Kohen Higher Status

My mother is Jewish and my father is not. I have been told that I am 100% Jewish, yet at the same time I may not marry a Kohen. It bothers me that I am penalized for something I have no control over. What is so special about Kohanim that they are too holy to marry the likes of me? It’s just so upsetting to me to be given an inferior status because of nothing I ever did!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I’m very sorry to hear of your upset. We discuss some of the general rules of Kohen marriages elsewhere. I would like to address the more specific issue which is bothering you – the notion that the Kohen has a “superior” status over other Jews, and the corresponding “inferior” status of the Jews they may not marry.

A Kohen’s superior status stems from his privilege and obligation to serve in the Temple. Originally the Temple service was to be performed by the firstborns – whom God acquired rights over by sparing them in the Plague of the Firstborn. However, they were later replaced by the Kohanim (pl. for Kohen) when they took part in the Sin of the Golden Calf but the Tribe of Levi did not. At that point, the descendants of Aaron the High Priest were designated for the Priesthood (see Numbers 8:16-18).

The most interesting aspect of the Kohanim is that the Torah appears to grants them a physically superior status to the rest of Israel. They have special restrictions as to whom they may marry (e.g. not a convert or divorcee), they cannot come in contact with the dead, and to serve in the Temple they could not have any physical blemishes – or grow their hair long, drink wine, etc. Likewise, parts of the service the Levites performed in the desert could only be done when they were ages 30-50 – when they were at the peak of their strength.

Kohanim thus basically had to be physically perfect. And this seems quite at odds with the Torah’s views on almost all other matters. God always judges us and values us based on our true worth as a person. Our looks or physical superiority mean nothing to God. When the Prophet Samuel went to David’s family to anoint the future King of Israel, God told him to pay no attention to David’s imposing older brother Eliav: “Do not look at his appearance or his tall stature, for I have despised him… For a man sees according to his eyes but God sees the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). If so, why are Kohanim different?

The reason is because Kohanim serve a unique function in the nation. They were physically close to God in the Temple – and to be so, they had to be physically perfect. Even though there is obviously nothing “wrong” with a Kohen with a defect (such as a broken leg), and it’s certainly not his fault, to be close to God on such an intense level, one's perfection had to extend all the way down to the physical plane.

At the same time, the Sages state, “An illegitimate (mamzer) Torah scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest” (Mishna Horiyot 3:8). Although Kohanim have their special status of being physically superior, it utterly pales before the spiritual sanctity of a great human being. Thus, although Kohanim do have the prerogative of their sanctified bodies – which does count for something, what is truly significant to God is our souls. (Based on an explanation given by my teacher, R. Yochanan Zweig.)

Another point to keep in mind is that although it's obviously not your fault that you don't have the same lineage as others, very often in life people are born with disadvantages, of all different sorts, which are clearly not their fault. Some people are born with actual handicaps – physical or mental, or were born to broken, dysfunctional home, grew up impoverished, lost a parent young, etc. This does not mean that God has dealt unfairly with such people. Although to us such issues feel like terrible hardships and disadvantages in life, God knows what is best for each person to fulfill his or her mission in life. Sometimes it is the very hardships that we face which help us develop ourselves into the great individuals we become.

My wishes that you find the right one for you at the right time!

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