If Only Some May Bless, Can All Be Blessed?
Many Jews possess a deep childhood memory of standing beneath their father’s tallit or with their mother as the Priestly Blessing was recited in synagogue. I have no such memory. I grew up in an egalitarian synagogue in which rituals related to such “priests” were considered irrelevant, even counterproductive, to modern Judaism. In traditional Jewish communities, kohanim (Jewish men who, according to family tradition, are direct patrilineal descendants of the biblical Aaron) are given special honors and burdened with special restrictions. Kohanim are called up for the first honor when the Torah is read; they are invited to lead the Grace After Meals; they redeem all firstborn Jewish sons;1 and it is the kohanim who stand before the congregation and pronounce Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing.2 Furthermore, a kohen may not marry a divorcee, a convert, a non-virgin, or the descendant of a kohen who did not follow the priestly regulations.3 They are also restricted from any contact with a corpse:4 they may not be within four cubits (approximately seven feet) of a corpse, or in a chapel or near a grave in the cemetery, or be under the same roof with a corpse unless there is a permanent partition between the kohen and the corpse.5 Levites—Jewish men who, according to family tradition, are direct patrilineal descendants of the biblical tribe of Levi, although not of the Aaronide line—are called up for the second honor when the Torah is read and, before the kohanim bless the congregation, the Levites perform a ritual hand-washing for the kohanim in preparation for the latter’s recitation of the Priestly Blessing.
In the egalitarian synagogue of my youth, arbitrary distinctions among individuals—in this case, granting special privileges to people possessed of priestly ancestry in a post-priestly world—were considered counterproductive and off-putting. But I wonder about this basic assumption. Is Birkat Kohanim and all that it entails—the Levites washing the hands of the kohanim, who then pronounce the words of the Priestly Blessing for the community—is all that caste-based privilege inconsonant with egalitarianism? Over the past sixty or seventy years, Conservative rabbis have striven to build traditional communities that take seriously the fundamental and irreducible equality-of-personhood that is greater than either sex or gender—an agenda that emerges from the Torah itself, which describes each human being as created in the image of God who is beyond sex and gender.6 In a recent paper for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards for the Conservative movement, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky put it simply: “As a Conservative Jew, this is what I stand for: a traditional practice in which males and females are of equal status.”7 As efforts have been made to step away from inner-Jewish distinctions that diminish the personhood of one group or another, we can thoughtfully ask: Do the distinctions inherent in the ritual performance of Birkat Kohanim undermine the larger effort of many moderns to create unified, classless communities in which all are equal and equally welcome?
In one sense, yes. These are tasks not open to everyone; rather they are open only to those who are the sons—and, in more liberal communities, the daughters8—of kohanim or Levites.9 The core concept then feels, at least prima facie, to be contrary to the egalitarian ideal. It also feels odd historically: the authority of the kohanim in Jewish life began to diminish as early as the Persian period (roughly, the two centuries from Cyrus’ capture of Babylon in 539 to Alexander’s capture of Tyre in 332 B.C.E.), when people began to question if the same laws that pertained in Solomon’s Temple had to be enforced, or even should be enforced, in a substitute structure. The diminution of priestly authority continued until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the establishment of the rabbinic community in Yavneh, in which Jewish leadership was primarily earned by individuals through study and debate and not passed on through lineage. As Shaye Cohen explains,
The destruction of the temple…facilitated the emergence of individuals as authority figures to replace the institutional authority previously exercised by the temple and sects, and the emergence of the ideology of pluralism to replace the monism which previously characterized the temple and the sects. The net effect of these developments was the end of sectarianism and the creation of a society marked by legal disputes between individual teachers who nevertheless respected each other’s right to disagree.10
Rabbinic culture, from which modern Judaism has inherited so many of its mores and values, is a meritocracy in which people are evaluated in terms of their own deeds and accomplishments. In a famous story from the Mishnah,11 Akaviah ben Mehallalel’s son begs his father, “Recommend me to your colleagues.” When Akaviah refuses, his son asks, “Have you found any wrong in me?” To which the sage responds, “No. Your own deeds will bring you close [to the sages] and your own deeds will distance you [from the sages].” There were no favors for family: no one was born a rabbi, and neither was it possible to acquire the title of rabbi by virtue of one’s wealth or power. One became a rabbi only by virtue of one’s own dedication to, and achievement in, the study of Torah. The Mishnah teaches emphatically that Torah can be earned—and in forty-eight different ways!—by any who desire to give of themselves with sufficient ardor and assiduity (Pirkei Avot 6:6).
