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Marriage and Jewish Law: The Kohein's Conundrum

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Many Jewish laws seem antiquated and irrational to skeptics as well as adherents. The laws pertaining to Kohanim, the Hebrew word for priests, would belong in that category. Kohanim are believed to be of direct lineal descent from Moses's brother Aaron. Today, some of these Jews have names like Cohen, Kohn, Katz, Kaplan and other derivatives, the exception being names that were changed as Jews arrived at Ellis Island.

In the Torah, Kohein (singular for Kohanim) refers to a priest who served in Jerusalem's holy temple. The Kohanim there performed specific rituals in accordance with days of the week and festivals. Today, Kohanim, believed to be the direct descendants, perform certain roles in the synagogue and are called up to read portions of Torah with reference given to their lineage. They are also bound by restrictions still highly regarded within more observant segments of the Jewish population.

According to those restrictions, Kohanim can not marry a Gerusha (divorcee) or a Gioret (convert to Judaism). Quoting a portion of Torah, rabbis explain that a Zona, one who had intimate relations with a man whom she's forbidden to marry (e.g. a non-Jew) is also prohibited, as well as a Chalala, a Kohein's daughter born to a woman who was forbidden to him.

Rabbis elaborate: The Torah says that a Kohein's mate be of "pure lineage" -- however questionable, outdated and unjust that term may seem. Although a Kohein's daughter is given somewhat elevated status (in some cases, it is stressed that she marry a Kohein or Torah scholar), the pressure is on the men here, and consequently, on the women who wish to date them.

Craig, who asked that I change his real name, is a professional in his upper 30s with charm, wit and good looks to match. He has no problem attracting single women by the droves. Dating is another story. Although he prefers not to label himself religiously (i.e. Modern Orthodox, Conservadox ... 'Flexidox'?), he comes from an Orthodox family that is strict about following traditions and Jewish law. He is a bit of a rebel where they're concerned, but he has a deep respect for them. No matter how modern and progressive he's become, much of what was stressed at home is ingrained in him today.

"In my early twenties, being a Kohein wasn't much of an issue since the number of women who've converted, been divorced, or felt the need to date outside their faith was relatively small," he says, "In general, I don't expect that conversion-related issues will ever be a primary concern for many Kohanim simply because women who've converted are relatively few in number. And while one does meet a woman who has converted from time to time, much to the chagrin of many single Jewish guys out there, we generally don't find ourselves overwhelmed by throngs of beautiful wannabe-converts outside our collective front door. But these days, when it comes to the issues of women who've been married, or have dated/had sexual relationships with men outside their faith, there are many, making it much more of a pressing issue ... the latter leading some to quietly adopt a 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy like the one recently dropped by the U.S. military.

He says that "if some of the religious leaders began to entertain the possibility of annulling marriages that had been based on fallacy, lies and misrepresentation instead of requiring the process of obtaining a get (religious divorce), it might alleviate some difficulty that plagues the community and much of its single population."

Pondering Craig's predicament, I wondered how we can ascertain who is truly a Kohein and who is not in the modern age, and whether or not this should really hold sway today. I was surprised to discover that DNA testing has recently shown a common, distinct genetic marker exists among Y chromosomes of the majority of Kohanim tested.

Educator Lorne Rozovsky writes what it means to be a Kohein today on Chabad.org:

"The Kohanim have the privilege of being called first to say the blessing over the Torah during religious services. There is also the privilege of saying the priestly blessing. In Israel, and in Sephardic synagogues [outside of Israel], this blessing is recited on a daily (or weekly) basis and in Ashkenazi communities, on major Jewish holidays. However, all privileges come with a price, and the restrictions on Kohanim are many. Many of these restrictions were designed to maintain what is referred to as ritual purity, since the Kohanim formed a holy order in the Temple of Jerusalem. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E., many of the laws and practices are still maintained in traditional Judaism, except those which could only be followed in the actual presence of the Temple."

There is some question about 'loopholes.' Some say there is no "defrocking" of a Kohein while others insist one progressive Orthodox rabbi performed a marriage ceremony between a Kohein and a divorcee. His rationale? A destined, loving union between two Jews was at stake (He was traveling outside of the country and I could not get in touch with him for this article).

