Gender and the Priestly Blessing
Last week, I laid out three models for responding to the challenges faced by the kehunah in an increasingly gender-equal world. I framed my analysis for an audience that is deeply committed to the substance of Torah and process of halakhah, while also invested in the correctness and necessity of the cause of gender equality. I suggested that one could resolve this tension by marginalizing and eliminating the presence of the kehunah in ritual life, by faithfully maintaining it as a vestige in its traditional form, or by seeking halakhic possibilities for rendering it more gender equal.
This week, I would like to explore the third model with respect to birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing traditionally offered by the kohanim in the context of the public Amidah. It is clearly possible to find ways to evade birkat kohanim altogether, by picking up on and expanding the Ashkenazi, Diasporic tradition that sharply limits its performance and sees no real obligation to hold the blessing at any given time in particular. One can also toe the line on the essential maleness of this ritual, even as it may become more and more of an anomaly in the context of gender-blind leadership and participation. We discussed the advantages and disadvantages of such approaches last week. Instead, I would like to explore options for including benot kohanim in this ritual, thus allowing it to retain a role, perhaps even a central one in our public prayer life, while still firmly anchoring it in the kehunah, and eliminating at least the optics of some of the patriarchal hierarchy that lies at the heart of the historic Jewish priesthood. My hope is that this will not only be a potentially practically useful conversation, but that it will also illuminate some of what is at stake in these sorts of discussions, even in communities that are unlikely to take this sort of step any time soon.
The Priestly Blessing is grounded in the following passage in this week’s parashah:
22וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה֖' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: 23דַּבֵּ֤ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶל־בָּנָי֣ו לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֥ה תְבָרֲכ֖וּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָמ֖וֹר לָהֶֽם: ס
24יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה֖' וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ: ס
25יָאֵ֨ר ה֧'׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ: ס
26יִשָּׂ֨א ה֤'׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם: ס
27וְשָׂמ֥וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֖י עַל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַאֲנִ֖י אֲבָרֲכֵֽם: ס
22The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: 23Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying, “So shall you bless the Israelites; say to them:
24May the Lord bless you and keep you.
25May the Lord shine face towards you and show you grace.
26May the Lord show you favor and grant you peace.”
27They shall place my name on the Israelites and I shall bless them.
A very specific 3-5-7 word formula is offered here, with each of the three lines featuring God’s name in the second position. This text is meant to be spoken to the Jewish people by Aharon and his descendants, whereby God’s blessing will flow out to the people. The details of its implementation are more opaque, and there are explicit and implicit discussions surrounding how frequently it is meant to be done. Whatever the precise scope of the obligation is, it is clearly directed to אהרן ובניו. As we saw last week, the language of בניו, while often plausibly a gender-neutral term for children, is often taken in the context of the kehunah to refer specifically to sons. The target of this commandment would thus seem to be the male kohanim, a class that excludes not only all non-Aaronides (Levites and Jews undistinguished by descent) but also the female members of the priestly class (benot kohanim). Anyone interpreting the Torah in a traditional rabbinic mode would agree that there is no obligation for anyone other than male priests to bless the people.
Of interest to us, however, is whether it is permissible, for those other than male Aaronide priests to participate in the priestly blessing. Even if there is no obligation outside of male kohanim, is there an option that can be exercised? In the longer essay, we explore the question of participation by a זר, someone not from the priestly class, and use this discussion as a basis for exploring the question of a bat kohen’s participation. Suffice to say for now that there is a wide range of opinions on this topic—but despite this, no viable practice of זרים participating in birkat kohanim ever emerged. Nonetheless, there is clearly some degree of wiggle room here, knowing that there were many theoretical approaches advanced, even if none of them triumphed practically. This is important as we consider the question of benot kohanim. Even if they are no different than זרים, might these positions play a role in justifying a more egalitarian approach to this mitzvah?
As we saw last week, benot kohanim are included in certain parts of the kehunah and excluded from others. How do we legally conceptualize this complex state of affairs? Are benot kohanim essentially זרות, who are nonetheless sometimes given privileges on account of their adjunct and dependent relationship with male kohanim? Alternatively, are they fundamentally kohanim, who are nonetheless excluded from certain key elements of priestly privilege and responsibility? Or is any attempt to come up with a neat classification doomed to failure, since benot kohanim occupy a unique, liminal space in the Jewish priestly system?
