The Intrusive Ways Israel Maintains the Purity of the Jewish Priestly Dynasty

Israel intervenes in people's choice of last name and even in gender selection of embryos in order to keep the Jewish priestly class pure for 'when the Messiah comes'

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A Jewish worshipper uses his mobile phone to record worshippers who are covered in prayer shawls as they recite the priestly blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot October 19, 2016.
A Jewish worshipper uses his mobile phone to record worshippers who are covered in prayer shawls as they recite the priestly blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Sukkot, October 19, 2016.Credit: Baz Ratner, Reuters
Shakked Auerbach
Shakked Auerbach
Shakked Auerbach
Shakked Auerbach

Two years ago, Noa (not her real name) and her intended were certain they would do it their way: bypass the Chief Rabbinate and register as common-law spouses. However, when Noa filed a request with the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority to add her partner’s surname – Cohen – to her own, she discovered that in Israel all roads lead to the rabbinate.

“The clerk gave me an amused look and told me that I needed a special authorization from a rabbi in order to add ‘Cohen’ to my name,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I admit that I was flabbergasted. I never thought for a moment that there could be a situation in which I’d have to apply to the rabbinate, after all,” she added in her post.

The restrictions that halakha (Jewish religious law) places on marriages of kohanim – that is, descendants of the priests who served in the ancient Israelite Temple – are well known. For example, a kohen, whose lineage is patrilineal in nature, may not marry a divorcee or a convert to Judaism. The aim of that prohibition, according to halakha, is to preserve the ritual purity of the priestly class. But the authorities involved have extended these restrictions to other spheres, at times in a far-reaching, arbitrary manner, which is not always consistent with either contemporary Israeli or Jewish laws.

“The clerk saw that I identified myself as single, because I’m in a common-law marriage. She told me that I can’t change my name to Cohen if I’m not actually married to man named Cohen,” Noa says. “I replied that I had common-law status and that we were indeed married [in a ceremony in Israel but] just not by the rabbinate. She then said I needed to bring authorization from the rabbi of a synagogue or from the rabbinate – and the same holds true for the names ‘Levy’ and ‘Katz’ [the latter is an acronym for kohen tzedek, or ‘priest of justice’],” she added.

The Chief Rabbinate confirms that there are various surnames that identify people as kohanim, to which similar restrictions apply. These include Katz, Kahn, Kagan, Dwek and Tawil.

Noa’s post triggered dozens of responses, many of them revealing similar stories. One woman related that her brother had run into a stone wall when he requested that his partner’s name, Hacohen, be added to his. Another wrote that a relative of hers, named Cohen, had divorced his wife and then wanted to remarry her, but the request was rejected because she was divorced – from him. A third woman, also married in a civil ceremony, was asked by the authorities to declare that she would forgo her and her children’s status as kohanim before being permitted to add “Cohen” to her name.

“Many women wrote me that they had the same experience and that there’s no way to solve the problem,” Noa says, adding that she personally intended to accept the situation and just use her own last name. However, she was approached by a representative of the organization Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, who had heard about her case, claiming that the Population Authority’s demand was unlawful.

“I had no intention of going to the rabbinate for an authorization,” she says now. “If the NGO hadn’t approached me, I suppose I would have just kept my birth name.”

Jewish men of the kohanim priestly caste participate in a blessing during the Passover holiday, in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, April 13, 2017.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

Noa’s story was actually a surprise to Hiddush, which asked the Population Authority for clarification. The reply they received was that there is actually no fixed rule and that it was Noa’s bad luck to encounter a clerk who didn’t know the full ins and outs of the law. The authority invited her to go back and have her surname changed, to her satisfaction.

But Haaretz has learned that this was not an isolated case. It has received testimonies revealing dozens of similar cases in which requests by couples who wanted to add “Cohen” to one of their surnames were rejected. It began to seem as if the Population Authority itself wasn’t sure what the regulations are, and that there are different standards for dealing with such requests; apparently the response one gets depends on where and when you submit your request.

“It’s pretty much a case of what they can get away with,” says MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), who has sponsored a bill that would allow every person to change his or her name as they wish – even if they’re kohanim.

“It’s not exactly a law,” she continues, “but a procedure at the Population Authority. It stipulates that if anyone wants to change their name – and we’re not talking only about the case of a woman who wants to change her surname to that of the man she married in a halakhic ceremony – authorization from the Orthodox rabbi in charge of their hometown, is required. Of course, that’s not relevant for secular people, LGBT people and anyone who doesn’t have a rabbi.”

About five years ago, Zandberg asked the interior minister at the time, Gideon Sa’ar, to address this situation: “I argued that it was incredible and untenable. He agreed with me and issued a directive to change the procedure. I even had a letter from him, and quite a few couples made use of it over the years.”

Nevertheless, the old rule continues to be on the books at the Interior Ministry: Many couples who ask today to change their surname to “Cohen” are turned down.

“Naturally, since [Shas leader Arye] Dery took over the ministry, they don’t implement [the directive],” Zandberg notes. “The situation is that, the interior minister can make a change in the rules, change them back, at will. I submitted the bill not long ago, in order to enshrine the new procedure, precisely because of what is happening now. The bill is on the agenda, but the Interior Ministry objects to it.”

“A name is the most personal and private thing a person can choose for himself,” says Hiddush vice president Sagi Agmon. “When a person says, ‘I am in a relationship, and that relationship is part of who I am, and I want to express myself through my partner’s name and I’m not being allowed to’ – that is an infuriating violation of the individual’s rights.”

Worshippers recite the priestly blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, 2015. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

According to Agmon, the fact that the name involved is of religious importance is of no judicial consequence: “There is no reason why anyone should be discriminated against just because the partner’s name is Cohen. Nor did anyone make the Interior Ministry responsible for defending members of the priestly class in Israel – that’s not part of their job.”