It is no longer an issue in the Conservative Jewish movement, which was more concerned with interfaith marriages and ruled years ago that Kohein/non-Kohein marriages could be performed without issue, and that the Kohein does not lose his status nor do his offspring. This never has been an issue within the Reform movement, which came about to make some sense of the antiquated and inexplicable facets of Judaism and essentially, reform the religion.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, an orthodox synagogue, says "These are Torah mandated rules that are still in force today. They are not waived even for older Kohanim who are not planning to have additional children. Under these circumstances, the marriage is still prohibited by Torah law. There is a difference however between these marriages and other prohibited relationships under Torah law (e.g. marriages between close relatives). In those other cases we consider it as if the marriage was never consecrated-the individuals are involved in forbidden relationships-but they are not married. In the case of the Kohanim the marriage is legal but forbidden. As long as they stay married they are transgressing the law."

D.C. based faith and religion writer Menachem Wecker confirms Goldin's words when addressing this predicament: "I don't know of any Orthodox rabbi who would marry a Kohein to a woman who is divorced or who converted, even if the couple does not plan on having children. The only 'loophole' I know of is if the Kohein himself is the product of a union between a Kohein and a woman who is divorced or who converted. He is considered 'chalal' (ineligible [for service]), and he does not need to stick to the same rules. Orthodox Jews take this really seriously (see a recent dating mixer for Kohanim).

For what it's worth, my own two cents on this is that it is easy to identify a case where a Kohein falls in love with someone ineligible and a narrative of thwarted love worthy of Shakespeare or Disney could be woven. I think that could be a troubling narrative, but it's probably a mostly false positive. I just don't get the impression there are lots of Kohanim stuck in this dating purgatory shaking their fists at the law. I think Kohanim either see this as a source of pride, or it's like keeping kosher -- one just doesn't find one's self tempted by non-kosher food for the most part. Of course, some do discard the law, and they choose to leave Orthodoxy."

Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc. in Baltimore, MD, conducts Jewish outreach and counsels Jews from all walks of life. He thinks that Kohein-focused singles events are a great idea as well as having matchmakers who ensure that mates are truly suitable for Kohanim. The issue that Craig raises, however, is that Kohanim often meet women on their own and many of the "instant connections" that form happen in informal situations.

A 54-year-old modern orthodox divorcee named Sandy told me that she met a 45-year-old divorced Kohein at a function and they clicked instantly. In the end, she was the one who broke up with him, and his Kohein status had nothing to do with it. "He was going to give up his Kohein rights to be with me. He was in love with me, but I decided that I didn't feel the same way." I asked her if he, also modern orthodox, felt any guilt about dating her and she said no: "His decision to date me was due to his prioritizing a 'soul mate' over being a lonely Kohein. He was convinced that I was the one."

Then there is blogger Chaviva Galatz, a newlywed, who is representative of 20-something female converts to Judaism: "I've blogged about it before and it's actually a halachic issue with my future daughters and granddaughters, too ... being a convert sort of sucks the priestly goodness out of any possible future. I personally never dated a Kohein, but I sort of had a contingency plan just in case. My plan in general was to be completely up front -- ask, 'Are you a Kohein?' if I couldn't discern it from their name or context clues like, 'so, how's your Kohein's prayer?'"

The women are not getting the short-end of the stick here and there's no "double standard" concerning gender with the Kohein's Conundrum.

"Let's just say that there have been two or three major heartbreaks related to this issue over the years," Craig laments, "When you're in love with someone and they're in love with you, it becomes very difficult to allow a poorly understood and often poorly explained notion come between the two of you. There have been more than a few situations that I was able to nip in the bud before they became deep and painful. More often than not, it happens relatively quickly; I meet a woman that makes my heart skip a beat for a myriad of reasons and on many levels, only to find out within our initial conversations that she is someone I can never be with. And no, it does not get easier with time."

Around the Web

Judaism 101: Marriage

Jewish views on marriage - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Jewish Wedding - Dating, Weddings and Marriage in Jewish Tradition

All About Marriage and Weddings in Judaism - Jewish Weddings

Definition: Kohein (pl. Kohanim)

Category:Kohanim - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia