‘What do Jews think is the role of non-Jews in the world?” This is the question I was asked recently by a thoughtful priest, one of two-dozen Roman Catholic priests and nuns for whom I was teaching a survey course on rabbinic Judaism.
I understood that the question was as much about Jews as about non-Jews, and so my answer was this: “We Jews don’t assume we are superior to others but rather that we are held to a more restrictive standard of behavior than other people. There are things that others are allowed to do that we are not allowed to do, and there are requirements we have to meet that others do not have to meet. The Torah speaks of Israel as God’s special people, at least ideally. If we keep up our end of the covenant responsibilities toward God, God will treat us as a segulah — something special and set apart.” I had in mind a verse from this week’s portion, Exodus 19:5.
“It’s not that we think we are inherently better than the rest of humanity,” I explained, “not at all. Our idea of our special role also doesn’t mean that we enjoy privileges above and beyond those of other peoples on earth. That’s not at all what it’s about.”
I searched for an analogy. The first one I came up with was military service. “We’re like soldiers in an army — any army. Soldiers are expected to dress in a very carefully prescribed manner, with dress uniforms worn clean and pressed when going out among civilians. Soldiers are expected to behave in a certain disciplined way, and that is not only part of making them good fighters. In fact, it’s largely not about how they do their jobs at all. Instead it’s about what they represent to others. They have to show in their everyday behaviors that they have the will and the self-discipline to serve a higher cause — their nation — rather than pursue their own desires or their own self-interest.”
“Living up to a set of demanding expectations is a burden, of course,” I said, “but it’s a source of pride, as well.”
This statement led me to think of a more appropriate analogy, the one right in front of my nose: “Or maybe,” I said, “we’re like members of a religious order among Catholics. All of you have taken vows that set you apart from others and restrict your behavior in so many ways. Some of you even wear clothing that sets you apart as members of a religious order. Do you experience that as a burden?” My students looked hesitant. No one spoke up to say “yes,” but no one said “no,” either. I didn’t even see a single head shake “no.” I didn’t want to press them on this point.
“And is it a privilege?” I then asked.
“Yes,” came the answer, from several directions. Nods all around. “Very much so.” “It is a privilege for which we are grateful, despite the difficulties.”
We Jews have our own priests, a hereditary family guild of sacerdotal workers, the people whose ancestors offered up the sacrifices on the altar of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Bible recognizes that other nations have individuals or clans or castes that perform a similar function for them. To note just one example, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, for whom this week’s portion is named, is himself introduced at the outset of the portion as a — or perhaps the — Kohen of the Midianites.
What is the meaning of this generic term, “priest,” if not someone whose public and private life is dedicated to the service of an ideal and thus to the service of his or her compatriots or fellow religionists, as well? Daily sacrifices are made, not on an altar but in opportunities foregone and pleasures foresworn, by the priests of every faith. My students understood very well what I meant by my new analogy. They lived it every day.
“As it is with you among the members of your worldwide church, so it is with us among the peoples of the world,” I told my audience of Catholic clergy. “You ask what is the role of non-Jews in the world? The world cannot be populated by priests alone. But just as each nation needs its priests, the nations of the world together need to have a priestly nation among them. The Jewish people — the Israelite nation, really — is called upon in Exodus [19:6] to be that ‘kingdom of priests and holy nation.’ This conversation has taught me to understand that phrase better than I ever have before.”
Rabbi Peretz Rodman teaches Hebrew language and literature at Hebrew College Online and Jewish education at the Rothberg International School of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He currently serves as president of the (Masorti/Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly’s Israel region.