Blessing

The verses of the priestly blessing are certainly among the oldest in continuous liturgical use. Archaeological evidence confirms their use even in the biblical period--their words were etched on silver scrolls found in tombs from the seventh century BCE. By the time of the Second Temple, their place in the ritual was confirmed as part of a series of blessings recited after the morning sacrifice (Mishnah Tamid 5:1), and, it is believed by many scholars to be one of the nuclei around which the current liturgical framework of the Amidah [the "standing" prayer] coalesced.

Of course, in the ancient temple, many essential daily and lifecycle rituals required the involvement of an intricate infrastructure of Kohanim (priests) and Levites, but with its destruction, most of these rituals fell into desuetude, leaving ritual far more in the hands of the individual. A huge class of intermediaries was eliminated. Rabbis and cantors took on the role as a substitute system of religious leadership, but in truth, even many of the rituals which are reserved for them by common practice or in deference to civil law are in fact technically valid if performed without benefit of clergy. 

Most prayers can be said in private, if need be, and even those rituals requiring a minyan [prayer quorum] require only 10 like-minded Jews and perhaps someone with the requisite skills to lead them, rather than a functionary who is a member of a particular professional group or hereditary caste.

The priestly blessing was an exception, and even today in some synagogues it is still enacted in striking reproduction of the ritual of the ancient temple, if not daily then at least on certain festivals. The Kohanim, who must be free from certain types of mental, physical and spiritual blemishes, remove their shoes, since all temple worship was performed barefoot, and the Levites wash the priests' hands, in remembrance of the ablutions that were mandated before carrying out any temple ritual. The priests stand facing the congregation, holding their fingers outstretched, and repeat the words of the ancient blessing to the congregation standing before them.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.