It’s an exciting time to be a religious Jewish feminist. Great strides are being made by many progressive halakhic communities to find more and better ways to include women in religious Judaism. From learning Talmud, to more egalitarian minyanim to wearing tefillin, women are becoming a larger part of the conversation of Jewish observance.
While all these advances are being made, however, people involved in these progressive movements are finding new obstacles to overcome. It might sound simple to say that women should pass around the Torah during services, but soon you may have a headache from discussing mechitza configurations and the weights of different Torah scrolls. As the progressive halakhic community continues to innovate, more questions and more conversations will emerge.
I am proud to be a young Jewish woman involved in these conversations and innovations. Recently, I found myself confronted with a halakhic question related to egalitarianism that I had not anticipated. I was participating in a small halakhic egalitarian service over a Jewish holiday. I was helping arrange the services as well as chanting Torah and leading prayers. I was comfortable with all of these positions and was glad to be helping out in all the ways I could. In this particular minyan, however, I was the only child of a Kohen (descendant of the priestly tribe) present. This presented me with some unanticipated dilemmas.
My background prepared me for a moment such as this. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox environment, but coming from an extended family that stretched the whole spectrum of Jewish identities and observance, I was taught at a young age to explore my own ideas about Judaism and religion. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by relatives, both men and women, who modeled strong Jewish leadership, and naturally I wanted to be just like all of them. By high school, I realized that to be a leader in my Jewish community also meant to speak up for my gender in ritual settings. Graduating from high school into college environments, my passion for observant Judaism has only grown stronger, along with my feelings that women need access to Jewish leadership positions and educational settings from which they may have been traditionally barred.
For the past few years I have been comfortable receiving the first aliyah (blessing over the Torah), which is normally reserved for Kohanim at traditional services, despite not being male. Traditionally, only men served the role as a Kohen, which in the Temple period included making sacrifices and in the Diaspora includes certain honors, like receiving the first aliyah, and performing specific rituals. Kohanic status for observant men also means that they cannot marry a divorcee or a convert and must avoid interacting with dead bodies – they do not attend funerals unless it is a very close relative and do not go to cemeteries. As a girl, I am considered a “Bat-Kohen,” daughter of a priest, which in the Temple period meant I was allowed to be part of the Kohanic tribe and could eat certain foods. I would also have had the distinction of having a worse punishment than other women for “becoming a harlot.” If I married someone who was not a Kohen, I would have lost this status and my children would not be part of the priestly caste, since only men pass down Kohanic status. Also, if I married, my brothers would not be allowed to go to my funeral, something that I find emotionally and morally upsetting. Because I am a woman, my status as a member of the Kohanic tribe is in a grey area – I have some different ritual obligations, but I am not a priest and so can go in to cemeteries or marry a convert. As a Bat-Kohen I live in a liminal, ambiguous zone, between honor and marginality.
When it comes to accepting an honor like the first aliyah to the Torah, I decided that I felt comfortable as a Bat-Kohen taking the honor. The tradition behind the Kohen receiving the first aliyah comes from the idea of retaining communal peace, rather than by direct biblical or rabbinic decree. My full Hebrew name includes the fact that my father is a Kohen, and in an egalitarian service where both men and women are called to the Torah, why should I lower my familial status? Plus, in the case of this minyan, where no male Kohanim were present, there was no one to assert his right to the honor. I gladly stepped forward and said my blessing over the Torah.
On this particular Jewish holiday however, the duties of the Kohen were not concluded with the Torah service. In the Diaspora it is traditional for the Kohanim to bless the congregation, reciting the text of Birkat Kohanim, later on in the service. The Birkat Kohanim is an ancient and sacred prayer – the text comes straight from Numbers and the congregation is supposed to avoid looking at the Kohen because of the holiness of the moment. Needless to say, traditionally this prayer was said only by male Kohanim, the verse in Numbers commands Aaron, the high priest, and “his sons” to recite the verses. Without any male priests present however, would I be willing to say the blessing?
I had never before been in a setting where I could say Birkat Kohanim. The blessing had always been off limits to me as a woman, as “only” a Bat-Kohen. I had to make a split second decision and decided not to say the blessing. The blessing seemed too momentous to begin saying willy-nilly without a lot of thought. Also, if the blessing is said to commemorate the Temple period, where I would have been barred from the tradition as a woman, would it feel right to break with the historical record?
My decision sparked a good amount of conversation among my peers. Some of my friends wondered how I could accept the Kohen aliyah but not say Birkhat Kohanim. Another Bat-Kohen who was not at the service told me she also struggles with figuring out her position as a Bat-Kohen. After the holiday was over I began looking for sources and asking knowledgeable friends about the ritual. I still am happy with my decision, but the thoughts and conversations it sparked have taught me much about my identity and my stake in observant Judaism.
I am proud of my family, and my family’s position as Kohanim. In most of life it does not mean much – an interesting tidbit of family history or a way to find long lost relatives. Sometimes being from a family of Kohanim (my mother is also a Bat-Kohen, so I get this from both sides of my family) is a struggle, like when a relative dies and some of the family cannot attend the funeral or visit the cemetery. Now, as I navigate my way through the world of religious Jewish egalitarianism, I realize that my status as a Bat-Kohen will lead to more questions and more conversations. I am excited to be part of them.
Ranana Dine is a former summer intern at HBI and a junior at Williams College.