The halakhic conception about preserving surnames that identify people as kohanim, the priestly class, turns out to be far broader.

Sharon Cohen, from the town of Shoham, in the center of the country, discovered this when she sought to convert her adopted daughter, Shahar, to Judaism. “We adopted Shahar about eight years ago and we did the whole conversion process by the book,” she relates. However, the conversion division in the Prime Minister’s Office refused vehemently to approve the conversion of Shahar, who was adopted in Ukraine, unless the family gave up the name “Cohen.”

“We had the ritual immersion done in a mikveh [ritual purification bath] near Jerusalem,” Cohen relates. “My husband took her and it was a joyful event. Then we waited for the authorization. But two-three months later we suddenly get a call from the Prime Minister’s Office. The official who called suggested that we give our adopted daughter my maiden name. I told her, ‘Her siblings are Cohen, her parents are Cohen – we’re not going to change her name. No way. I’m not willing for her name to be different from her siblings’ surname.’” The family consulted several rabbis, but to no avail: To this day, Shahar’s conversion process has not been completed.

According to Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, from the PMO’s conversion division, the process Shahar was undergoing should have been completed despite the surname issue – because she is a female. “With a boy, there are implications in halakha, because even though he was adopted he is actually not a kohen, but he’s liable to be mistaken for one – he could be called up to the Torah as a kohen, or if he wants to marry a divorcee he won’t be allowed to do so, along with other consequences,” Peretz explains.

In such cases, he notes, the family is given a similar name that hints that the boy is not a halakhic kohen: “Something is added so that the situation is understood. For example, I gave one family the name ‘Bar Cohen,’ which actually means ‘everything outside of or other than a kohen.’ That way, a rabbi will be able to grasp the issue.”

His department, says Peretz, keeps tabs of those who are halakhically a kohen and those who are not and, he asserts, “We overcome all the problems.”

Sacred seed

In fact, the effort to preserve the purity of the Jewish priestly class even extends to intervention in the act of reproduction. The Health Ministry allows kohanim who use a sperm donation to have a child to choose the newborn’s sex. This involves a decision by a special committee in the ministry, which is responsible for approving the radical process of gender selection during in vitro fertilization. Such intervention is, however, considered highly exceptional.

One such exceptional case is when the father in a kohen family is sterile and the mother becomes pregnant via IVF. The parents may wish to ensure that they will have a daughter and thus avoid the birth of a son in their family who will not be a halakhic kohen.

In the view of Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who served as the religious authority on the ministerial committee for a decade, what’s involved is not a halakhic justification but a psychological one.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow.Credit: David Bachar

“The committee has no authority to accept or reject requests on a religious basis,” he says. “A kohen has special functions in the synagogue, such as being called up to the Torah, reciting the priestly benediction and so forth. A boy born as the result of a sperm donation is not a kohen from the halakhic standpoint, so it’s as though a sign is hung on him in the synagogue stating, ‘I was born from a sperm donation.’”

His role on the committee, Cherlow continues, was to explain the conditions under which such a boy would grow up. “A Jewish clergyman can clarify to the committee what it means to have a boy who is officially or publicly the son of a kohen, but in truth, halakhically, is not.” These are “psychological-sociological, not religious, considerations,” he emphasizes. “The clergyman’s role in this case is to describe the situation.”

From the moment the panel decided to authorize a procedure of gender selection for these reasons, the rabbi notes, subsequent requests were approved almost automatically. This is confirmed by a source knowledgeable about the committee’s work. According to Health Ministry data, requests of this kind constituted 50 percent of all the gender selection requests – three by kohanim out of a total of six – that were authorized last year.

A spokesperson for the Chief Rabbinate says that its objective is to preserve the continuation of the priestly dynasty, and to ensure that it is free of halakhic problems that would prevent kohanim from fulfilling their traditional ritual functions. “In our time, these involve being called up to the Torah, [overseeing] redemption of the firstborn son [based on Numbers 18:15-16] and reciting the priestly benediction in the morning prayer service. In the past, kohanim were the only ones allowed to make sacrifices in the Temple, and according to the belief, when the Messiah comes and the Temple will be rebuilt, the kohanim will resume their service, and kohanim who did not preserve their sacredness for these tasks and protect their lineage will not be able to take part in Temple rituals,” the spokesperson stated.

“Without this[i.e., preservation of the purity of the priestly class], the Jewish people will always be doomed to be a nation of all its citizens and its common people,” says Hillel Weiss, professor emeritus of literature at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. Weiss established the organization Hamikdash Betzion (the Temple in Zion), which advocates the renewal in our day of the priestly functions in Judaism in advance of construction of the new Temple.

“The relationship between a kohen and the Jewish people is like that between the Jewish people as a whole and non-Jews,” he explains, emphasizing that preservation of the halakhic purity of kohanim families is of supreme importance.

Hillel Weiss.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“The priestly role is of immeasurable value,” Weiss asserts, “and any impersonation in this matter undermines its singularity. It’s like falsifying the name of a firm or a commercial trademark that has some sort of meaning.”

Weiss praises the secular authorities for their interest in preserving the priestly lineage: “Thank God for what’s called the state, or those who guide the state and have deep feelings about this matter.” He adds, “The whole hope of returning the Jewish communities, at least in the Land of Israel, to activity involving the Temple very soon in our time, amen, is [dependent on] the revival of the kehuna [priesthood].”

Asked to explain its position, the Population and Immigration Authority told Haaretz the following: “In accordance with procedures, changing or adding the surname Cohen or Levy is authorized solely with the approval of a rabbi, as the names belong to a defined group, and a situation is liable to arise in which the public is misled, as stipulated in the law. Beyond this, every request is examined on its merits and according to its circumstances.”

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