The Killer Kohen

The Killer Kohen
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Naso – פרשת נשא
May 22, 2021 – יא סיון תשפא
The killer kohen
The Babylonian Talmud cites a ruling in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that a kohen who has killed a person may not offer the priestly blessing in the synagogue (Berakhot 32b). Scriptural support for this ruling is mustered from the verse: “And when you lift up your hands, I will turn my eyes away from you. Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood (Isaiah 1:15).” The expression נשיאת כפים, “lifting of the hands” is standard rabbinic terminology for the act of offering the priestly blessing. While the plain meaning of Isaiah 1:15 is that God will turn a deaf ear to the prayers of those whose hands are stained with blood, the exegetical reading serves to disqualify a particular category of criminal from a specific aspect of the cultus.
Prohibiting a kohen who has shed blood from offering the priestly blessing makes eminent sense given the content of the blessing and the context of where the blessing is offered. “The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace (Numbers 6:26).” Someone who committed homicide is hardly in a position to be a conduit for God’s blessing of peace. The Talmud has an expression for this sort of absurd incongruity – “the prosecutor cannot become the defense attorney” (Rosh Hashanah 26a). The Holy Temple, where the priestly blessing ideally is intoned, was supposed to be a house of peace. King David was precluded from building the Temple because of his status as a warrior who had shed much blood (I Kings 5:17 and I Chronicles 28:3). The stones of the altars were not to be hewn with iron tools (Deuteronomy 27:5). Why not? Because iron tools (e.g., swords) shorten the lives of people, whereas the altar exists to secure expiation for people and thereby lengthen their lives. The homicidal kohen finds himself out of place, and is appropriately silenced, in a house of worship dedicated to shalom.
The Jerusalem Talmud, however, seems to say that a kohen who killed someone is still permitted to recite the priestly blessing. The Yerushalmi addresses a situation in which the kohen offering the blessing is held in disdain by the community. The people incredulously wonder how it is that a violator of sexual norms or a killer could have the audacity to ascend the synagogue platform and offer the blessing. The Talmud justifies this behavior by noting that it is not the person intoning the words of Numbers 6:24-26 who truly blesses the people – it is God who does so (Yerushalmi Gittin 47b). “They shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them (Numbers 6:27).” Since God Himself confers the blessing, the piety or impiety of the human annunciator-conduit is of little concern.
Ashkenazi Rishonim preferred to harmonize the above Talmudic passages rather than to consider them to conflict. One suggestion is that the Bavli addresses a killer kohen who has not repented, while the Yersuhalmi speaks of a kohen who has expressed remorse (Or Zaru’a 1:112). Alternatively, the Bavli speaks of a vicious goon who is thought to be actively dangerous and a menace to the public, while the Yerushalmi speaks of someone who is assumed to be harmless despite a prior unpleasant incident (Mordecai Megillah 804). Ra’avyah theorized that the Bavli speaks of someone who is infamous for being a killer (Hagahot Maimoniyyot Hilkhot Tefillah 15:3).
Rambam ruled categorically that anyone who has taken another human life may not offer the priestly blessing. He expressly rejected the idea that repentance might allow the homicidal kohen to return to his duties on the synagogue platform (Hilkhot Tefillah 15:3). Curiously, after listing a variety of factors that disqualify a kohen from offering the priestly blessing, Rambam notes that it is not necessary for a kohen to be especially scholarly, pious, or honest in order to recite the blessing. Even a kohen of relatively low spiritual or moral worth, and even someone about whom the community gossips, should not be prevented from offering the priestly blessing. Indeed, Rambam insisted that any kohen not technically disqualified should participate in the ritual, because we do not instruct a sinner to sin further by neglecting to carry out his religious duties (15:6). Rabbi Joseph Karo theorized that Rambam understood the above Yerushalmi passage to mean that the community erroneously accused the kohen in question of committing homicide. In that case, he may ascend the platform. But if the kohen himself knows that the allegations are true then he would need to recuse himself (Bet Yosef Orach Chaim 128).
