Rise, O Daughters of Priests and Levites – Emor 5782

As you know, Congregation Sinai is a traditional, egalitarian, Conservative synagogue. There are a range of religious practices within the Conservative movement. Sinai, from a liturgical perspective, tends to be on the more traditional side.  Our service is entirely in Hebrew. We chant the full Torah reading, rather than using the triennial system. We do not abbreviate our service in many of the ways that one might find in other Conservative synagogues.

Like almost every Conservative synagogue, we are egalitarian. Any Jew above the age of B’nei Mitzvah counts towards making a minyan. There is no distinction by gender in leadership roles during services. We have the same expectations, and teach the same skills and knowledge, to all our children. Every child in the religious school wears a head covering, and all B’nei Mitzvah wear a tallit. For many years, our practice has been to accept, without judgment, any Jew according to their preferred gender identity.

I am aware of only one way in which our practice has not been fully egalitarian, and that is our treatment of kohanim and leviim — of priests and Levites.

According to tradition, Kohanim are descendants of the first High Priest, Aaron, and Leviim come from the ancient tribe of Levi. They officiated in the Tabernacle when the Israelites were in the wilderness, and in the first and second Temples. This morning’s Torah portion, Emor, addresses specifically the laws governing the kohanim, including restrictions they had to follow, as well as privileges that they enjoyed.

While Jewish identity is passed on matrilineally, one’s status as a kohen or levi is determined by patrilineal descent.

In keeping with Jewish tradition, Sinai’s practice until now has been to call up the son of a kohen for the first aliyah and the son of a levi for the second aliyah. I have been clear and open over the years to anyone who has asked that we would not consider changing this practice until someone to whom it affects comes forward with this request; in other words, someone with “standing.”

It has taken many years, but that person has finally come forward. In the interest of full transparency, that person is my daughter, Noa.

I speak today wearing several hats.  I am the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai. I am a kohen. And, I am the father of a daughter.

As the Rabbi of the congregation, I serve as mara d’atra, literally “master of the place.” I have the responsibility to decide on questions of Jewish law and ritual practice. The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, the CJLS, is a Conservative institution that addresses questions of halakhah, Jewish law. A local mara d’atra can rely upon a decision of the CJLS for their own community.

The CJLS, in a 1989 teshuvah written by Rabbi Joel Roth, approved extending the first and second aliyot to daughters of kohanim and leviim. I will explain the reasoning behind that decision in a few minutes.

I should add as well that there are CJLS teshuvot that allow for a congregation to dispense entirely with the kohen, levi, yisrael system. Many Conservative synagogues follow that practice.

As a kohen, I have had many significant religious experiences over the years in synagogues and communities around the world. It is an important part of my family identity, passed down by my father. Needless to say, I am called up to the Torah a lot, probably receiving more than 50% of all first aliyot at Sinai.

As for the answer to whether Sinai will call up a bat kohen for the first aliyah, I will have to be able to look my daughter in the eye and explain my decision.

You already know my answer. We are expanding our practice to call for the first and second aliyah anyone, regardless of gender, whose father is a kohen or a levi.

Before I start to explain why, I want to be clear about a few points. We are talking only about being called up for the first two aliyot. Questions around women’s involvement in Jewish ritual are not a single halakhic issue. Counting in a minyan, leading services, chanting Torah and Haftarah – each of these has been dealt with independently. Further, the priestly and levitical lines are passed only through the father. This decision does not apply to birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. That is a separate issue which could potentially be dealt with at another time.

I would like to make one additional comment. Ritual is extremely personal. The prayers we recite, the melodies we sing, how we conduct services— these evoke strong feelings.

A change in any long-held practice can be difficult. Let’s keep in mind that every ritual that feels to us like it is mi-sinai – going all the way back to Mt. Sinai, actually started in a particular place by a specific person.

