The Kohen and the Convert

The Kohen and the Convert
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Emor – פרשת אמר
May 1, 2021 – יט אייר תשפא
The kohen and the convert
Scripture imposes restrictions upon whom a kohen may marry. “They shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry (zonah), nor shall they marry one divorced from her husband (Leviticus 1:7).” The sages included several types of women in the halakhic category of zonah: women who have had illicit intercourse, emancipated heathen bondwomen, and converts (Mishnah Yebamoth 6:5).
The Tannaim debated about how much Jewish ancestry a woman must have to be eligible to marry a kohen. Rabbi Judah insisted that both her parents be of Jewish ethnic stock. Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said that it is enough for one of them to be a native-born Jew. Rabbi Jose was even more lenient, permitting the daughter of two converts to marry a kohen (Mishnah Kiddushin 4:6-7). The Talmud cites the view of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai that a female convert herself may marry a kohen, if she underwent conversion before she was three years old. The Talmud avers that all four Tannaitic opinions are interpretations of the same prophetic verse: “They shall not marry widows or divorced women; they may marry only virgins of the stock of the House of Israel (Ezekiel 44:22).” The rabbis variously understood זרע בית ישראל to mean: a) entirely from the national seed of Israel, b) at least partially from the national seed of Israel, c) conceived by people with the then-status of Israel, d) a woman whose virginity developed while she had the status of an Israelite (Kiddushin 78a).
In the Amoraic period, there were some rabbis who ruled in accordance with Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai and permitted kohanim to marry proselytes who underwent the conversion process in very early childhood. But this ruling was forcefully rejected by other rabbis. The stricter position eventually became the universally-accepted law (Yebamoth 60b; see Shulhan Arukh Even Ha-Ezer 6:8). As for the required genealogy of a kohen’s prospective wife, the Talmud rules quite liberally in favor of Rabbi Jose’s viewpoint. Any girl born a Jewess, even if both her parents are converts, may marry a kohen. However, the Talmud discourages such a union; it simply tolerates it post factum. Much better is that, at the outset, the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob, who required that the girl possess at least partial Jewish ancestry, be heeded (Kiddushin 78b).
Rashi explained that a female convert is reckoned as a zonah because she [presumably] had intercourse with heathens and slaves while she was still a gentile. Tosafot understood the convert’s status as a zonah to reflect that she hails from an idolatrous society where all are steeped in licentiousness. It is unclear from Rashi and Tosafot whether the classification of a convert as a zonah is merely an assumption that could be undone were it known with certainty that the woman in question was still a virgin, or whether that classification applies irrespective of the actual life history of the individual in question. Rosh ruled that the rule obtains even if it is known that the convert is still a virgin.
It is unclear whether the convert’s status as a zonah should be considered to be Biblical, or instead Rabbinic, law. Rambam ruled that all female converts, irrespective of the age at which they convert, are forbidden to marry kohanim because they have the status of zonah (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 18:3). Ra’abad disagreed, insisting that the prohibition stems not from the verse in Leviticus but from the verse in Ezekiel. Rashba noted that if the prohibition had actually been grounded in the zonah rule, then its application in any given case would be only by rabbinic decree out of concern for the possibility that the woman had been promiscuous. But since, in Rashba’s analysis, the various Talmudic passages seem to be addressing a Biblical law, it must be that the ban on proselyte-kohen marriages was part of the Oral Law and that Ezekiel later provided that law with a Scriptural allusion.
Since the emancipation of European Jewry, the scenario of a kohen’s falling in love with a gentile woman who wishes to convert to Judaism has repeatedly presented itself. In such cases, the rabbis have had to decide whether to facilitate her conversion and, if so, whether they are subsequently willing to officiate at the couple’s wedding ceremony. The matter is less complicated when the woman had previously converted and the only issue to be determined is whether the rabbis will countenance the couple’s wedding.
In the early 1900s, Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann of Berlin was asked about the following case (Melamed Le-ho’il 3:8): A kohen married a non-Jewish woman in a civil ceremony. They had a son. The son was circumcised and then died. The baby’s mother was distraught that she and her dead son were not of the same faith. She decided to convert to Judaism and be married to her husband in a religious ceremony. It was feared that failure to heed her wishes would lead to her suffering a mental breakdown.
