“What We Learn from the Jewish ‘Caste System’”
(Updated and revised from Tzav 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Tzav, continues the Torah’s description of the sacrificial rite, and concludes with a description of the very dramatic and moving consecration ceremony of the כֹּהֲנִיםCohanim, the priests, authorizing their service in the Mishkan–Tabernacle.

Virtually all religions, particularly Eastern religions, have powerful caste systems in which not all people are considered equal or treated equally. There are Brahmans and untouchables, human beings regarded as higher than others, and those considered lower and defiled. All ancient civilizations, of course, had their royalty and their slaves.

Judaism, on the other hand, prides itself as being a highly enlightened faith–an equitable, fair and revolutionarily moral system. When it comes to equality, the Torah repeats the mitzvah of loving the stranger 36 times–more often than any other mitzvah in the Torah! Yet, amazingly, there seems to be a caste system in Judaism as well. After all, we have the כֹּהֲנִיםCohanim–priests, לְוִיִּיםLeviim–Levites, and Israelites. In this week’s parasha, Tzav, we learn extensively of the special position and privileges of the כֹּהֲנִיםCohanim–the priests, all of which seem to be discriminatory, and quite dissonant with Judaism’s views of universal equality before the Creator.

How is this seemingly discriminatory communal structure of Israel rationalized within Jewish law, Jewish theology, and Jewish philosophy?

There is a fundamental debate in Judaism about who is the “Ultimate Jew.” Maimonides, deals with this issue in his Moreh Nevuchim, the Guide to The Perplexed (Book 2, chap. 32 ff). Strongly influenced by Greek philosophy, Maimonides, in effect, employs the Platonic model of the “Philosopher King,” arguing that the “ultimate human being,” the person who can come closest to G-d, must be a philosopher—by which he means, a brilliantly endowed scholar, and King–the possessor of great natural leadership abilities. Translating these terms into Jewish nomenclature, the “Ultimate Jew” must be a great תַּלְמִיד חָכָםTalmid Chacham, a great Jewish scholar, and a brilliantly talented מַנְהִיגmanhig, leader.

In practical human terms, the Maimonidian model for the philosopher king is, of course, Moses. As the Yigdal hymn affirms: לֹא קָם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמשֶׁה עוֹד , no person has ever arisen in Israel as great as Moses. Unfortunately, this model leaves the majority of mortals with little hope of ever coming close to G-d. After all, who can aspire to be as great as Moses? Who is blessed with the prodigious natural endowments of Moses? Moses was singularly unique, and will remain unique. Confirming the uniqueness of Moses, is the epitaph that appears on Maimonides’ tomb in Tiberius: “From Moses to Moses, no one rose like Moses.”

At about the same time as Maimonides, another great Jewish philosopher and poet by the name of Rabbi Judah (Yehuda) HaLevi flourished. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi wrote a famed philosophy tract known as The Kuzari. The Kuzari was based on the historic conversion to Judaism of the king of the Kazar tribe in central Russia during the 8th century. In the philosophical discussion that takes place in the Kuzari (Book 1, statement 19), HaLevi raises the question of who is the “ultimate Jew.” HaLevi suggests an entirely different model from that presented by Maimonides, pronouncing the “ultimate Jew” to be the person who works up to his or her potential. One’s relationship with G-d does not depend on a person’s natural endowments, but rather on what one does with those endowments.

It is told that the Chassidic Rabbi, Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Hanipol once dreamt that he died and came back to earth. His Chassidim asked him, “Well, Zusha, what did the Al-mighty ask you?” The rabbi responded, “The Al-mighty and his tribunal did not ask me why I was not as great as Moshe, why was I not the “sweet singer” like King David, why I was not the great thinker like Rabbi Akiva.” “They asked me,” said Zusha, “Why weren’t you Zusha?! Why didn’t you live up to your own potential?!”

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Who’s higher on the ladder, the person on top, or the one on bottom?” Recognizing that the question was a set up, he responded by stating that the answer depends upon which direction the people on the ladder are going. If the person on the bottom of the ladder is on his/or her way up, and the person on top is on his or her way down, then, theoretically, the person on the bottom may be higher than the person on top! We see, once again, through this illustration, that what counts in Judaism is constant growth and working up to one’s potential.

In life, we are all dealt a seemingly arbitrary “hand,” and are forced to deal with the hand that we’re dealt. Some people are born tall, others short, some blond, others brown-haired, some blue-eyed, others dark-eyed. Some are born in the United States, others in Israel, or South Africa, or in the Himalayas. All of us have to deal with what “fate” has meted out to us. That’s exactly what the Jewish “caste system” of Cohen, Levi, and Israelite represents. The fact that there are Cohanim, Leviim and Israelites underscores that there is an arbitrariness to life, and that a good part of life consists of confronting and dealing with the arbitrariness of our natural endowments and the environmental vicissitudes. We simply have to operate with the hand that life has dealt us.

So how are we to deal with the arbitrariness? Each person is bidden to work up to his/her fullest potential, to always be in the “growth mode,” in all aspects of life. Who is the good Jew? Despite being an Orthodox rabbi, I openly declare that a good Jew is not necessarily Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. A good Jew is rather a person who is always in the “growth mode” with respect to their Jewishness. Irrespective of from where a person starts, whether “privileged” Cohen, Levi, or Israelite, we each have responsibilities. Whether we possess a genius IQ, or are born mentally challenged, each of us is equal in G-d’s eyes. And working effectively with the hand that G-d has dealt us is the essential challenge of life.

Clearly, most important to bear in mind is that, notwithstanding our endowments, we must try to be as full, as complete, as good, as learned, as moral, and as accomplished as we can possibly be. Despite our limitations, if we strive to achieve our fullest potential, each of us can reach the status of being an “Ultimate Jew” in the eyes of the Al-mighty.

That is the message of the Jewish “caste system”–Cohen, Levi, and Israel. That is the Torah’s message, and G-d’s message as well.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 16, 2022, from dawn to nightfall. The joyous festival of Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night and Thursday, March 16-17, 2022.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman, in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.