Scholars have had a lot to say about the role of aristocracy in the course of human history. Those of us who grew up in the United States of America were taught about the advantages of democracy and thus developed a prejudice against the very word “aristocracy.” We were convinced that aristocracy meant government by a select group of people who earned their right to govern by virtue of their birth.
Along with the virtues of democracy, we were taught to value meritocracy. Individuals should be granted positions of authority on the basis of their merit. If they prove themselves to be expert in business, they should be given control of the economy. Those who successfully prove their administrative experience should run the government.
As our formal education proceeded, we learned about the danger of another philosophy; namely, elitism. Somewhere in our attic storage room, there remains a copy of a paper I wrote as a sophomore in college. It was based upon a book by the eminent sociologist C. Wright Mills, entitled The Power Elite. In it, the author cautions against the development of a small group, or “inner core,” controlling all the institutions in power in a given society. A more recent book by David Rothkopf makes a similar point and speaks of a “super-class” that dominates contemporary American society. Personally, I suspect that we can detect in the present presidential elections a revolt, by a substantial portion of the populace, against “the power elite” or the “super-class.”
In my rabbinic teaching experience, I have found that students tend to question, or at least wonder about, the existence of aristocracy or elitism in the society prescribed by our Torah. This tendency is especially common among students who have been raised to value “the American way.” I have discovered that it is this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20), which evokes these questions more than any other.
This week’s parasha begins with an enumeration of the leaders of each tribe. The leader of the tribe of Reuben is named Elizur son of Shedeur, and so are named the leaders of every tribe. That is, every tribe but Levi. The Torah then proceeds with the details of the results of the census that Moses conducted. The total population of each tribe is listed, beginning with Reuben and ending with Naphtali. Again, the tribe of Levi is not recorded. The Torah itself remarks, “The Levites, however, were not recorded among them by their ancestral tribe.” Indeed, the Almighty specifically commands Moses: “Do not on any account enroll the tribe of Levi, or take a census of them, with the Israelites,” (Numbers 1:47-48).
The Torah continues to describe the configuration of the tribes as they marched through the wilderness: Three tribes in the north, three tribes in the south, and three tribes, each in the east and west. The glaring omission from this formation is the tribe of Levi.
It is only when we reach the third chapter of this week’s Torah portion that we learn of the special treatment that the tribe of Levi is to receive. It is then that we learn that the Levites are to substitute for the firstborn Israelites and will serve in their stead in the special roles of maintaining the Holy Tabernacle. Finally, the Torah describes the division of the tribe of Levi into three and names the leaders of each of those three divisions. It is only at this later point in the parasha that we are informed about the central position of the Levites in the nation’s march through the wilderness.
It is no wonder that students often ask about elitism. Their question is usually phrased along these lines: “Aren’t the Levites being designated by the Almighty Himself as a “power elite” or “super-class?” Are we not to be concerned that the rest of the Israelites will experience the resentment typical to victims of discrimination? Wasn’t the Levites’ special position in this parasha accorded them only because they were born Levites, having done nothing to merit their special distinction?”
The Sages of the Talmud and Midrash respond emphatically to these questions. Here is an especially poetic example, to be found in the Midrash Bemidbar Rabba, chapter 3: “It was the tribe of Levi who were heroes and blossomed forth with their deeds at the time that the Israelites crafted the Golden Calf. It is written, ‘Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come here!”‘ And all the Levites rallied to him. Therefore, the Holy One, Blessed Be He raised them above the Israelites. Like the cedar which is taller and higher in the forest of Lebanon than all other trees, so too are they elevated above all of Israel. Thus, it is written in the book of Psalms (92:14), ‘Planted in the house of the Lord, they flourish in the courtyards of our God.'”
The point of this Midrash, and of many similar rabbinic passages, is this: The elite position of the Levites was not merely a function of their privileged birth. Rather, they earned their position because of their firm commitment to God. They merited their special role because of their courage and dedication.
In the classes that I have led, however, these rabbinic passages do not suffice. Questions persist: “What about nowadays? Can any person not born a Levi gain access to that tribe’s privilege by virtue of his commitment and courage? Or, is membership in this special group closed to non-Levites forever?”
The response to such questions was given centuries ago by none other than Maimonides: “It is not just the tribe of Levi alone, but each and every person from all of the world’s inhabitants, if his spirit but moves him and his intellect matures, can distinguish himself from the masses and stand before God to serve Him and to worship Him. He can come to know God, and if he walks upright in the manner in which God fashioned him and is willing to discard all the many considerations which other humans naturally seek, such a person is sanctified as the holiest of holies. He too can become God’s special portion and heritage forever and ever.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, concluding paragraph of the Laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee)
Simply put, Maimonides is teaching us that every human being can become a Levite.
Not many of us are familiar with Maimonides’ astonishing remarks.
But there is a statement, spoken daily by every regular synagogue attendee, which symbolically transforms each of us into a Levite. For near the conclusion of the morning service every day of the year, weekday or Sabbath or Festival, we recite a psalm. The psalm differs from day to day, but there is a brief prelude that we all utter: “Today is the first day of the week (or second, or third day, as the case may be) on which the Levites used to say this psalm in the Temple.”
Why do we recite this formula? The customary answer is that we want to retain some memory of the Holy Temple in our religious consciousness. But I like to think that we recite it to connect in some fashion to the Levites in the Temple of long ago. And we recite it whether we are Levites by birth or not. We assert that in some sense we can all become Levites.
Maimonides insists that in Judaism elites are made, not born. Authentic elites are not about power. They are about courage and commitment. And conviction.
(Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union)