There was once a first Shabbat when someone thought it would be a good idea to read the Torah in public. There was a first time when someone said a blessing before that reading. There was one Shabbat when a person decided to divide the reading up into seven parts. Someone once thought it would be a good idea to honor people in the community with each of those readings.

There was a first time when a woman was called up to the Torah, which, by the way, occurred many centuries ago. There was a first Shabbat here at Congregation Sinai when a woman was called to the Torah.

Every time such an innovation occurred, it replaced a practice that preceded it. And you can be sure that there was always someone who was uncomfortable with that change.

The other thing I would like to mention is that some practices which might seem to be quite ancient are actually relatively recent innovations in Judaism.

So, why do the first and second aliyot go to Kohanim and Leviim?

The Mishnah, dating from the second century in the land of Israel, states the following:

These are the matters [that the Sages] instituted on account of the ways of peace: a priest reads first, and after him a Levite, and after him an Israelite, on account of the ways of peace…

Mishnah Gittin 5:8

This is the earliest description of the practice of kohen, levi, yisrael. A few questions arise. First of all, why? This tradition almost certainly reflects an innovation that developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, when kohanim and leviim were unable to perform their sacred responsibilities.

Second, what does the expression “on account of the ways of peace” — mipnei darkhei shalom — mean?

The Gemara addresses the first question by offering several alternative biblical verses as the imputed origin of the practice. The fourth verse suggested is by Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, who posits a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, parashat Emor

and you must treat him as holy, since he offers the food of your God; he shall be holy to you, for I, the Lord, who sanctify you am holy.

According to Rabbi Chiya, this means that in any matter of sanctity, a kohen should go first.

A Sage from the school of Rabbi Yishmael derives from this instruction to treat the kohen as holy that he should be accorded with the honor of speaking first in the study hall, leading the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, and serving himself first at a meal.

What is the nature of this holiness which merits such special treament? There are essentially two possibilities. Either, they derive from the special sacrificial responsibilities of a kohen. Or, kohanim have a general sanctity independent of their duties in the Temple.

If it is based on their ritual duties, than we would expect that a kohen who was unable to perform those duties would not be eligible to receive these special honors. Specifically, this morning’s parashah states that kohen who has a physical defect, such as someone who is blind, or lame, or has a limb that is too short or too long, or a broken arm or leg, or a hunchback, a growth in his eye, and so on. A kohen with any of these physical disabilities is unqualified to participate in the Temple rituals. To even enter the sacred precincts would profane them.

If the privileges specified in the Talmud, such as receiving the first aliyah, derive from the kohen’s eligibility to perform the Temple service, than we would expect a physical disability to disqualify him from receiving the first aliyah as well.

But the Torah specifies that he is able to eat from kodashim, from sanctified food which is a perquisite of the kohanim. So he would seem to have some degree of inherent kedushah that is independent of his fitness to serve.

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a mid-twentieth century Orthodox Rabbi, ruled in the case of a kohen who received a disfiguring injury in the Holocaust was eligible to receive the first aliyah. He concludes that

the elements of priestly prerogative are not contingent upon his serving at the altar at all, and even where a priest is not entitled to serve at the altar, as a [disfigured priest], he nonetheless retains the sanctity of the priesthood, and the verse “he shall be holy” applies to him.

Rabbi Oshry concludes that kohanim receive the first aliyah due to their inherent sanctity.

Now back to the Mishnah. It indicates that the kohen should read from the Torah first “on account of the ways of peace.” What are these “ways of peace?”

Originally a kohen could forego his right to the first aliyah in favor of it going to a great sage or other dignified person. What you could imagine happening happened. People started to quarrel over who merited receiving the kohen‘s giving up the first aliyah. “Why did he allow this guy and not me?”

So the Sages enacted a ruling to prohibit a kohen from ever giving it up. The first aliyah must go to a kohen to prevent fights from breaking out in shul. (Incidentally, there were many times over the centuries when Rabbis agreed to find a way around this requirement – often for fundraising purposes.)

