This week’s portion outlines in great detail both the prerogatives and the restrictions resulting from being within the “kohen,” or priestly, tribe.
The tradition of separating the Jewish people into three groupings — kohanim (descended from the family line of Aaron, the brother of Moses, within the tribe of Levi), Levites (from Levi but not the family line of Aaron), and Yisrael (from the remaining tribes) appears to be ancient. In the days of the wilderness Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Temples in Jerusalem, this tri-partite arrangement established the roles of individuals relative to the ritual and liturgical service.
This ancient system has but few surviving remnants in modern Judaism. In traditional synagogues, during the Torah service, kohanim continue to have claim to the first aliya, Levites to the second section of the reading. Kohanim and Levites participate liturgically in synagogues that retain the practice of reciting the “priestly benediction” during festival services.
When the Israelite religion was fundamentally cult-centered, the hierarchy of the priesthood defined the degree to which non-priestly Israelites could participate directly in the system of offerings. However, during the period of the Babylonian Exile and the Second Temple (c. 597 BCE-70 CE), there emerged what was first a substitute for, then a supplement to, and finally a successor of the cultic system of sacrifices.
This new system centered not on the offerings in the Temple, but on the recitation of liturgy and the reading of sacred texts. While the exact origins of the synagogue, prayerbook, and cycle of Torah readings remain obscure, scholarly consensus reasonably assumes that some form of proto-synagogue service would have developed during the Babylonian exile, when the sacrificial cult was suspended.
When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, synagogue worship and academy study emerged to absorb the responsibility for Jewish continuity. Both of these needed no system of birthright prerogatives for the conferring of status; being born a kohen or Levi or Yisrael made no difference. All could pray, and all could study; leadership became a function of knowledge and ability, rather than of priestly prerogatives.
The traditional restriction on kohanim marrying divorcees or converts remains in place, although the Conservative movement allows for the renunciation of one’s kohen status. Kohanim continue to be bound by the restrictions relating to proximity to a corpse, necessitating adjustments at funeral homes and cemeteries.
Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism self-consciously rejected the ancient tri-partite division on the grounds that it was a survival of a period of cultic worship that modern Jews no longer endorsed.
In direct contrast to emerging Christianity, late first-century Judaism de-centralized access to “the sacred.” By extension, the responsibility to study and learn those texts became the obligation of each generation of Jews.
That responsibility — in our time shared equally by Jewish women as well as men — remains at the core of our quest for Jewish continuity.