Of Kings and Kohanim

Inaugural Rabbi Allan Mirvis Lecture Confronts and Contrasts Jewish Leadership Roles

Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, delivered the inaugural Rabbi Allan Mirvis lecture on Sunday morning, December 21, at the Shenk Community Shul on YU’s Wilf Campus. More than 150 attended the presentation, “Kohen, King, Rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva: Models of Jewish leadership from the Maccabees to Today,” part of the Abraham Arbesfeld Kollel Yom Rishon and Millie Arbesfeld Midreshet Yom Rishon Sunday Torah learning series.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik

In his presentation, Rabbi Soloveichik cited rabbinic sources, British coronation customs, and connected the weekly and Chanukah Torah readings and historical and personal anecdotes in comparing the roles of the Kohanim [priests] and Jewish kings with the current roles and actions of roshei yeshiva [professors of Talmud] and shul [synagogue] rabbis. He recounted the short-lived victory of the Hasmoneans over the Seleucids during the Second Temple, with the rededication of the Beit Hamikdash [Temple] in 165 BCE, noting the achievement of Jewish sovereignty “should be a holiday” but that it went “downhill from there” due to the subsequent behavior of the Hasmoneans.

Rabbi Soloveichik  pointed out that the celebration of Chanukah is about the rededication of the Temple—not about the monarchy—even though the Hasmoneans, who were kohanim, retained their role of priesthood while also taking on the role of kingship. Quoting the Ramban, Rabbi Soloveichik noted that the Jewish monarchy belongs exclusively to the tribe of Yehuda [Judah] and that there is a prohibition against kohanim being kings, that “the two vital institutions can’t be joined.”

The kohanim are meant to teach Torah, Rabbi Soloveichik said, while the monarchy is a political entity—though the Jewish monarchy is unique in that it has a spiritual component as well. The king must write a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] to be kept with him and call the people together for the commandment of hakhel [assembly], wherein the king serves in the role of national Torah teacher. Thus priests and kings serve different but complementary roles.

Rabbi Soloveichik cited the assigned but rarely read haftorah [weekly reading from the books of the Prophets] to parshat [weekly Torah reading] Miketz. The reading illustrates the uniqueness of the Jewish king in contrast to kings of other nations. The haftorah describes how all social strata of the Jewish people could enter the palace of King Solomon and discuss their problems with him. Jewish monarchy was thus an open one, in which the “king embraced the entire nation.” In contrast, Rabbi Soloveichik said, the Kohen Gadol [the high priest] can’t spend time with the Jewish people; he had an apartment in the Temple, where few could enter, and only left at night to go home.

Noting that the second week following the Shabbat in which the haftorah is to be read we read parshat Vayechi, where Yehuda is named as the father of the Jewish monarchy, Rabbi Soloveichik suggested that on Chanukah we celebrate the cleaning of the Temple by the kohanim but not their monarchy, while only after Chanukah do we celebrate the monarchy of Yehuda.

This, said Rabbi Soloveichik, allows us to appreciate the two roles and apply them to the rabbinate today. The kohanim and the Beit Hamikdash [Temple] are today’s roshei yeshiva and the yeshiva.  They are the masters of Torah study, and the people to whom the king would bring the Torah he would read in front of the people at hakhel to be checked. However, it was the king, as a man of and for his people, who actually read the Torah to the nation. Thus, “there is a role for kohanim in the yeshiva and there is a role for kings, [who] go out and embrace Jews who are different from themselves using skills of leadership to share Torah,” he said.

Rabbi Soloveichik noted that Rabbi Allan Mirvis, in whose memory the lecture was dedicated, was an example of a king-like leader, one who expanded his heart to include so many Jews from so many walks of life, and who was able to take the Torah from the Temple and teach it to the people.

Rabbi Allan Mirvis, z”l, who graduated Yeshiva College in 1939 and received rabbinic ordination from YU-afilliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1941, served as spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Synagogue in Hampton, Virginia, for 32 years. His children, Theodore (Ted) and Ruth Mirvis, and Dr. David and Arlynn Mirvis, sponsored the lecture.

“Reading through my father’s sermons made me realize that the synagogue rabbi is the key transmitter of Jewish values and law,” said Ted Mirvis, on launching the lecture series in memory of his father.