Finally, we come to b’not kohen – daughters of priests.

Do daughters of kohanim have any sanctity, and if so, what is the nature of that sanctity? While there was no ritual role played by the daughters of kohanim in the Temple, perhaps they have some degree of inherent sanctity. And if so, does that sanctity accrue to them only when they are in their father’s household, or does it remain with them after they are married?

In his teshuvah, Rabbi Roth points to three areas in Jewish law in which daughters of kohanim retain their rights even when they are no longer living in their fathers’ households. In other words, does a kohen’s daughter become a regular Israelite after she gets married?

One of the perquisites of the priesthood was the right to eat Terumah, a kind of Temple tax that Israelites gave. Remember, kohanim could not own land, so they relied upon farmers for their sustenance. Terumah is in a status called hekdesh, sanctified, and can only be eaten by kohanim and their households. If someone else consumes hekdesh, they have to pay for what they ate, plus a penalty.

When a bat kohen marries an Israelite, she loses her right to eat Terumah. If she does so inadvertently, however, the Mishnah clarifies that she does not pay the penalty that an Israelite would have to pay. Why not? This morning’s Torah portion states “no stranger may eat the sacred food.” Since she is not a ‘stranger’ to Terumah, she does not have to pay the penalty. (Sifra Emor 6:2)

Another perquisite of kohanim were the matanot kehunah, the gifts for the priests. According to the Talmud, a bat kohen retains her rights to eat these gifts even after she gets married and leaves her father’s household. (Rashi on BT CHullin 131b)

The final case speaks of both daughters of kohanim and leviim. According to the Torah, a first-born male child belongs to God. It must, therefore, be bought back, or redeemed, by God’s representative, a kohen. This occurs during a ceremony called pidyon haben. Parents give five silver shekels to a priest on the thirtieth day if their first-born child is a boy. There are exceptions. The son of a kohen, a levi, a bat kohen, and a bat levi do not have to be redeemed.

A Talmudic Sage explicitly ties this exemption to the actual womb of the mother. Exodus states, “whatever opens the womb among the children Israel.” In other words, there is something inherently holy about the womb of a bat levi and a bat kohen.

On a related note, a Talmudic anecdote refers to the Israelite husband of a bat kohen who regularly accepted the five silver coins for pidyon haben on account of his wife’s status. (Tosafot on BT Pesachim 49a)

These are three examples of ways in which a bat kohen has inherent sanctity that is not limited to when she is under her father’s household.

So if the approximately two thousand year old tradition of the first aliyah going to a kohen is based on the inherent sanctity of a kohen, independent of his service in the Temple, and if a bat kohen also has a measure of inherent sanctity, there are grounds for an egalitarian service to include any child of a kohen for the first aliyah.

But should we?

Historically, questions such as these have been difficult for Congregation Sinai. I arrived here shortly after the community decided to become egalitarian. Part of that decision, as many of you know, involved a compromise whereby our liturgy retained many of the elements of a traditional service while including women in the minyan and in leadership. The resulting traditional egalitarian service was one of the things that drew me to Congregation Sinai.

These are important values for me. Sometimes, a conflict arises between values. 

There have been incredible advances in gender equity. While not all the way there, we do not tolerate, by law or by accepted social norms, discrimination on the basis of gender in the workplace, in politics, or in society. Denying a person a job or advancement because of their gender is not only illegal, we now understand it to be wrong and immoral.

Today, a religion that does not give women the same opportunities as men must deal with a dilemma: Why do we accept something in our house of worship that would be intolerable out in the world? Any community that holds on to non-egalitarian practices must have an answer to that question.

That answer will be acceptable for some folks, and will most certainly be disappointing to others.

In the context of our practices at Congregation Sinai, the question of calling up the daughter of a kohen or levi for the first two aliyot is a really minor issue. It affects an incredibly small portion of our membership, and does not involve any change in our liturgy. It is now many years that we have called up men and women equally to the Torah.  

