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    Rites & wrongs – Vayikra

    Christian Bible scholars used to say that the prophets were the saints and the priests the villains. The early Jewish Reformers argued that righteousness mattered more than ritual.

    If both groups had been more intellectually honest they would have recognised that priests and prophets both had their place in Judaism; indeed some of the prophets – e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel – were themselves priests. They performed rituals in the Temple; they also inveighed against injustice and robbery.

    The Revised Standard Version of the Bible could not see this. Think of this verse from Isaiah (chapter 61, verse 8): “I the Lord love justice, sanei gazel b’olah – hating robbery together with wrong” – that is how the RSV translated the Hebrew, reading olah as avlah, iniquity, as do the Septuagint and Targum Yonatan.

    However, most Jewish commentators read the word as olah, burnt offering. To them the verse denotes “hating robbery if it accompanies burnt offerings”.

    Burnt offerings and other rituals were part of the Jewish program, but not if people thought no more was required, and if they allowed themselves to erect an iron curtain between ritual and righteousness.

    All the burnt offerings and rituals in the world cannot justify unrighteousness. Priest and prophet, ritual and righteousness, must go together.

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