"Priestly Misconduct"

by Yosef Y. Jacobson

As the news continues to focus its attention on the scandals evoked by the behavior of Catholic priests, I turned my attention to a mitzvah recorded in the weekly Torah portionof Emor concerning Jewish priests, demonstrating Judaism's very sobering and realistic approach to the pitfalls of human sexuality.

The Torah prohibits a Kohen, a priest in the Jewish religion, from marrying a divorced woman. It also prohibits a Kohen Gadol, a High Priest in the Jewish religion, from marrying a divorcee and a widow (1).

Now, one can perhaps make sense out of the former prohibition: Since a priest served as the spiritual agent of the Jewish people in Divine service, he was required to live a life of complete innocence and spirituality. Therefore, the Torah did not want him marrying a human being involved in conflict and strife. But why could a High Priest not marry a widow? What is it about her husband's death that makes her unqualified to enjoy a blessed relationship with a Jewish High Priest?

You may be surprised by the answer. But I have always found this answer extremely comforting, as it depicts how Judaism does not hide its face from the profound struggles confronting all human beings in the area of intimacy. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulaei, an 18th century sage and mystic known in short as the "Chida" (2), presents the following interpretation in the name of the great 12th century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid (3).

The High Priest of Israel was given many great spiritual powers. The most important of them was his duty on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, to enter into the Temple's Holy of Holies, a place where no other living Jew was ever allowed to enter. On that charged day, the High Priest would also pronounce the intimate 72-letter name of G-d, which contained very profound powers. (The Jewish Sages intentionally ceased teaching that name during the period of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, and it has since been forgotten.)

Now, the Torah is concerned that the High Priest may experience infatuation with a particular married woman. What might he do about the fact of her being married? Next Yom Kippur, he will utilize the moment when he utterance G-d's ineffable name in order to bring about a decree of death on her husband. Thus he would be free to marry the widow.

It is as a result of this concern that the Torah commands that a High Priest may not marry a widow. Even if he succeeds in getting rid of the husband, he would not be able to marry the wife.

Judaism, in its reality-based approach to the human psyche, knew full well that sexuality holds all men -- priests and lay men alike -- captive in its extraordinary appeal. Even a High Priest, on the holiest day of the year, while uttering the holiest word in the world, is capable of thinking about how he can "bump a man off the road" so that he can lay his hands on his woman. Judaism is keenly sensitive to the truth that every human being has a demon lurking within. If you don't challenge it and tame it, it can turn you into a monster.

So, the next time you are overtaken by particularly dark cravings, do not fall into despair. Remember, you are no worse than the High Priest of Israel! You, too, may struggle against horrible demons. But, you, too, may still enter into the Holy of Holies.


1) Leviticus 21:7; 14.
2) 1724-1806. The Chida, author of more than 50 volumes on Torah thought, was one of the great Torah luminaries of his day. He resided in Israel, Egypt and Italy. He quotes this interpretation in his book Penei David.
3) Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid, who resided in Regensburg, Germany and authored the famed Sefer Chassidim, was known as one of the great kabbalists and halachic authorities of his day.
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.

Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson is an acclaimed teacher, lecturer and writer, based in the New York area. For a copy of his speaking schedule, or to order his audio tapes or subcribe to his weekly essay, contact: YYJacobson@aol.com.

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