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The Democratic Ethos in the Book of Leviticus

March 16 2018

This Sabbath, Jewish congregations begin reading the third book of the Bible, which is concerned almost exclusively with ritual matters: sacrifices, purity and impurity, dietary restrictions, and the like. Many of these laws apply exclusively to the kohanim—the members of the priestly caste made up of descendants of Aaron—rather than to the Israelites as a whole. So why, asks Jeffrey Tigay, include them all in the Torah?

One clue seems to be found in Leviticus 21, a chapter that is addressed [explicitly] to the priests: “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them . . .’”. The chapter requires the priests to avoid actions . . . that would disqualify them from officiating. Surprisingly, the final verse of the chapter . . . adds that it was addressed to the people as well: “Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and his sons and to all the Israelites.” . . .

Moses seems to be informing the people of the rules incumbent on priests in order to [enable] the people to make sure that the priests comply. This enables us to view this chapter, and all the priestly laws, in the larger context of the Torah’s instructions to make all of its laws public.

Making the laws public informs the people not only of their own duties but also of the duties of public officials (priests and prophets, judges and kings), including the limits that God placed on the officials’ rights. [It thus makes possible] public scrutiny and criticism of officials and prevents them from gaining the absolute authority and prestige that they would command by controlling important information known only to them. . . .

[In ancient times], teaching the laws to the entire citizenry was unusual. . . . This aspect of biblical religion was expressed artistically in the frescoes from the 3rd century CE discovered in the ancient Syrian city of Dura Europos. As [the great historian of ancient Judaism] Elias Bickerman wrote, “The sacred books of all other religions . . . were ritual texts to be used or recited by priests. In the temple of Mithras at Dura it is a Magian in his sacred dress who keeps the sacred scroll closed in his hand. [But] in the synagogue of Dura, a layman, without any sign of office, is represented reading the open scroll.”

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Leviticus, Priesthood, Religion & Holidays

Germany’s Bid to Keep Israel off the UN Security Council

March 21 2018

The Jewish state has never held a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. For the first 50 years of its existence, it was denied membership in any of the UN’s regional groups, which control candidacies for these rotating seats. Then it was finally admitted to the Western European and Others Group, which promptly agreed to wait another twenty years before approving Jerusalem for a Security Council candidacy. Now, Benny Avni notes, Germany is poised to block action:

As a good-faith gesture, the Western European and Others Group promised Israel that it and Belgium would run uncontested for the two open 2019-20 [Security Council] seats. Then, in 2016, Germany announced it would also run—even though it already served as a council member [multiple times, including] as recently as 2011-12. . . . [U]nless Belgium yields, Israel’s hopes for UN respect seem doomed for now—and maybe for the foreseeable future.

Why? Diplomats have been telling me Israel violates too many Security Council resolutions to be a member—as in the one passed during the last weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, which marked Jewish holy sites as occupied Palestinian territory. But is building a porch in [the West Bank town of] Ma’ale Adumim really such a huge threat to world peace?

How about, then, a report released last week by UN experts on the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions? It found Germany violated a council ban on sparkling wines, exporting $151,840 worth of bubbly and other luxury goods to Kim Jong Un’s cronies. Or how about, as the Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal reports, German companies exporting to Iran banned materials that were later used in chemical attacks in Syria?

Never mind. Germany (and Belgium) will surely benefit from the UN’s habit of magnifying Israel’s violations beyond all proportion. Thus, Israel’s petition to join the most prestigious UN club will likely be rejected, thanks to a late entry by a shameless [and] cynical German power play against the Jewish state.

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More about: Germany, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-German relations, United Nations