I bump into Benjamin on Amsterdam Avenue and we’re walking together for half a minute–hey, how are the kids, what’s going on–and then out of nowhere he skirts to the curb, walks several steps, then returns to my side. At … Read More

By / November 19, 2008

I bump into Benjamin on Amsterdam Avenue and we’re walking together for half a minute–hey, how are the kids, what’s going on–and then out of nowhere he skirts to the curb, walks several steps, then returns to my side. At my "Are you trying to shake off the Mossad?" look, he explains, "A funeral home. I’m a kohen. I can’t enter a funeral home." "We weren’t going in," I point out, as if to a not-very-observant child. "I can’t walk under the awning. The awning is considered part of the building, and I can’t enter a building in which there might be a dead body." While I was aware that members of the priestly tribe are barred from contact with a dead body, which means not attending funerals or visiting a cemetery, I hadn’t realized that the awning was included in the prohibitive umbrella. Learning to zip around funeral home awnings is something Benjamin learned as a child from his father, and something his teenage son also does automatically. Recently, scientists claim to have found a commonality on the Y chromosome which priests share, but not other Jews. From Europe to America to India to Africa, though geographically separated over a thousand years ago, their identity has been preserved not only by oral transmission from father to son, but now, it’s clear, the transmission was physical as well. Their common ancestor lived about 3,000 years ago (give or take), which would have been around the time of King David and the First Temple. Ambling about the Upper West Side wearing jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap, Benjamin appears nothing like the Temple priests, who wore tunics, breeches, and turbans of white linen and spent their days futzing around with frankincense and sacrifices. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the priests’ services were no longer needed, and one might think they would have been silently absorbed into the larger Jewish population. On the contrary, 2,000 years later, the men who today call themselves priests can do so because Judaism didn’t marginalize them or ask them to take a retirement package. Instead, they are given the first aliyah, the call to the Torah on Saturday, and they stand in front of the congregation on the High Holidays and festivals and bless the people. Palms facing forward, fingers parted between middle and ring fingers, (which every Jewish kid knows is the origin of the one-handed Vulcan salute on Star Trek, created by the first Jewish Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy), they chant in Hebrew: "May the Lord bless you and guard you; may the Lord shine His countenance toward you and be gracious unto you; may the Lord lift up His countenance toward you and give you peace." The priestly blessing is the oldest known Biblical text. Amulets with these verses have been found dating from around 600 BCE, when the First Temple still stood. The words were co-opted by Bob Dylan for his song, "Forever Young", which opens with: "May God bless and keep you always." I think Aaron would be proud that something so ancient can be forever relevant, forever young. While Benjamin acknowledges that his status as priest makes him feel slightly elitist, he also feels humble that he’s been chosen to serve. "We’re not allowed to be angry with anyone when we go up to bless the people, and I genuinely feel that I’ve let go of all my anger. I feel that I am doing God’s work when I’m duchening." (Duchen is Aramaic for "platform" and recalls the antechamber that stood in front of the Holy of Holies in the temple where the priests prayed.) But today, it’s harder to hold onto one’s priestly status than it was in days of old. Divorced and in his forties, Benjamin wants to marry a woman who is also divorced. According to Jewish law, if he does so, he has to surrender his status as a kohen. When I first heard this, the ever so pragmatic part of me weighed his future happiness on one hand against the privilege of chanting the priestly blessing. I voted for happiness. There are plenty of priests, but probably not so many women who are going to satisfy the ancient requirements of marriage to a priest: she must never have been previously married, unless she’s a widow; she is not allowed to have had relations with a man she could not marry; and she can’t be divorced nor a convert, as the convert might theoretically have had sex with a non-Jewish man before she converted, rendering her impure and through contact with her, the priest as well. Being a priest is not essential for Benjamin to continue to be Jewish. Nonetheless, I know that Benjamin’s reluctance to give this up is about far more than a nostalgic unwillingness to part with an old couch that no longer serves a purpose (one of my children suffered from this particular malady for a long time. I understand separation anxiety). It’s about the hold that the past has on you; it’s about the quirks in one’s genetic make-up that confer identity; it’s about what remains the same over the course of thousands of years, even as everything else changes. I understand Benjamin’s dilemma; what is less clear is why we, too, want the priests to remain in place. Without a temple, the priests aren’t essential to our being able to practice Judaism. They are figureheads, reminders of a past world, and for some, they are placeholders for the time when the Third Temple will be built and the priests will resume their service. (I’m not holding my breath on that one.) Not only don’t priests serve any real purpose, but it’s an inherited position, not an accomplishment they’ve achieved on their own merit and it’s a sexist, guys-only club. This is antithetical to what we believe to be true in America: that you are not your genetics, that you can be whatever you choose to be–our new president being a case in point. Reform Jews no longer recognize kohanim as being different than any other Jew, and they aren’t accorded any extra privileges or honors in the synagogue service. Adherents to the Reform view will argue that we don’t need the priests to chant the blessings–we can all bless one another. And since the priests no longer offer sacrifices, they don’t bring us closer to God. Priests are redundant, irrelevant. This is rationally correct, I’m sure, but I’m irrational and I am always moved when I see the kohanim stand in front of the congregation on the high holidays and chant the blessing in that ever so unattractively off-key way of theirs. I accord them respect precisely because they didn’t choose to be priests, but have nonetheless continued to maintain the priestly standards of "purity" with no Temple in sight simply in order to uphold their end of the bargain to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Their presence reminds me of a much bigger, and holier, world. It reminds me that "Holy" means not being better or more moral, but being separate. Benjamin tells me–with diffidence, with continued ambivalence–that, as painful as it has been and continues to be, he’s ready to give up "the kohen piece." He is ready to step forward into a new relationship. Even though one foot will always remain firmly planted on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, the other is reaching out to stomp on the glass under the wedding canopy somewhere on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This time, when he hears the glass breaking, symbolic of the destruction of the Temple, I wonder if it will be even more poignant than it was at his first, now broken, marriage. .

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