Dvar Torah: Bamidbar: Keeping Our Status Symbols

When I was a boy, my uncle summarized his philosophy for getting along in life:  “One hand washes the other,” he taught me. He wasn’t referring to personal hygiene, but giving and getting help, doing and receiving favors, etc.  

In all the decades since, I hadn’t thought about his pithy remark until this week, when I ceremonially poured water over another man’s hands. I, who consider myself a Levite, did so over the outstretched hands of one who considers himself a Kohan, before he covered his head and arms in a Tallit, stood before the open Ark, and pronounced the Priestly Benediction.  

I say “consider myself a Levite” and “consider himself a Kohan” because, according to a major code of Jewish Law, the Shulhan Aruch (Orach Hayyim 457), we can no longer know whether anyone is actually a Kohan or Levite, strict genealogical records from antiquity not having been kept.  So, we rely on minhag – custom.  Hence, the entire Birkat Kohanim portion of the prayer service in traditional synagogues has continued as a minhag.  

Likewise, traditional Jewish custom honors a Kohan with the first Torah reading and a Levite with the second, and includes that tribal designation in their Hebrew names.  The families of some Kohanim and Levi’im even place symbols of their tribal status (raised hands with outstretched fingers [from which Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy took the Vulcan 'Live Long and Prosper' gesture], water pitcher and basin) on their gravestones.  In sum, traditional Judaism adheres to tribal status distinctions.  

But, in many liberal American synagogues, tribal status distinctions are disregarded. Complete status equality is the rule.  Since I come from a liberal Jewish background and rabbinical school, why have I recently embraced this “discriminatory” minhag, which, those who have abandoned it would argue, bestows undeserved status and can even create jealousies among the congregation? 

First, let’s revisit the sources.  “Levi” refers to the third son of Jacob and Leah, after Reuven and Simeon, and before Judah. According to this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 1:49-50), the Levites, broadly speaking, were responsible for all the work connected with the Tabernacle, and then in the Temple.  

Among the Levites, G-d designated Aaron and his descendants to be the Priests – the Kohanim -- of the Tabernacle (Exodus 28:1) and of the Temple.   (By the way, there are many interesting questions surrounding why Aaron and his sons were chosen to receive the Priesthood.  Why not the first-born son of Jacob, after Jacob purchased it from Esau along with Esau’s birthright?  Why not Moses?  Why did Phineas, as Aaron’s grandson, receive the priesthood as a result of killing the prince of Simeon and the princess of the Midianites [Numbers 25:7-13] and not automatically? But these are digressions to my present focus) 

So, the Kohanim are a subset of the Levites.  (This week’s Torah portion also tells us that the Kohathites were another subset of the Levites, chosen as porters to transport the sacred objects and furnishings of the Tabernacle, although they could not witness its assembly and disassembly.  Jews who descended from the other eleven tribes are called “Israel.”  And, descent is through the father.  

The Kohanim performed the sacrifices [we might say, “ran the services”] and, of course, gave the Birkat HaKohanim – the Priestly Blessing -- set forth in next week’s Parasah, Naso, at Numbers 6:22 .  The Levites, meaning the non-Kohanim and Non-Kohathite Levites, administered the Temple.  Levites between ages 20-50 were active in doing so, stood guard, and assisted the Kohanim in their duties, from which washing their hands is the vestigial minhag. Levites aged fifty and above played musical instruments and sang Psalms– as we know from the liturgical introduction to the daily service closing psalms -- and taught their younger members.  

Yet, while these were privileged positions, they also had drawbacks.  To maintain their holiness, there were restrictions upon Kohanim in marrying divorcees and converts, touching the dead, and entering cemeteries except to bury close relatives.  They didn’t have “choice of professions;” their roles in life were, we might say, pre-ordained.  Neither the Levites nor the Kohanim could own land; they thus were reliant upon the other tribes to provide for them and their families.  And they didn’t – or couldn’t -- redeem their first born (Pidyon Haben).  

So, was it a net good thing to be a Kohan or a Levite?  That’s a subjective call. 

In any case, since the destruction of the Temple and cessation of the sacrifices, continued status as a Kohan or Levite, that is, “Remnants of the Priesthood,” has been mostly reflected in symbolic honors of being called first and second to the Torah, and in the Kohanim blessing the community, the formal term for which is Nesiat Kapayim ("Raising of the hands").

Obviously, the Torah does not tell us that the Kohanim and the Levi’im are to be called first and second for aliyot. So, from whence these customs?

The Talmud, Maseket Gittin 59a-b, references a Baraita (non-Mishnaic but influential contemporary source) which states: “And you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your G-d [Leviticus 21:8]. ‘And you must treat them as holy’ in every holy matter – to be first to read the Torah, to lead the Birkat Hamazon, or to take a good portion of food.”  So, according to this source, with respect to giving Kohanim the first Aliyah, we are following a biblical obligation to treat them as holy.  

But the Mishnah in Gittin states that the rabbis decreed that the Kohan and Levi receive the first two Aliyot “for the sake of peace.”  The Gemara itself noticed this contradiction between the Mishnah and Baraita and tried to solve it in two different ways, which I won’t go into now, but here we have another source and explanation for our Aliyah honors custom.  

(By the way, the daughters of male Kohanim and Levi’im had no role in the Temple; they just ate the food given to their father or husband.  But some non- or progressive Orthodox synagogues, extend the tribal ritual honors to them as well.  Interestingly, the late 12th and early 13th century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg ruled that in a community consisting entirely of Kohanim, the prohibition on calling Kohanim for anything but the first two and maftir aliyot creates a deadlock situation which should be resolved by calling women to the Torah for all the intermediate aliyot!) 

So, again, why have I adopted this archaic and conspicuously “discriminatory” hand-washing ritual?  

I can’t deny that it may partly be the opportunity to affirm my own supposed status.  But washing someone hands in public is not necessarily a flattering activity, nor is being limited to the second Aliyah.  But the ritual does accomplish an important function that is too often lacking in our lives: affirming our personal place based upon our history and lineage, not just upon our individual accomplishments, or failings.  There is something positive about knowing one’s place in society --  one’s assigned role -- and having that place be secure.  If that place honors the tradition of group membership without being individually limiting, I see it as highly positive – not “discriminatory” but strengthening group cohesiveness.  And isn’t that an essential priority of Judaism?

These tribal status traditions and their now symbolic roles afford a conspicuous connection with our ancient ways, with our holy Scripture, with foundational rabbinic texts, and with G-d. Seeing and hearing the Kohanim fulfill G-d’s or, if you prefer, our tradition’s chosen method of transmitting blessings, and feeling the receipt of those blessings through formal ceremony with congregational participation, adds pageantry and sacredness to prayer. We need to do more to foster feelings of sacredness in prayer.   

Accordingly, I encourage synagogues that have abandoned tribal distinctions in their prayer services to consider reinstating them, and those who have not abandoned them, to cherish them.  

May all such decisions be guided by what we feel will promote the continuity of the Jewish people and our connection to our most cherished values. 

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem!  (And, May You "Live Long and Prosper!")

[Sources include on-line materials posted by Rabbis Monique Susskind Goldberg and Robert Harris]

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb