We moderns have trouble with priests. There they are, it seems, claiming special proximity to God and forever collecting emoluments as a matter of right. Sure, some biblical sacrifices were offered whole on altars that dissolved them into smoke. But others went directly to the priests. So yes, we moderns have trouble with priests.
We are not the first, however. The Rabbis too questioned the role that priests should have when the destruction of the Temple rendered their presence largely obsolete. There were still some priestly tasks to perform — redeeming firstborn boys, for example, in the ceremony called pidyon haben. But the five silver coins they received were given to charity, and overall, priestly status was reduced to honorifics: getting the first aliyah to the Torah, for example. In a move to democratize the sacred, and citing the Torah’s claim that we Jews are (all of us) a sacred people, Reform Judaism dispensed with the priesthood altogether.
The longest-running debate concerned the “Priestly Benediction” (“God bless you and keep you; God deal kindly and graciously with you; God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace”). Numbers 6:22-27 assigns it expressly to “Aaron and his sons,” and to this day, when it occurs in the daily Amidah, Jews in Israel reserve it for priests alone to say. In the diaspora, however, any prayer leader can say it.
But even diaspora practice has a specially expanded holiday form of the blessing, still reserved for kohanim, today’s descendants of the ancient priesthood. Whatever we may think of priests in theory, this purely priestly spectacle is undeniably one of the most moving moments in the service.
So even as we do have problems with priests, we dearly yearn for the priestly. We properly dismiss the idea that one class among us is closer to God and that God works only through them; but in expelling the priesthood, we risk losing the priestly, the sense that we can access the holy altogether — bringing blessing from on high and becoming incomparably more than the mundane selves to which our everyday routine condemns us.
Alongside the rabbinic, which emphasizes study and learning, Judaism knows at least three other routes to the divine: the prophetic, the pastoral, and the priestly. Prophetic Judaism demands justice. Pastoral Judaism offers healing. Priestly Judaism invokes the sacred. Jews today grant proper credence to all but the priestly.
Yet priestly Judaism alone invokes the presence of God in our lives. The models vary: a burning bush, for Moses; a still small voice for Elijah; a priestly benediction for us. Whatever the medium, we need the sacred, for without reminders of what links us to our best, there is nowhere to go but closer to our worst.
The priestly benediction is the ritualized reminder of human nature at its best. Whether chanted by priests, sung by cantors, or spoken by rabbis, it affirms our greatest aspirations: peace of mind, love of one another, the certainty that, as it were, we are well watched over — that someone cares. At the same time, the priestly blessing requires people other than ourselves to invoke it upon us — yet a second image of humanity at its finest. We should not take for granted the capacity in us all to interrupt our busyness for the purpose of bringing serenity of soul to others.
The secret of the priestly is this very mutuality: people taking time out both to bless and to be blessed, sometimes one and sometimes the other, but either way, reveling in the knowledge that, being made in the image of God, we have heights of human dignity that separate us from our basest animal instincts.
The Zohar rightly comments, “Priests who do not love the people cannot bless them; and people cannot be blessed if they do not love back in return.” Priestly Judaism insists we are not alone — because we both love and are loved; and, being loved by God and one another, we find blessing.