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.