That is why I have decided, as the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, that we will begin to call up daughters of kohanim and leviim for the first two aliyot during services. This brings us in line with the practices in a majority of Conservative synagogues.

This ruling applies to any person born Jewish whose father is a kohen. Like b’nei kohanim, A bat kohen cannot received aliyot two through seven, and like b’nei leviim, a bat Levi cannot receive the first aliyah, nor aliyot three through seven.

Speaking with a Single Voice – Mishpatim 5776

There was a momentous decision in Israel at the beginning of this week.  The Israeli Cabinet voted to endorse the Mendelblit Plan to create an official egalitarian section of the kotel, the Western Wall.  It legally designated the entire area as a pluralistic space that belongs to the entire Jewish people.  For the first time, the government will fund what until now has been referred to as the “Egalitarian Kotel,” or Ezrat Yisrael, and has been maintained by the Masorti, or Conservative, Movement.

Here are some of the details.  The existing segregated men and women’s sections will remain in place and continue to be administered by the Charedi Western Wall Heritage Foundation, under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.  The plaza behind those two sections will remain under the administration of Rabbi Rabinowitz, although it will now be officially designated as a public space and used for national and swearing-in ceremonies for the IDF.  Whereas in the past, women were prohibited from singing or speaking at those ceremonies, there will no longer be such discrimination.

Previously, violations of “local custom” have been punishable by 6 months in prison or a 500 shekel fine.  The Charedi authorities have been able to define “local custom,” which has resulted in many women being arrested for praying over the past two decades.  The new plan decriminalizes women’s prayer.

Regarding the Egalitarian Kotel, located in the Davidson Archaeological Garden, which is to the South of what we generally think of as the Western Wall, there will be a number of changes.  The space will expand significantly from the current 4800 square feet to nearly 10,000.  In comparison, the segregated sections comprise 21,500 square feet.  Currently, the entrance is located next to a poorly signed guard booth outside of the main entrance gate to the Kotel plaza.  That will change, with a prominent entranceway being built in the main plaza area.  There will be three metal detector lines: male-only, female-only, and egalitarian.  In addition, Sifrei Torah, siddurim, chumashim, and other ritual items for prayer will be available, paid for with state funding.

Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service will be moved to the new area when the expansions are completed.  Until then, they will continue to meet in the existing women’s section.

The Egalitarian Kotel will be governed by the Southern Wall Plaza Council, comprised of representatives from the Masorti and Reform movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Israeli government.  The committee will be chaired by the Chair of the Jewish Agency.  The site administrator will be a government employee appointed by the Prime Minister.

The plan also mandates that the Southern Wall Plaza Council and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation hold a roundtable meeting at least five times per year to address and resolve issues that may arise.

So this is exciting news, right?

As we might expect, the Masorti and Reform movements, along with Women of the Wall, immediately released joyous press releases.  But – surprise, surprise – not everyone is happy.

Rabbi Rabinowitz compared the division of the wall “among tribes” to the sinat chinam, the senseless hatred, that according to tradition, led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

On the other side, some are asking, “when did ‘separate but equal’ become the goal of any civil rights movement?”  A splinter-group calling itself the “Original Women of the Wall” has pointed out that Orthodox women who do not feel comfortable in egalitarian services now have no place to pray in a women’s minyan.

Time will tell how this plays out.

Last Sunday during religious school tefilah, we spoke to the students about the exciting news.  I quickly realized that most of the kids there had absolutely no idea what we were talking about.

Some of them knew what the kotel was.  Almost none of them knew what a mechitzah was.  A mechitzah is the separation barrier between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue.  So I had to start from the beginning.

You see, here in liberal, egalitarian Northern California, most of us never experience explicit segregation, whether by gender, religion, or ethnicity.  I am not talking about more subtle forms of segregation, which certainly exist.  But we do not typically encounter physical mechitzah‘s in our daily lives.  Quite the opposite.  We emphasize diversity, multiculturalism, and tolerance.  We give our girls and boys the same education, and we deliberately try to instill the belief that gender should neither be a hindrance nor an advantage to them in their lives.  Egalitarianism is all they have known.