Shulhan Arukh ruled strictly that a kohen who killed -- even inadvertently -- may not recite the priestly blessing even after having repented (Orach Chaim 128:35). Rema, reflecting popular practice and motivated by his concern not to close the door to potential penitents, ruled leniently for someone who has undergone a process of repentance.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was asked whether a kohen-motorist who ran over a pedestrian could continue to offer the priestly blessing. In his answer, the former Chief Rabbi distinguished between levels of culpability. If the driver had been reckless or was in the process of violating a traffic regulation (e.g., speeding or running a red light), then he would be permanently barred from offering the priestly blessing (in accordance with the more rigorous Sephardic standard codified by Karo). However, if the driver had been operating his vehicle appropriately and the accident was not his fault (e.g., a child suddenly darted into the street to retrieve a ball just as the kohen’s car approached), then he would be permitted to offer the priestly blessing if he was remorseful about causing the loss of life. Why the leniency? Rav Ovadia explained that it is a case of ספק ספיקא, or double halakhic doubt. There is, as noted above, a halakhic debate about whether repentance is effective to restore the killer kohen to his liturgical post. And even though Sephardim generally rule strictly on that issue, there is a further halakhic debate about whether an accidental homicide of this sort should be treated as שוגג (inadvertent, but with a degree of culpability) or אונס (happenstance, with no culpability). Given the multiple layers of halakhic doubt about the kohen’s disqualification, and in light of the fact that offering the priestly blessing is a Biblical commandment even in the post-Temple period, Rav Ovadia felt it correct to rule in favor of the kohen’s continued ability to offer the blessing (Shu”t Yechaveh Da’at 5:16).
Another question pertains to kohanim in the military who kill enemy combatants. Should they be disqualified from offering the priestly blessing for having fulfilled their patriotic duty? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein addressed the matter as it pertained to Jews conscripted into non-Jewish armies. He cited an earlier ruling by Rabbi Hezekiah da Silva (Pri Chadash) that a kohen who commits murder under threat of being killed may subsequently offer the priestly blessing. In that case, the kohen violated Jewish law. Murder is one of the three cardinal sins regarding which one is supposed to submit to martyrdom rather than violate. Rabbi Feinstein argued that if, in the case of a halakhic violation a kohen is nonetheless not disqualified, a fortiori he should not be disqualified when his actions comply with Jewish law. Upon being conscripted, serving in the army – inclusive of firing upon and killing enemy soldiers – is a religious obligation under the rubric of דינא דמלכותא “the law of the land is the law” (Shu”t Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:158).
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was asked about a kohen offering the priestly blessing after having killed terrorists or enemy soldiers during his IDF service. Rav Ovadia noted that any doubt among the earlier halakhic decisors about a kohen’s suitability after killing a combatant related to their addressing the question of Jews fighting for non-Jewish armies and engaging in combat against other armies that also fielded Jewish servicemen. A Jewish fighter defending Eretz Yisrael from Arab adversaries was altogether a different matter. The Jewish fighter is a hero for protecting his brethren and should not suffer any liturgical disqualification for having served his homeland and defended his fellow Jews. (Shu”t Yechaveh Da’at Yoreh Deah 2:14). Rav Ovadia also made clear that there is no disqualification for a civilian kohen who kills in self-defense.
Rav Ovadia nevertheless conceded that God’s refusal to allow David to build the Temple would seem to contradict the notion that one is not punished for having killed in the name of national defense. He resolved the contradiction by citing Radak: God refused permission for David to build the Temple because in the course of his wars he caused the deaths of innocent non-combatants. He was not punished for causing those deaths because his intentions (protecting Israel from foreign threats) were appropriate. Yet the honor of building a house of peace was withheld from him.
A physician-kohen whose patient died due to the doctor’s inappropriate (but not legally negligent) medical care might wonder whether, for that reason, he is disqualified from offering the priestly blessing. Shulhan Arukh rules that if a baby dies after a circumcision performed by a kohen, the mohel may still offer the priestly blessing (Orach Chaim 128:36). Why? Magen Avraham explains that the mohel avoids disqualification because he acted with intent to fulfill a mitzvah. (An alternative argument is that we cannot be certain that the baby was viable.) A physician, too, acts with intent to fulfill the mitzvah of healing his fellow human being. Assuming the physician did not act recklessly or (negligently) violate the standards of medical care, the adverse outcome is no reason to impose restrictions on the kohen’s liturgical participation. At the same time, that physician-kohen should reflect upon the fact that his judgment call cost a person his or her life.
Judaism and the Jewish people value human life. At a time when our detractors unfairly question the truth of that statement, and willfully ignore the numerous instances where the IDF has taken extra measures to minimize the deaths of civilians, it behooves us to revisit some of the textual bases for Judaism’s enduring and estimable moral standards.