Many sources, discussed in the longer essay, make clear that it is perfectly coherent for a community to refuse to allow female participation in birkat kohanim even as they might advance egalitarian norms in many other areas of ritual. Birkat kohanim is certainly a place where it is defensible to say that preserving this aspect of the kehunah requires limiting it to those to whom it is addressed: Aharon and his male descendants.
But I am interested in a slightly different angle. Yes, there is clearly a basis for excluding benot kohanim from the priestly blessing. Is there also a basis for including them? Is there room for a community to rely on another model? Formulated more conservatively and to the point: Is there a basis for not turning away a bat kohen who is motivated to come up and bless the community?
Here I believe the answer is yes all around, based on a number of elements:
There is a strong basis for not treating a bat Kohen as a זרה (see, for example, Mishnah Terumah 7:2 where it is clear that a bat Kohen is considered to be of priestly descent when consuming terumah that was not hers, since she is exempt from the usual penalty imposed on a non-priest);
The language of דבר אל אהרן ואל בניו need not be read here as excluding benot kohanim from joining in (as is shown by, for example, Tosafot on Pesahim 49b, where they do not see the phrase לאהרן ולבניו to be inherently gendered);
Even if a bat Kohen should be thought of as a זרה, there is some basis for allowing זרים to participate in birkat kohanim;
Unlike זרים, there is no real reason that a bat Kohen cannot say the berakhah prior to the recitation of the priestly blessing (which specifically references the “sanctity of Aharon”, making it an invalid blessing for a non-priest to say).
All this paves the way for an argument that takes advantage of two axes of doubt (sefeik sefeika; for more, see my essay on Hayyei Sarah), in order, minimally, to make the modest claim that benot kohanim who wish to offer birkat kohanim need not be discouraged from doing so. The argument goes as follows:
It is possible that benot kohanim were never barred from offering birkat kohanim in the first place. They are not זרים in the full sense of the term, and their lineal sanctity distinguishes them from non-priests in significant ways in the context of a number of key halakhot. There is a solid argument for saying that the main objections to allowing benot kohanim to participate in other aspects of the kehunah is because they will displace male priests, which is not a concern in the context of birkat kohanim.
Even if benot kohanim should be treated like זרות for the purposes of birkat kohanim, it may well be the case that a זר can indeed offer birkat kohanim.
As in all cases of a sefeik sefeika, one would normally not rely on either piece of the argument on its own. If there were an unequivocal, absolute prohibition on the participation of a זר in birkat kohanim, the argument for a bat Kohen’s inclusion based on argument (1) might well be insufficient. And we would certainly not simply allow a זר to participate in birkat kohanim based on argument (2). But with the two of them combined together, there are enough pathways to create space for the bat Kohen in the context of this ritual without overly redefining the parameters of the kehunah. Again, even if one would still be hesitant to adopt this argumentation in order to actively encourage the participation of benot kohanim, I think it is certainly sufficient to allow those who take the initiative to continue to do so.
The kehunah is a patriarchal institution with a deep past; it cannot be made completely gender-blind. My argument here has revealed again and again how hardwired this gendered element is within the Jewish priestly discourse. For those for whom that is untenable, and for whom the blessings and benefits of the kehunah are expendable, my arguments this week will likely not be helpful. They will have to find ways to evade the kehunah and render it as invisible as possible. In the case of birkat kohanim, they will seek to avoid doing it whenever they can.
Similarly, some will find the efforts to “stretch” the kehunah to include women to be inauthentic. For them, female participation in birkat kohanim will smack of a disrespectful modernization of an ancient ritual, one that will not only falsify it, but will fail to do its religious work in the present. They, even if they are sympathetic to more egalitarian ritual, will suffice with a vestigial patriarchal practice in these areas, even as women attain greater heights and prominence in leadership of other aspects of the community.
What I have offered this week is an example of the “egalitarianization” model that I detailed last week. Many of us who are deeply attached to the ongoing vitality of Torah in general, and the kehunah in particular, are reluctant to find ways to evade mitzvot than can be fulfilled. We also feel it is unstable to leave overly patriarchal elements in place, knowing that the vestigial can often turn out to be more influential than we might think. Confident in the multivocality of Torah and curious about the potential range of its application, those in this camp will search for ways to make, at least, the optics of the kehunah more compatible with a gender-egalitarian community. I hope I have shown that, with respect to birkat kohanim, there is perhaps quite a bit more room to maneuver in this regard than one might have thought. And for those who are unconvinced, I hope this analysis has nonetheless clarified the pathways that lie before us. May we see a day when the worship of God is restored to its highest heights in our communities, with each person playing a meaningful and appropriate role.