The concept of awarding special privileges to kohanim and Levites thus appears to stand in sharp contrast to at least some core values of the rabbinic system. It is thus a strange—but also, at least in my opinion, a very beautiful—twist of fate that the victorious rabbis left in place a remnant of the very system they replaced. The rabbis of classical antiquity may have rejected the model of priestly authority for leadership of the Jewish community, but they could not ignore it completely, as it was embedded in the very Torah laws the rabbis valued and to which they dedicated their lives.
Nobody can become a kohen; thus, there is something inherently un-egalitarian about according a special status to kohanim and Levites. Yet, it is also possible to argue that allowing those who believe themselves to be kohanim to offer the Priestly Blessing (and similarly self-identified Levites to wash their hands beforehand) is in fact the most egalitarian thing we can do. Indeed, bringing the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim into our community is “anti-egalitarian” only if egalitarian means that everyone must be the same and do the same things. But what if egalitarianism does not mean that at all? What if, for example, egalitarianism were to be taken to mean that we should strive to create communities in which all individuals are given the best opportunity to fully express their Jewish selves and their humanity in the world? Each person would then be presumed to have a special, holy role to play in the world—his or her own avodat hashem, service of God—but each person’s holy task would not necessarily need to be construed as the same. The infinite number of God’s tasks unique to each person would thus reflect the infinite nature of God’s greatness. It is arrogance of the highest degree to presume that being a rabbi or a kohen or a prayer leader makes one better or more important than a person who is a Levite or a simple Israelite.
I remember going to see my rabbi once, when I was trying to figure out what I should do with my life. I had listed for him many different professions I was considering when he stopped the conversation and told me I was making a fundamental mistake: “You are equating what you do for a career with what your life is about,” he said to me. “Daniel, you can be a grocery store clerk and be a good Jew and live a good life.” The same point is made in the famous, perhaps too-often-told story of Reb Zusya, who on his deathbed fears not that he will be asked why he wasn’t Moses but rather why he wasn’t Reb Zusya: why he wasn’t the man he could have been, had he made more of an effort to meet his own destiny.12
Too often, our society ascribes importance to particular things. In the secular world, what appears to matter the most is going to the best school or driving the biggest car, having the slimmest body or winning the most awards in school. In the Jewish world, we try to step past that kind of hierarchy and instead to valorize those who study lots of Torah, and those who keep Shabbat and kashrut punctiliously. Maybe some would even include in this category those who stand up in front of the community beneath a large tallit and intone the ancient words of Birkat Kohanim. But Pirkei Avot teaches that we should not make false distinctions between major commandments and minor ones, for we cannot know their importance in God’s eyes, or the possible reward their performance might entail. The blessing of the kohanim is only one out of 613 mitzvot—each of which is an equal and holy path to God.13
In a truly egalitarian community, we should focus on making space for more people in the community to find a path to God and fully live out their role in the world—by providing a space both for kohanim to pronounce their blessing and for the community to hear it, and thus to be blessed not by the kohanim at all but by God.
