Priestly and Levitical Status in Reform Judaism



I am submitting this query on behalf of a congregant. According to the North American Reform movement, a child need not be born of a Jewish mother in order to inherit Jewish status. Rather, it is enough that the child be the offspring of one Jewish parent, either father or mother, and be raised as a Jew in order to be considered a Jew by birth.[1] Would a similarly gender-neutral policy apply to the k’hunah (priesthood)? Traditionally, a child is considered a kohen (priest) or a levi (Levite) if his or her father enjoyed that status.[2] In the view of Reform Judaism, can a child inherit priestly or levitical status through the maternal, as well as through the paternal line?  (Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, Kingston, Jamaica)



“Reform (Judaism) does not recognize a hereditary priesthood.”[3] This statement, presented without dissent in our official CCAR publications,[4] describes a fundamental aspect of our religious world view. It means, specifically, that the tradition of priestly status is irrelevant to us as a religious category and plays no role whatsoever in Reform Jewish observance today. Our common Reform practice testifies to this fact. In our communities, the kohen receives none of the privileges to which he is entitled under traditional Jewish law and custom.[5] Most notably, we have long since abolished the practice of granting him the first aliyah, that is, of calling him to the Torah prior to anyone else.[6] By the same token, we do not enforce any of the stringencies that traditionally apply to the priest in matters regarding marriage[7] and ritual purity.[8] Since we do not look forward to the rebuilding of the Temple and the resumption of sacrificial worship, we have no purpose or interest in perpetuating caste distinctions based in the ancient Biblical cult.[9] And in the absence of such a purpose or interest, it would arguably be unethical for us, as a movement dedicated to an egalitarian vision of Judaism, to maintain such distinctions in any form, even if it be “gender-neutral” in its structure.[10] It follows that there is not – and should not be – any uniquely “Reform” version of the k’hunah or redefinition of its rules.


To say that priestly yichus (inherited status) is irrelevant to our religious life should not suggest that the awareness of priestly status has completely disappeared from among our people. Reform Jews can and often do acknowledge the fact of their yichus as a matter of family tradition. They will often maintain the title “hakohen” or “halevi” in their Jewish names, as testimony that they was born to a father of either status. We certainly have no objection to this custom. We would emphasize, however, that when Reform Jews do recognize their priestly or levitical descent, they express thereby a sense of connection to historical institutions rooted in our Biblical heritage and not to some (non-existent) Reform version of those institutions.


Our Rabbi’s Manual offers an illustration. It declares that, precisely because we do not recognize a hereditary priesthood, the ceremony of pidyon haben, the redemption of the first-born son (Exodus 13:1, 11-15), is “incongruous for Reform Jews.”[11] Given, however, that “our colleagues will be called upon to participate in the ritual and interpret its rules,” the Manual proceeds to summarize those rules as they are formulated in Jewish tradition and to refer the reader to sources for the traditional pidyon haben liturgy. The message is clear: if Reform Jews choose pidyon haben for their sons, they are choosing to participate in a ceremony that reflects the context of the hereditary Biblical priesthood. Since we as a movement do not recognize that priesthood, there is no Reform, gender-neutral version of pidyon haben.

In the same way, there is no “Reform version” of the k’hunah. It is not for us to redefine the essence and structure of a Biblical institution that plays no part in Reform Jewish religious life.




1.         The policy, adopted at the CCAR convention in 1983, is officially stated as follows: “The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parents and child, to Jewish life.” For discussion, see David Polish and W. Gunther Plaut, Plaut, Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR, 1988), pp. 225-227.

2.         M. Kidushin 3:12; Yad, Isurei Bi’ah 19:15; Shulchan Arukh Even Ha`ezer 8:1-3.

3.         Simeon Maslin, ed., Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR, 1979), p. 72, note 19.

4.         It is cited as well in the Rabbi’s Manual (note 1, above), p. 228.

5.         The basic principle is derived from Leviticus 21:8, the commandment to “sanctify” the priest (v’kidashto). This is understood as a requirement “to grant him priority in all matters of holiness (k’dushah)”: let him read first from the Torah, let him lead b’rakhot, let him receive the best portion of the food served at the meal (B. Gitin 59b). This comes in addition to the matanot k’hunah, the “gifts” or donations that the kohen receives as a matter of Torah law. Traditionally, these number twenty-four; Maimonides enumerates them in Yad, Bikurim 1.

6.         Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 135:3: “The kohen reads first from the Torah, followed by the levi, followed by the yisrael,” (i.e., a Jew not of priestly or levitical descent).

7.         See Leviticus 21:7, the source for the rule that a kohen is prohibited from marrying a divorcee and, by way of midrashic expansion, a woman who was converted to Judaism (B. Yevamot 61a; Shulchan Arukh Even Ha`ezer 6:8).

8.         For example, the kohen is forbidden to come into contact or into close proximity with a corpse. The only exceptions are the relatives whom he is required to bury: his wife, his parents, his siblings, and his children. See Leviticus 21:1-3 and Sifra ad loc. This raises difficulties with respect to a number of activities. A kohen must take extreme care not to step upon a grave when visiting a cemetery (Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 371:5; R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, Resp. Tzitz Eliezer 4:15). The kohen is prohibited from entering a room or a building where a Jewish corpse lies (Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 371. And a kohen is prohibited from studying medicine when that involves the use of cadavers (R. Moshe Feinstein, Resp. Ig’rot Moshe, Yoreh De`ah 3:155).

9.         Another reason is based in more traditional halakhic considerations. Virtually all authorities recognize that today, the actual priestly or levitical status of any particular person is a matter of doubt (safek), owing to the nonexistence of genealogical records. For sources and discussion, see American Reform Responsa (ARR; New York: CCAR, 1983), no. 43. Thus, even if the k’hunah were somehow relevant to our religious practice, it would be problematic to award privileges and to enforce stringencies based upon one’s presumed – but not clearly determinable – ritual status.

10.       In this respect, our situation differs from that of the Conservative movement, in which the status of kohen retains its ritual significance. For this reason, perhaps, Conservative halakhists have found it necessary to do what we refuse to do here, namely to redefine some of the rules that have governed the institution of the priesthood since Biblical times. Thus, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) has ruled that a rabbi may solemnize a marriage between a kohen and a divorcee, a relationship clearly forbidden by Biblical law (see note 7, above), in part on the ethical ground that “(we) no longer perceive a divorcee as a woman who has been discarded by her former husband and hence not suitable as a spouse for a kohen”; Rabbi Arnold Goodman, “Solemnizing the Marriage Between a Kohen and a Divorcee,” Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, EH6.1:1996, (http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19912000/goodman_marriagedivorcee.pdf?phpMyAdmin=G0Is7ZE%2CH7O%2Ct%2CZ1sDHpI8UAVD6 ). In a related responsum, the CJLS has eliminated the prohibition against the marriage between a kohen and a giyoret (Jew-by-choice); Rabbi Arnold Goodman, “Solemnizing a Marriage Between a Kohen and a Convert,” Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, EH6.8:1996 (http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19912000/goodman_marriageconvert.pdf?phpMyAdmin=G0Is7ZE%2CH7O%2Ct%2CZ1sDHpI8UAVD6) .

11.       The material in this paragraph is found in Rabbi’s Manual (note 1, above), p. 228. See also Gates of Mitzvah loc. cit., from which the Manual quotes the statement “incongruous for Reform Jews.”