May 28, 2024
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May 28, 2024
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Excerpted from Rabbi Sacks’ article, available in its entirety at

With Parshat Tetzaveh, something new enters Judaism: Torat Kohanim, the world and mindset of the priest. Rapidly it becomes a central dimension of Judaism. It dominates the next book of the Torah, Vayikra. Until now, though, priests in the Torah have had a marginal presence.

This week’s parsha marks the first time we encounter the idea of a hereditary elite within the Jewish people—Aaron and his male descendants—and their role to minister in the Sanctuary. For the first time we find the Torah speaking about robes of office: those of the priests and the high priest worn while officiating in the sacred place. For the first time too we encounter the phrase, used about the robes: lekavod ule-tiferet, “for glory and beauty” (Ex. 28:2). Until this point, kavod in the sense of glory or honor has been attributed only to God. As for tiferet, this is the first time it appears in the Torah. It opens up a whole dimension of Judaism—namely, the aesthetic.

All these phenomena are related to the Mishkan, the subject of the preceding chapters. They emerge from the project of making a “home” for the infinite God within finite space. The question I want to ask here, though, is: Do they have anything to do with morality? With the kind of lives the Israelites were called upon to live and their relationships to one another? If so, what is their connection to morality? And why does the priesthood appear specifically at this point in the story?

It is common to divide the religious life in Judaism into two dimensions. On the one side, the priesthood and the Sanctuary, and on the other, the prophets and the people. The priests focused on the relationship between the people and God, mitzvot bein adam laMakom. Prophets focused on the relationship between the people and one another, mitzvot bein adam lechavero. The priests supervised ritual and the prophets spoke about ethics. One group was concerned with holiness, the other with virtue. You don’t need to be holy to be good. You need to be good to be holy.

In this essay I want to challenge that conception. The priesthood and the Sanctuary made a moral difference, not just a spiritual one. Understanding how they did so is important not only to our understanding of history but also to how we lead our lives today. We can see this by looking at some important recent experimental work in the field of moral psychology.

Our starting point is American psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his book, “The Righteous Mind.” Haidt posits that in contemporary secular societies our range of moral sensibilities has become very narrow. He calls such societies WEIRD: western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. They tend to see more traditional cultures as rigid, hidebound and repressive. People from those traditional cultures tend to see Westerners as strange in abandoning much of the richness of the moral life.

Haidt became interested in the fact that his American students reduced morality to two principles, one relating to harm, the other to fairness. On harm they thought like John Stuart Mill, who said that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” For Mill this was a political principle but it has become a moral one: If it doesn’t harm others, we are morally entitled to do what we want.

The other principle is fairness. We don’t all have the same idea of what is fair and what is not, but we all care about basic rules of justice: What is right for some should be right for all, do as you would be done to, don’t bend the rules to your advantage and so on.

Those are the ways WEIRD people think. If it’s fair and does no harm, it is morally permissible. However—and this is Haidt’s fundamental point—there are at least three other dimensions to the moral life as understood in non-WEIRD cultures throughout the world.

One is loyalty and its opposite, betrayal. Loyalty means that I am prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of my family, my team, my co-religionists and my fellow citizens, the groups that help make me the person I am. I take their interests seriously, not only considering my own self-interest.

Another dimension is respect for authority and its opposite, subversion. Without this no institution is possible, perhaps no culture either. Schools, armies, courts, professional associations, even sports, depend on respect for authority.

The third arises from the need to ring-fence certain values we regard as non-negotiable. They are not mine to do with as I wish. These are the things we call sacred, sacrosanct, not to be treated lightly or defiled.

Why are loyalty, respect and the sacred not considered key strands of ethics in the typical view held by liberal elites in the West? The most fundamental answer is that WEIRD societies define themselves as groups of autonomous individuals seeking to pursue their own interests with minimal interference from others. To this end, we have developed principles of rights, liberty, and justice that allow us to coexist peacefully. If an act is unfair or causes someone to suffer, we are prepared to condemn it morally, but not otherwise.

