Abdicating Our Priestly Duties

By David Klinghoffer

Published January 21, 2005, issue of January 21, 2005.
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It’s tempting to let last week’s Prince Harry Nazi-uniform episode pass from memory as a moment of meaningless comedy. Tempting but wrong, and not for the reason you may think.

Twenty-year-old Harry, third in line for the British throne, attended a costume bash dressed in a khaki military shirt and swastika armband. He was photographed in this get-up, cigarette and drink in hand, and London’s Sun newspaper splashed the picture on its front-page. An upper-class twit had acted like an upper-class twit. The horror!

It was hardly a big serious deal, in truth because who cares anymore about the British throne? Yet the story occasioned days of melodramatic media coverage. The Sun reported “worldwide anger over Harry’s gaffe” and highlighted what it called the “hard-hitting” comments of Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

CNN brought on Rabbi Hier, who denounced Harry’s behavior as “shameful,” demanded that the prince tour a death camp, and more: “He should visit Auschwitz to be part of the British delegation to show the world that he can be serious, that he understands the great atrocity that occurred there. He could be at his grandmother’s side when she greets the Holocaust survivors at Buckingham Palace, rather than remove himself from the scene and expect the world to forgive him because he’s a kid.”

Much more depressing than anything Harry had done, the episode reinforced the world’s impression that the chief moral purpose of Jews is to denounce instances of alleged antisemitism. In my last column I wrote about the role Torah asks Jews to fill, that of the “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) who minister to and teach others about God. I noted that a few, very few, Jewish voices are raised in this capacity today. Now comes the flip side.

Sad to say, the most broadly recognized “moral” voices on the American-Jewish scene, the purported authorities on Jewish values best known outside the Jewish community, concern themselves not with illuminating other people with the beauty and wisdom of the Torah, but too often merely with ferreting out either imagined or meaningless acts of Jew-bating.

The Anti-Defamation League hounding Mel Gibson, the Simon Wiesenthal Center hounding Prince Harry — this is what we are reduced to.

Meanwhile American Christians are continuously stepping into the breach, acting as the moral leaders we should be. One thinks of James Dobson, the country’s most distinguished evangelical Christian voice, leading the fight against homosexual marriage (see Leviticus 18:22), a fight from which Jews are largely AWOL.

It is regrettable. On the bright side, it clarifies a mystery I’ve been thinking about in the Ten Commandments.

The mystery has to do with the Sabbath, the subject of the Fourth Commandment. What’s interesting is that Jews and Christians agree that observing the Sabbath as Biblical tradition teaches — namely, not performing any of the 39 creative acts (melachot) that the Talmud details in tractate Shabbat — would be inappropriate for Christians.

The Talmud even makes Sabbath-observance by non-Jews a deed worthy of death (Sanhedrin 58b). Nuts, right? What’s that about?

I didn’t understand until the week Marvin Hier launched his assault on Prince Harry. I was reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s profound little book “The Sabbath,” which reminds you in a very lovely and moving way that the Jewish Sabbath isn’t merely about desisting from work. It’s about meeting God in a “sanctuary in time,” a day created to serve much the same function that the Jerusalem Temple did before it was destroyed in 70 C.E.

Sabbath-observance is defined by those 39 melachot, which are the same forms of “work” that the Jews, after the Exodus from Egypt, used to build the desert Tabernacle, forerunner to the Temple. Shabbat is a Temple — not in space but in a holier dimension, time. It is special domain of the Jews because we serve uniquely as the priests who minister there.

The Talmud’s seemingly harsh prohibition of gentile Sabbath-observance seeks to depict a reality: When non-Jews function in the role ordained for Jews, something has gone wrong. Naturally, Christians have little choice but to take up our role when we drop it. But the fact that we dropped our role is not acceptable. Not to us, if we know what a Jew should be. But neither should non-Jews amiably allow Jews to get away with our dereliction of duty. The Christian understanding that the Jewish Sabbath isn’t for them indicates that, perhaps unconsciously, they feel this.

When Hier or the ADL’s Abraham Foxman goes on TV yet again to reinforce the perception that we have nothing more morally serious to do than sniff out antisemitism, we are like alcoholics or junkies, gripped by a soul-wrecking vice. Non-Jewish Americans, who after all make the decisions to give Foxman and Hier the national pulpits they have won, are our enablers, making it possible for us to pursue our addiction.

If non-Jewish Americans chose not to give representatives of the antisemitism industry so much attention, groups like the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center, which thrive when the media scare Jews into making donations, would quickly wither. If only.

David Klinghoffer is the author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” due out from Doubleday in March.

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