Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Tunics

I have a feeling I'm going to get in trouble for the following piece, but I like it too much to keep it to myself...

Bereishit is filled with haberdashery, from Eden chic to Esav's treasured garb, to Tamar's costume, to Yosef's palace ensemble. The clothing of Bereishit protects, conceals, deceives and honours. Perhaps the best-known clothing in this book, though, is Yosef's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a.k.a. his ketonet pasim.

Yosef's tunic is not the only biblical ketonet, though; another ketonet is a critical part of the kohen's uniform. (Shemot 28:39-40) Indeed, the Talmud connects these two ketonet garments explicitly, saying: "The kohen's ketonet atones for bloodshed, as Bereishit 37:31 says, 'And they slaughtered a goat, and they dipped [Yosef's] ketonet in the blood.'" (Zevachim 88b)

The talmudic logic seems to be that Yosef's brothers dipped his ketonet in blood to provide "evidence" of his death, and so the kohen's ketonet atones for bloodshed. This formula is odd on many levels, but here is a basic challenge: We are taught (Rosh haShanah 26a) that an entity which represents a person's criminality cannot also defend him. For example, the Kohen Gadol does not wear gold when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur; gold is reminiscent of the Golden Calf. So how can the kohen's ketonet simultaneously recall the bloody deception surrounding the sale of Yosef, and yet atone for bloodshed?

Let us look more closely at the sale of Yosef. The sons of Leah may have shunned Yosef because of Rachel. (Bereishit 37:2) They may have been turned off by Yosef's reports on their bad behaviour. (ibid.) Certainly, they were antagonized by Yosef's dreams. (ibid. 37:5-11) However, a passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 10b) contends that the sale of Yosef was actually triggered by two sela of wool, which marked his ketonet as unique.

As depicted in that talmudic passage and in Rashi's commentary there, Yosef's ketonet was not luxurious, and the brothers would not have envied such a small difference. Rather, the brothers were outraged by the fact that there was any difference, that Yaakov had marked this son as holding a unique role that they could not share. In their eyes, setting Yosef apart was an unjust attack on their legitimate membership in the family.

Long before the Enlightenment taught humanity to question received tradition regarding class and gender identities, Korach (Bamidbar 16) and King Uziahu (Divrei haYamim II 26) challenged the law that one must descend from Aharon in order to act as a kohen. Today, it is nearly universally axiomatic that "separate but equal" is unjust; as Justice Earl Warren wrote, separate is "inherently unequal." Our sense of fair play demands that human beings choose their destinations. Thus it is no surprise that Yosef's brothers would resent Yaakov's act of segregation, and that the Talmud would criticize it.

On the other hand, separation is fundamental to Judaism. At the genesis of Creation, G-d separates light and darkness, land and sea, and He stresses that life forms are to exist "according to their species". G-d separates Avraham and Sarah from their family. G-d says of the Jews, "I have separated you from the nations" (Vayikra 20:26), and then He separates the Levites from the rest of us. (Bamidbar 8:14) How can we expect a humanity which resists segregation to respect a religion which sanctifies it? How can the same ketonet represent the flawed separation of Yosef, and the sanctified separation of the kohen?

Perhaps a meaningful difference between flawed separation and acceptable separation is the identity of the Separator. As the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachot 5:2) notes, establishing distinctions requires intelligence – and establishing distinctions which shape the lives of human beings requires the Supreme Intelligence of Hashem. Hashem is the One who distinguishes between sacred and mundane, between light and dark, between the Jews and the nations, and between the seventh day and the six days of creative activity.

The kohen's ketonet highlights Divine separation. True, the ketonet represents the bloodshed which resulted from separating Yosef. However, in donning this tunic the kohen restores the power of separation to G-d, righting an ancient wrong. Further, the nation that accepts the kohen demonstrates its acceptance of legitimate, Divine separation. [And see Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma 7:3, which adds that the ketonet also atones for kilayim – a mixing of species which G-d has deemed separate.]

Realistically, life requires that we assign roles, defining confidants, spouses, political leaders, religious authorities, and so on. We need to define eligibility. But to the extent possible, we must respect the impact of distinctions, and practice humility, minimizing our meddling. G-d has assigned different roles to different nations, to different families of Israel, and to different genders; may we refrain from arrogating the power of segregation and creating novel restrictions and boundaries. May we channel our efforts into accepting our Divinely assigned roles, and fulfilling the tasks vouchsafed to us.

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