Singing the Monkey House Blues, Part 1

“They shall be holy before their L-rd, and they shall not desecrate the name of their L-rd, for the sacrifices of G-d, the bread of their L-rd do they bring, and they shall be holy.”Leviticus 21:6

Given only a shallow understanding of the laws of Kohanim, the priests, we might consider them a higher class, “creatures of privilege.” When we had our Land and our Temple, all Jews gave the Kohanim a portion of their crops. Even the children of Levi (the tribe of the Kohanim), who also were given special portions, gave the Kohanim part of what they received. Only Kohanim could enter many parts of the Temple; only they could offer sacrifices; only they could aspire to the position of High Priest, he who performed the special service of Yom Kippur.

A closer examination reveals a far more complex distinction.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Privileged People”
Commentary on Parshas Emor

The world of Messianic Judaism is undergoing something of a crisis and ironically, it’s something that Rabbi Menken was trying to address.

Let me explain.

Disclaimer: Before I continue, I want to let you know that I am expressing my viewpoint on Jewish uniqueness and distinctiveness in the community of Messianic believers and suggesting that Jews and non-Jews embody different, or at least, overlapping sets of responsibilities and duties to God while remaining absolutely equal in God’s love and in His salvation. Chances are, some of you reading this will not be happy with me and will disagree with my perspectives. I understood that when I started writing this blog post. Now let’s continue and see how the various parts of the Bible and the perspective of the sages can illuminate this issue.

OK, Rabbi Menken wasn’t discussing Messianic Judaism at all, but he was illustrating that the perceived “privilege” of the Priestly class in ancient Judaism was somewhat deceptive. As you may recall from Numbers 16, a number of Levites, lead by Korah, tried to rebel against the authority of Moses and Aaron because the Kohenim (Priests) were seen as seizing rights and privileges that they didn’t deserve and that were desired by all of the Levites (see Torah Portion Korah). As a result of their jealousy, things didn’t work out so well. 250 men died by fire (Numbers 16:35), 14,700 people died in a plague (Numbers 17:14) and the following happened to Korah, as well as Dathan, and Abiram, their possessions and any family who stood with them:

Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. –Numbers 16:31-33 (JPS Tanakh)

So what’s all this got to do with Messianic Judaism?

This is an oversimplification, but imagine that the Messianic movement is made up of roughly two different groups: a group who believes that all Jews and non-Jews in the movement are equal and uniform in their practice and obligation to Torah and to God, and a group who believes that Jewish Messianics (and all Jews for that matter) exist under additional obligations and have a unique relationship with God that isn’t absolutely mirrored for non-Jewish believers. The perception of some non-Jews of the Jews in the second group, is that they are seizing rights and privileges that should belong to everyone who has been “grafted in” by the blood of the Messiah.

Wait! Sound familiar?

No, I’m not suggesting any fires or plagues or earthquakes are about to come along, but the human emotions and dynamics involved in the Korah rebellion and the current state of the Messianic movement (or in certain areas, anyway) are very much alike. The response of Aaron and Moses to the Levites is pretty much the same response of the Jews to the Gentiles in the Messianic movement, and is actually how Jews see themselves in relation to non-Jews in general.

Kohenim relative to the Levites and other Jews are not more privileged but rather, are assigned higher levels of responsibility. Rabbi Menken’s commentary continues:

A closer examination reveals a far more complex distinction. The Kohanim received their designated presents, but they did not receive a portion of land. Perhaps they were assured they would have a basic income, but the opportunity to amass individual wealth was greatly reduced. They were prohibited from numerous actions permitted to others. To be a Kohen is not simply to enjoy privileges the rest of us do not.

To shift our focus upon the Jewish people relative to Gentiles, Jews (this is a generalization and doesn’t speak to how any specific Jewish individual may feel) don’t consider themselves better or more privileged than non-Jews, but rather, they see that they have been assigned a higher level of obligation to God and to humanity than the other people groups of the earth. A great deal is permitted for the Gentile, including the Gentile Christian that is not permitted to a Jew.

Crucial to the Jewish notion of chosenness is that it creates obligations exclusive to Jews, while non-Jews receive from God other covenants and other responsibilities. Generally, it does not entail exclusive rewards for Jews. Classical rabbinic literature in the Mishnah Avot 3:14 has this teaching:

Rabbi Akiva used to say, “Beloved is man, for he was created in God’s image; and the fact that God made it known that man was created in His image is indicative of an even greater love. As the verse states [Genesis 9:6], ‘In the image of God, man was created.’)” The mishna goes on to say, “Beloved are the people Israel, for they are called children of God; it is even a greater love that it was made known to them that they are called children of God, as it said, ‘You are the children of the Lord, your God. Beloved are the people Israel, for a precious article [the Torah] was given to them …

Most Jewish texts do not state that “God chose the Jews” by itself. Rather, this is usually linked with a mission or purpose, such as proclaiming God’s message among all the nations, even though Jews cannot become “unchosen” if they shirk their mission. This implies a special duty, which evolves from the belief that Jews have been pledged by the covenant which God concluded with the biblical patriarch Abraham, their ancestor, and again with the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai. In this view, Jews are charged with living a holy life as God’s priest-people.

-from Rabbinic Jewish views of chosenness

In part 2 of this “meditation,” I’ll quote a portion of Rabbi Menken’s commentary on Emor that crystallizes the core dynamics of what is occurring between some Jews and Gentiles in 21st century western Messianism.

As for the title of today’s meditation, it’s taken from an anthology of stories written by Kurt Vonnegut called Welcome to the Monkey House. You’ll find out what all that has to do with what I’ve been saying in the next part of my blog post.

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