Interestingly, the halakhah ascribes no more importance to the kohen who recites the words of the Priestly Blessing than to the community that hears and receives the blessing. For example, Sefer Ḥareidim states: “It is not only the kohanim who fulfill the mitzvah when it is done, but rather all of the community standing in silence and [listening] with focused intent and who then answer ‘amen’ after the blessing [of the kohanim]—they are all partners in fulfilling this mitzvah of the Torah.”14 Acknowledging the task of the kohanim need not—and does not, in my own mind—imply a higher or lower status with respect to “lay” Jewish people not of priestly descent. Theirs is a particular task offered them by some combination of ancestry, destiny, and happenstance. But just as saying that the Jewish people are a kingdom of priests does not imply that Jews are better than everyone else, but rather that we have a special task or role to play in the world—so too do the kohanim, the priests of priests, have a special task: to utter the words of this blessing.15 Accepting the burden of destiny does not imply untoward favoritism; it merely acknowledges that each Israelite has a different role to play in the great mission of Israel, to bring the world to the brink of redemption.
Rabbi David Wolpe tells a story of a time, early in his rabbinate, when he was called to the bedside of a dying person.16 When he got to the hospital the person was unconscious. The family was gathered around and they asked him to say the Viddui, the deathbed confessional. Rabbi Wolpe returned home and told his wife how uncomfortable, how unworthy, he had felt reciting the deathbed confession for someone he’d never met before. “I don’t feel worthy to do that for someone else,” he said, to which his wise wife Elie responded, “You’re right—you’re not worthy. Anyone would be unworthy. But it is ok, because you are not doing it. The Viddui is being done through you.” This story reminds us that it is not the kohanim who provide God’s blessing. God’s blessing is not magic. When the kohanim say the blessing, they shape their hands in a special way beneath their tallitot. But Birkat Kohanim is not a secret procedure to make something physical flow from the hands of the kohanim into the air over the listeners’ heads because those hands are shaped in a certain way, or because they pronounce the words at a particular time or in a particular way. The blessing is being given through them, not offered by them. The more that ego is a part of the blessing, the less room there is for God. The more we aim, both in this ritual and in life, to make of ourselves a vessel for God’s blessing, the more room there is for blessing to come into the world.
I will conclude with one more law about this ritual as found in the Shulḥan Arukh—a law that at first glance may seem unfair, but that I have nontheless come to consider both profoundly beautiful and important. Rabbi Joseph Karo teaches: “One who has a defect in his face or hands…should not raise his hands [to bless] because the people will [be distracted from the blessing and will] look at it [the defect].” 17 That surely sounds like discrimination against a kohen who is physically deformed, whose hands or face are not perfect in color or shape. But what may appear at first glance to be discriminatory or even harsh is softened somewhat as Rabbi Karo continues to explain: “If the custom of the place is for all kohanim to cover their faces and hands with a tallit [as is now the universal custom], however, even if there are several defects on his face and hands, he should go up to bless [because the defects will be covered].”18 But one may ask: what if the kohen has another kind of blemish or deformity—for example, in his voice, or in a part of his body that is not covered? Rabbi Karo says that if the community will not be distracted, then that person may bless.19 What does this mean? In a community with just one kohen, it would mean that if the community is tolerant and able to see beyond the physical and attune itself to the true source of the blessing—God—instead of being distracted by physical deformities, then that community will be able to receive God’s blessing. But if the community is unable able to get past the physical difference of that kohen, then they will not be blessed. This law thus teaches us that people who are different can indeed be sources of blessing for us, but only if we are worthy to be blessed—and only if we teach ourselves to see the potential for God’s blessing within each and every member of our community. That is egalitarianism at its best.
Such a law is also an important reminder about what does, or does not, happen each time Birkat Kohanim takes place. In the Zohar, the canonical book of the Jewish mystical tradition, it is taught: b’it·aruta di-l’tata itar l’eila (“by means of an awakening below comes an awakening above”).20 Birkat Kohanim is not magic, not some magical set of motions and words that cause this magical thing called “blessing” to descend into the world from heaven. The blessing does not happen if we just wave our hands and speak a spell; rather, the blessing depends upon us. Can we see past what is physical in a physical world? Can set aside our egos and make room for God to be found in a sacred moment? Can we prepare ourselves to receive God’s love? God has commanded the kohanim to bless Israel with love. The more we desire to receive God’s blessing, the more God’s desire to bless us will be awakened above.
