REPRINTS FROM THE Jerusalem post; BY GOL KALEV, MAY 21, 2020
Get updates on Gol Kalev's upcoming book: Judaism 3.0
The system of firstborn rule is deeply rooted in the narrative of the Bible. Indeed, to this very day, kings in Europe and elsewhere are selected based on the firstborn system.This system was shaken by the Abrahamic revolution. Abraham is succeeded not by his firstborn, Ishmael, but by his second son, Isaac, who in turn is not succeeded by his firstborn, Esau, but by his second son, Jacob, later renamed Israel.
Hence, it became a strategic interest of Israel and Israelis to continue to disavow the firstborn system in order to refute accusations that they are not the legitimate heirs of Abraham. Regional opposition to this element of the Abrahamic revolution is evident in the scolding Jacob received when he sought to marry Rachel: “And Laban said: ‘It is not so done in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn.’”Jacob continues his ancestors’ practice to disavow the firstborn system. In his pre-death address, he makes clear that his firstborn is not his heir.
Indeed, the leader of Israel who later emerges is the great-grandson of Jacob’s third son, Levi. That leader is Moses, who, shortly after accepting his role, expands the power of the tribe of Levi by anointing his brother, Aaron, as his partner, per God’s order. At some point thereafter, there is further expansion of the Levi power base with the appointments of Aaron’s sons as successors to their father as the high priest.
BUT THE ultimate power shift occurs in parashat Bamidbar: The firstborn are officially replaced by Levites in the worship, per God’s orders: “And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the Children of Israel instead of every firstborn that openeth the womb among the Children of Israel; and the Levites shall be Mine.”The Bible has ample stories of deprived groups rebelling, but here the firstborn accept and comply. The firstborn not rebelling is an interesting point that is often missed, and could shed light on the dynamics of the circumstances.
It could simply be due to acceptance that this is an order by God. It could be that they viewed their duty as a burden and were happy to be relieved of it. Another possibility is fear of confronting the Levites, who in the aftermath of the Golden Calf, slaughtered 3,000 perpetrators.But there is also a fourth option – a different reading of God’s order. Arguably, a more precise translation of the Hebrew word “tahat” is not “instead,” as the verse is commonly translated, but “under”: In such a reading, the firstborn remain the principals; the Levites are merely their agents. The word “under” in this case, as in other biblical contexts, would not denote replacement but, rather, would have a supervisory and hierarchical connotation.
The mechanism of the power shift is not by the collective firing of one group and promotion of the other. On the contrary, there is a matching of firstborns to Levites who would serve for them. When it is evident that there are not enough Levites for every firstborn, a protocol is put in place to address it: The residual firstborns pay dues for general Temple purposes. In addition, after giving the order, God reiterates twice: “All firstborn are mine” – they are not dismissed.Therefore, it seems that the firstborn are still intended to be the stakeholders. But instead of running the business, they each “hire” a Levite to represent them – a management team.This has far-reaching implications: It means that the Levites are empowered by the people! They are certainly required to be holy to God, and have a rigid protocol they need to follow in order to do so, but, per this read, the actual mandate for their service in the Temple does not come from God, but from the people they serve.
The Levites stayed in power for over 1,000 years. A subset of them – the kohanim, had complete control of the Temple, which was the anchor of Judaism. When the Romans destroyed the Temple, the Levite elite lost its power. In the second era of Judaism, in exile, a new elite emerged. It was neither the Levites, nor the firstborn, nor another tribe; in a complete conceptual shift, the new Jewish elite was the Rabbis.Indeed, just like the Levites during Judaism 1.0, the Rabbis were instrumental in holding together the Jewish nation through 2,000 years of exile during Judaism 2.0. Yet they failed to lead the Jews back to their land.
THEODOR HERZL took notice of that. He understood that as horrific as the persecution of Jews was, their primary malady was the lack of united political leadership. He created this leadership, who would shepherd the Jews back home, with the help of the rabbis.As he planted the seeds for a new anchor of Judaism – Zionism, Herzl recognized the importance of having an elite. He wrote: “I am a staunch supporter of monarchal institutions, because these allow a continuous policy, and represent the interests of a historically famous family born and educated to rule, whose desires are bound up with the preservation of the state.”
Herzl embraced the elite, but, like with other aspects of his vision, he emphasized that we will not be picking up where we left off. Once again, there is a conceptual shift, a transformation of Judaism. He clarified: “But our history has been too long interrupted for us to attempt direct continuity of ancient constitutional forms, without exposing ourselves to the charge of absurdity.”
Key to Herzl’s vision is that elites should know their boundaries: “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks,” he wrote.
Indeed, the Levites remain a religious elite today. For example, they are honored with the first two Torah readings (aliyot), yet they are elites only within the confines of their temples. Similarly, there are elites in the army – arguably, the National-Religious and the Druze sectors – but they as well, just as Herzl envisioned, are elites only within the confines of the military.
The arc from parashat Bamidbar to parashat Herzl demonstrates that the presence of elites may be necessary, and even welcomed – but this is only as long as they are aware of the source of their power and of their limits.
The writer is the author of the upcoming book Judaism 3.0, which shows how Zionism is turning into the organizing principle of Judaism. For information: jewishtransformation.com. For the writer’s articles on Europe: europeandjerusalem.com
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY 21 JERUSALEM POST MAGAZINE. CLICK FOR PDF OF THE MAGAZINE:
Related Parasha commentary by Gol Kalev:
From ‘Then Sang Moses’ to ‘Then Sang Herzl’
Passover as Jewish particularity
The longevity of Abraham’s and Herzl’s Diplomacy
Joseph and Herzl seeking their brethren