Which means that we are not doing a very good job of preparing them for the real world, or even the Jewish world.

I explained to the religious school kids what a mechitzah was, including that there are many different kinds.  I pointed to the balcony in our sanctuary, and told them that in some synagogues, a balcony like that would be the women’s section and that women would not be able to lead any parts of the service.

Then I shared with them about my experiences growing up attending an Orthodox Jewish day school.  When I was in middle school, we had daily tefilah in the auditorium.  There was a mechitzah down the middle comprised of portable room dividers.  Of course, only the boys could lead services.  As a boy, it did not strike me as a big deal.  It was simply how things were.

I later found out from one of my friends from the other side of the mechitzah that whenever the girls started praying too loudly, the teachers shushed them – female teachers, mind you.  My friend, who attended the same egalitarian, Conservative synagogue that I did, was really upset about it.  After all, like me, she was accustomed to going up to the bimah on a regular basis.  I felt a little guilty myself, now that I knew that I was being given opportunities that were being denied to my classmates because of their gender.

As you can imagine, most of our religious school kids were shocked to hear this.  It was so foreign to everything that they have learned and experienced.

It is important for us to prepare them for the wider Jewish world.  Our goal is to raise kids into committed, knowledgeable Jewish adults.  If we succeed, then they will find themselves in other synagogues from time to time in their journeys through life.  When they encounter other ways of being Jewish, will they appreciate the differences or will they negatively judge the unfamiliar?  That depends on how we teach them.

Where do we draw the line between embracing pluralism and diversity and holding on to our principled positions?  How do we teach it to our kids?

The message that I tried to convey to our Religious School students is to, when we are in our own home and community, fully embrace our values.  We are committed to Jewish tradition and history, but we understand that times change and our understanding of what the Torah asks of us changes.  It has always been this way.

At the same time, we must understand that the Jewish world is diverse.  There are many communities which, like ours, take Judaism seriously, but practice it differently.  When we are guests in those communities, it is important to be respectful.  I don’t have to like it, but just because I do not like it does not mean it is not an authentic expression of Judaism.  Ours has never been a monolithic tradition.

Which is why things get complicated in the public arena.  Sometimes, having things my way means that those who disagree with me cannot have it their way.

Charedim represent a minority of the Jewish world, but a majority of those who frequent the kotel.  To what extent should their needs for segregated prayer spaces and suppression of women’s voices take precedence over the needs of other Jews who want access to the kotel in a way that is more egalitarian?

The answer to that question is sure to disappoint someone, as we have seen already with this most recent decision by the Israeli Cabinet.  But it is a question that we have got to be engaged in openly and honestly.

At the end of this morning’s Torah portion, there is an incredible moment.  Moses comes down from Sinai after receiving the laws from God.  He assembles the entire nation together at the base of the mountain.  He repeats all of the mitzvot to them.  The people respond with an unprecedented declaration of unity: vaya’an kol-ha’am kol echad.  “and the people answered with a single voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.'”  (Ex. 24:3)  All of the people are there: men and women, adults and children, old and young – nobody is left out.  There are no mechitzah‘s.  And they speak in unison, although to be precise, the verb is singular.  The people speaks in a single voice.

At this moment, in accepting the Torah, the Jewish people exists as a singularity.  Since then, groups of Jews in different times and places have found different ways of living up to that commitment.  Even though practice has varied considerably, we all look back to this foundational moment of embracing the Torah with a single voice.

I would hope that we, the diverse Jewish people, can find more opportunities to discover shared values and aspirations.  I pray that our holy places, especially the Kotel, will one day cease being an object of contention that divides us and serve rather as a symbol that brings us together as a single people from the four corners of the earth.