1 In accordance with Exodus 13:13, which reads: “Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.”
2 In accordance with Numbers 6:22–27, which reads: “The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons and say to them: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: The Eternal bless you and protect you! The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you! The Eternal bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace! Thus they all link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
3 Based on Leviticus 21:13–15, which reads: “[The priest] shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or defiled, or a harlot, these shall he not take; but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife. Neither shall he defile his seed among his people; for I the Eternal do sanctify him.”
4 Following Leviticus 21:1, which reads: “And the Eternal said unto Moses, Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them, ‘There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people.’”
5 See S.A. Yoreh Dei·ah 371 for a full analysis of these rules.
6 Genesis 1:27.
7 Jeremy Kalmanofsky, “An Egalitarian Abstention.” This paper was submitted in May 2014 as a dissent to “Women and Mitzvot” by Rabbi Pamela Barmash. Dissenting and Concurring papers are not official positions of the CJLS. The paper may be consulted on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly at www.rabbinicalassembly.org, where it is catalogued as Y.D. 246:6.2014b.
8 For analysis of the daughters of a kohen or Levite being called up for these special aliyot, see the following two responsa submitted to and approved by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards: (1) Joel Roth, “The Status of Daughters of Kohanim and Leviyim for Aliyot” (1989), which permits daughters of kohanim and Levites to be called up first and second to the Torah respectively; and (2) Mayer Rabinowitz, “Rishon or Kohen” (1990), which concludes that the categories of kohanim and Levites are based in Jewish law on the sociological category of mi-p’nei darkhei shalom (literally, “for the sake of the ways of peace”), which changes with time and circumstances and can therefore be upheld or cancelled at the discretion of the community rabbi. Both papers are available online at www.rabbinicalassembly.org; Roth’s t’shuvah is catalogued as O.H 135:3.1989a and Rabinowitz’s as O.H. 135:3.1990.
9 Regarding the permission of daughters of kohanim offering the priestly blessing, see the responsum by Mayer Rabinowitz, “Women Raise Your Hands” (1994). See also the opposing position by Stanley Bramnick and Judah Kogen in “Should N’siat Kapayim Include B’not Kohanim?” (also approved by the CJLS), in which the authors argue that the modern priestly blessing is a continuation of the Temple ritual in which women did not participate and therefore there is no precedent to allow women to do so in modern times. Rabinowitz’s t’shuvah is catalogued as O.H 128:2.1994a, and that of Bramnick and Kogen as O.H. 128:2.1994b.
10 Shaye J. D. Cohen, “The Significance of Yavneh: Pharisees, Yavneh, and the End of Jewish Sectarianism,” originally published in Hebrew Union College Annual LV (1984), pp. 27–53, but now conveniently available in the author’s volume of collected essays, The Significance of Yavneh and Other Essays in Jewish Hellenism (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), pp. 44–70. The quote cited here is on page 45 in its original setting and on page 62 in the volume of collected essays.
11 M. Eduyyot 5:6 7.
12 The story may be found in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, trans. Olga Marx (New York: Schocken, 1947), p. 251.
13 Pirkei Avot 2:1 and 4:2, and cf. M. Ḥullin 12:5.
14 Rabbi Eleazar ben Mose Azikri, Sefer Ḥareidim 12:8 (ed. Venice, 1601), p. 22b. Sefer Ḥareidim (literally, “The Book of the Pious”) was written by Rabbi Eleazar ben Moshe Azikri, one of the great kabbalists in Safed during the late 1500s, and first Ḥareidim published in Venice just one year after his death in 1600. The book’s introduction lists seventeen different conditions for a commandment to be fulfilled in the proper manner, and the book itself categorizes the commandments according to the various organs and limbs of the body with which they are to be fulfilled.
15 The reference to Israel as a Kingdom of priests is at Exodus 19:6
16 David J. Wolpe, Why Faith Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2008), pp. 110–111.
17 S.A. Oraḥ Ḥayyim 128:30.
18 S.A. Oraḥ Ḥayyim 128:31.
19 S.A. Oraḥ Ḥayyim 128:30.
20 For example, Zohar I 77b, 86b, 88a, or 164a