There was a line of ants running up and down the face of the
aboveground crypts of the huge necropolis, a city of the dead with story upon
story of stacked crypts rising over the 405 freeway south of Los Angeles. My
father and I were there at the well-known Jewish memorial park dominated by the mausoleum of Al Jolson, because my mother had just died after a long struggle with
cancer. We were being shown around the facility where she would be buried. I
remember asking the man from the memorial park about that line of ants.
I didn’t know it at the time, but for very good reasons that
I’ll get into in a future post, Judaism forbids above ground burial. It insists
on the dead being buried in the same ground from which the first human being,
Adam, was formed. But even being the naïve college freshman and simple,
untutored Jew I was, something about that display of orderly insect vigor
struck me as somehow not right in this context. I asked the man from the
memorial park about the ants.
“Oh,” he reassured me, “don’t look there.”
Since then, over these past 25 years, I’ve often thought of
his words — “Don’t look there” — as the motto of modern culture when it comes
to the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible.
I don’t simply mean that people are ignorant of the Bible. I
mean that even if they are professionals involved with religious communal
affairs, there is a tendency to look away from challenging and often totally
unfamiliar truths embodied in the very heart of Scripture, the Hebrew Bible –
truths not merely about practical religious observance but about the worldview
that the Bible with its commandments and narratives embodies.
The degree to which Jews and non-Jews do not know what they
are looking at when they gaze on the Hebrew Bible is a fundamental insight I’ve
received in the course of my own spiritual journey from secularism to Orthodox
Judaism. Ever since I left a comfortable position at the conservative magazine
National Review ten years ago, I’ve made it my mission as a writer to
reacquaint readers with the fascinating, uplifting, but challenging picture of
reality that the Hebrew Bible offers us.
Offers us all, I
should add, not just Jews. Which brings us to the name of this blog. Readers of
my books and articles, and anyone who knows the book of Exodus at all, will
recognize “Kingdom of Priests” as a phrase from Chapter 19, verse 6, where God
is directing Moses to prepare the Jews to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. God
says that Moses should tell the Jews, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests
and a holy nation.”