I received the sad news of former Member of Knesset. Ilan Gilon's passing away as I prepared to write this text. Ilan fearlessly fought for human rights. Ilan Gilon, whose legs were struck by polio as a child, was forced to struggle with his handicap for his whole life. Parashat Emor deals with the laws of the Kohanim (Priests), the descendants of Aaron, who offered the sacrifices in the Temple. One of those laws says: “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer God’s offering…for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me.” (Leviticus 21:21, 23) The Parasha opens with a collection of laws protecting the holiness of the Kohanim. “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be burnt in fire.” (Leviticus 21:9) She defiled her father’s holiness. A priest may not marry a divorcee, and a priest with a physical defect may not serve in the Temple.
In the laws of the priests in the parasha, there is hidden the immanent holiness which sanctifies the wholeness of the body. Any defect in the body is a defect in the levels of holiness. It is possible to reinterpret these laws as referring to the laws of the soul, the striving for spiritual perfection in order to be able to enter the domain of the holy. But, since this conception of holiness, which applies to a specific group and which is symbolized by bodily purity and wholeness, is a conception which is alive in reality, I believe that we must look at it directly. And I believe we must struggle with it, and with those who seek to implement it today in different ways.
There is a huge gap between the laws of the priests in Parashat Emor, according to which holiness requires separation, exclusion, and even death for those who with their bodies have violated holiness, even through no fault of their own, such as a woman who was ”defiled”, or a person who was stricken by a disease, and the holiness of last week’s Parashat Kedoshim. “You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2). In this chapter there is an extensive description of moral laws which protect the weak, the handicapped, and the poor laborers.
This gap, between the laws of holiness pertaining to the priests in the Temple, and those laws that find holiness in the merciful acts of righteousness among people, activated the prophets of Israel throughout the generations:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying:
2. Stand in the gate of the house of the Lord, and proclaim there this word, and say; Hearken to the word of the Lord, all Judah who come into these gates to prostrate yourselves before the Lord.
3. So said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel; Improve your ways and your deeds, I will allow you to dwell in this place.
4. Do not rely on false words, saying: The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are they.
5. For if you improve your ways and your deeds, if you perform judgment between one man and his fellowman,
6. [if] you do not oppress a stranger, an orphan, or a widow, and you do not shed innocent blood in this place.
Returning to Ilan Gilon, a person from Hashomer Ha-Tza’ir who grew up, amongst other things, with the Bible. In an article 2 years ago in “Ha’aretz” he said that he attributes his political philosophy to the three prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. “Amos spoke about the distribution of the national wealth, Isaiah about the distribution of the land. Jeremiah called out to everyone to become decent people. Anyone who is in favor of these 3 positions, I will gladly establish with them a political party. Anyone who is in favor of two of them, I will join him/her in forming a government.” (Ha’aretz, March 3, 2020).
But also Parashat Emor, which focuses on the holiness that causes separation between people, concludes by speaking about justice. There we can find one of the most important and enlightening verses from then until now, within Judaism and the entire world: “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike.” (Leviticus 24:22) A person is a person, and his/her right to compassion and justice does not depend on his/her national status.
Therefore, the usual expression (composed of the names of the three consecutive Parshiyot we read in Leviticus): “After the death of the holy, speak”; is appropriate for Ilan Gilon z”l, if we relate to his activism on behalf of those who need protection. But I prefer: “After the death of the person, speak”.
May his memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Baidatz is a Secular Rabbi and a member of RHR's BOD
Translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi Mordechai Goldberg