OpinionTorah Portion

Who is a Jew? Who is a Kohen?

Spiritual identity goes beyond biology.

A depiction of Aaron the High Priest by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1914. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A depiction of Aaron the High Priest by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1914. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Who is a Kohen, a Jewish priest? Technically speaking, of course, the Kohen is a member of the priestly tribe of Israel descended from Moses’s brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons—the first Kohanim. Today, scientists claim to be able to detect the “Kohen gene” in those descendants’ DNA. It’s mind-boggling that, well over 3,000 years later, we can identify the descendants of a certain family and determine who is a Kohen through genetics.

But this is not only a question of discovering our biological lineage. There are often important halachic issues at play if one is a Kohen. As a member of the priestly tribe that once served in the Holy Temple, the Kohen is held to a higher standard in a number of areas of life. He may not act as a pallbearer at funerals and must keep his distance from graves. Nor is he permitted to marry a divorcee or a convert. Other rules apply as well.

As a rabbi, I’ve had my fair share of trying to establish with certainty whether someone is a Kohen or not in order to confirm, for example, whether he is allowed to marry a divorcee. I’ve done identity checks and genealogical searches, including trying to locate the tombstones of great-grandparents.

This week, in Parshat Tetzaveh, we read about the sacred vestments of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, and the ordinary priests. The High Priest looked quite majestic in his regalia. His ornamental garments included a decorative robe, tunic, turban, breastplate, apron and gold headband. He cut a very impressive figure indeed when he entered the Temple.

But believe it or not, according to Maimonides, every Jew is a Kohen.

Just before the Ten Commandments and the great Revelation at Sinai, God told Moses that He had a mission for the Israelites: “You will be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So, the entire Jewish people was given a mission on the mountain. We are all expected to be singular people with a particular mission. We have been made messengers of God, a “light unto the nations,” and to make the world a better place in every way we can. We are all part of the “kingdom of priests” and together we are called upon to be a “holy nation.”

But what does “holy” mean? The dictionary definition is “sacred, dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose.” Personally, I have always preferred translating “holy” as “distinctively different.” 

Not every Jew is a genetic Kohen. The vast majority are not. But according to Maimonides, we can all be a Kohen spiritually.

In his magnum opus Mishneh Torah, at the end of the Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, Maimonides states:

What differentiated the tribe of Levi [which the priestly tribe comes from] was that they were designated and set apart from the ways of the world. They do not receive land, nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power. Instead, they are the Legionnaires of God.

And not only the tribe of Levi exclusively, but anyone whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him. … Proceeding justly as God intended, removing from his neck the yoke of the many material schemings which people seek, such a person is sanctified as holy of holies.

So, figuratively speaking, everyone can be a Kohen. By dedicating our lives to a higher purpose, to more noble pursuits, we become part of the “kingdom of priests” whether our father was a Kohen or not.

If you weren’t convinced that Israel and the Jews have a special place in the world, all you need to do is read the headlines. That the whole world is so preoccupied with Israel, that they ignore the real atrocities and genuine genocides around the world in China, Russia, Syria, Iran and elsewhere, actually proves that we are distinctly different.

Why do we attract the world’s undivided attention? It’s not normal. As Douglas Murray put it recently, “Israel is the only country who isn’t allowed to win a war.” Clearly, we are an exceptional people.

Many times in the past, however, Jews have been described as “a messenger who forgot the message.”

If we did, then Oct. 7 reminded us. It was a horrible wake-up call, but the mission is now well remembered. We got the message loud and clear. Even secular, unaffiliated Jews have woken up to the eternal reality of their true, inner identity; their separateness from the mainstream and their distinctive differentness.

But we must never allow that distinctiveness to be defined by victimhood. We must be what we were meant to be: Nothing less than the moral conscience of the world.

In the book of Kings, seeking to guarantee that her son Solomon will inherit the throne, Bathsheva says to her husband King David, “The eyes of all of Israel are upon you.” 

Eighty years ago, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, told his troops just before D-Day, “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

So it is with our brave defenders today. And not only our valiant warriors, but all of us must remember the message and the mission.

With faith and fortitude, we must recommit ourselves to our national calling of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

And as G-d promised to look after the tribe of Levi, his “legionnaires,” so will He keep all of us—especially our soldiers and the hostages—safe and secure, forever enveloped by His loving and protective embrace. Amen.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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