Loyalty, respect and sanctity do not naturally thrive in secular societies based on market economics and liberal democratic politics. The market erodes loyalty. It invites us not to stay with the product we have used until now but to switch to one that is better, cheaper, faster, newer.

Respect for figures of authority—politicians, bankers, journalists, heads of corporations—has been falling for many decades. We are living through a loss of trust and the death of deference.

As for the sacred, that too has been lost. Marriage is no longer seen as a holy commitment, a covenant. At best it is viewed as a contract.

What makes loyalty, respect and sanctity key moral values is that they create a moral community as opposed to a group of autonomous individuals. Loyalty bonds the individual to the group. Respect creates structures of authority that allow people to function effectively as teams. Sanctity binds people together in a shared moral universe. The sacred is where we enter the realm of that-which-is-greater-than-the-self. The very act of gathering as a congregation can lift us into a sense of transcendence in which we merge our identity with that of the group.

Once we understand this distinction, we can see how the moral universe of the Israelites changed over time. Abraham was chosen by God “so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (tzedakah umishpat; Gen. 18:19). What Abraham’s servant looked for when choosing a wife for Isaac was kindness, chesed. These are the key prophetic virtues.

Kindness is the equivalent of care, which is the opposite of harm. Justice and righteousness are specific forms of fairness. In other words, the prophetic virtues are close to those that prevail today in the liberal democracies of the West. Kindness and fairness are about relationships between individuals. Until Sinai, the Israelites were just individuals, albeit part of the same extended family that had undergone Exodus and exile together.

After the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites were a covenanted people. They had a sovereign: God. They had a written constitution: the Torah. They had agreed to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Yet the incident of the Golden Calf showed that they had not yet understood what it is to be a nation. They behaved like a mob. That was the crisis to which the Sanctuary and the priesthood were the answer. They turned Jews into a nation.

Two further research findings are relevant here. Richard Sosis analyzed a series of voluntary communities set up by various groups in the course of the 19th century, some religious, some secular. He discovered that the religious communes had an average lifespan of more than four times longer than their secular counterparts. There is something about the religious dimension that turns out to be important, even essential, in sustaining community.

We now also know on the basis of considerable neuro-scientific evidence that we make our choices on the basis of emotion rather than reason. People whose emotional centers (specifically the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) have been damaged can analyze alternatives in great detail, but they can’t make good decisions. One interesting experiment revealed that academic books on ethics were more often stolen or never returned to libraries than books on other branches of philosophy. Expertise in moral reasoning, in other words, does not necessarily make us more moral. Reason is often something we use to rationalize choices made on the basis of emotion.

That explains the presence of the aesthetic dimension of the service of the Sanctuary. It had beauty, gravitas and majesty. In the time of the Temple it also had music. There were choirs of levites singing psalms. Beauty speaks to emotion and emotion speaks to the soul, lifting us in ways reason cannot do to heights of love and awe, taking us above the narrow confines of the self into the circle at whose center is God.

The Sanctuary and priesthood introduced into Jewish life the ethic of kedushah, holiness, which strengthened the values of loyalty, respect and the sacred by creating an environment of reverence, the humility felt by the people once they had these symbols of the Divine Presence in their midst. As Maimonides wrote in a famous passage in “The Guide for the Perplexed” (III:51),

We do not act when in the presence of a king as we do when we are merely in the company of friends or family.

In the Sanctuary, people sensed they were in the presence of the King.

Reverence gives power to ritual, ceremony, social conventions and civilities. It helps transform autonomous individuals into a collectively responsible group. You cannot sustain a national identity or even a marriage without loyalty. You cannot socialize successive generations without respect for figures of authority. You cannot defend the non-negotiable value of human dignity without a sense of the sacred. That is why the prophetic ethic of justice and compassion had to be supplemented with the priestly ethic of holiness.

By Rabbi Lord
Jonathan Sacks, zt”l


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