Rabbi Hoffmann began his responsum by asserting that it is a more severe violation of Torah law for a Jewish man to marry a non-Jewish woman than it is for a kohen to be married to a convert. While this observation might lead a decisor toward leniency, Hoffmann recognized a halakhic dictum that we do not encourage one person to sin in order for another person spiritually to benefit (Shabbat 4a). Among the rules governing the suitability of conversion candidates is the requirement to reject a candidate who refuses to accept even a minor detail of halakhah (Bekhorot 30b). In this case, the non-Jewish woman seems to reject the law forbidding a kohen to marry a convert. Arguably, the rabbis on the Bet-Din would be transgressing were they to facilitate her conversion. Nevertheless, Hoffmann ruled leniently and allowed that conversion. Sparing the kohen from a lifetime of exogamy, and saving his future children for Judaism, trumped the lesser concern of the zonah prohibition. Hoffmann further noted that outside opinion needed to be taken into consideration. There would be a terrible chillul Hashem if the [German] gentiles found out that the Jews had no mercy on the bereaved woman.
However, despite his leniency on the question of conversion, Rabbi Hoffmann refused to allow a Jewish wedding ceremony in this case. Instead, he cited Rabbi Jacob Emden’s responsum on concubinage (She’elot Ya’abetz 2:15) in supporting civil -- but not religious – marriage for the couple. Hoffmann concluded his responsum with a warning to the couple that they must keep the niddah laws, lest they be in a worse situation halakhically than when she was still a non-Jew. Moreover, any future sons they might have were to be considered challalim(non-kohanim by dint of blemished priestly ancestry).
In the 1920s, a similar question came before Rabbi Judah Leib Tzirelson, Chief Rabbi of Bessarabia and member of the Romanian Parliament (Ma’arkhei Lev 72). A non-Jewish girl, who happened to be an only child, converted to Judaism at the age of 15 with the support of her parents. After two years as an observant Jew, she became a party to an arranged marriage. After the couple developed a romantic attachment and the wedding plans were concluded, it was discovered that the putative groom was a kohen. (Alternatively, they knew he was a kohen all along, but were unaware until late in the courtship of the prohibition regarding a kohen’s marrying a convert.) The local rabbi forbade the wedding, but turned to Rabbi Tzirelson for guidance because he was under pressure from all sides. The local Jews complained that he was too strict. The local gentiles were offended that a chaste young woman from a prominent gentile family was unfairly being labeled a “harlot” by the Jews. The groom announced that if he could not marry his bride-to-be in a Jewish setting he would become an apostate, undergo baptism, and marry her in a church. The query from the local rabbi to Rabbi Tzirelson ended with a reminder that anti-Semitism in Romania was steadily intensifying and that an answer was urgently needed.
Rabbi Tzirelson ruled that the wedding could proceed as planned, but that 1) the groom could no longer offer the priestly blessing or receive the first Aliyah, and 2) his future children would be challalim. Rabbi Tzirelson stressed that this was an emergency, one-time ruling and that halakhists should not extrapolate from this leniency when deciding future cases. Rabbi Tzirelson noted that the rule “do not sin so that your fellow will benefit” is not absolute. He cited the story of Rabbi Eliezer, who emancipated his Canaanite slave in order to have ten men for a prayer quorum. Considering the Biblical ban on emancipating such slaves (Leviticus 25:46), the Talmud questions the legitimacy of that action. The Talmud concludes, however, that a communal mitzvah is subject to different evaluation (Berakhot 47b). Similarly, a Canaanite bondwoman with whom many men had been taking sexual liberties was emancipated and married in order to put a halt to that depravity (Gittin 38a).
In the particular case presented to Rabbi Tzirelsoni, the ban on proselyte-kohen marriages had to give way before more pressing considerations like the future Judaism of the bride and groom and the possibility of a pogrom. Rabbi Tzirelson tried further to justify his leniency by reviewing the halakhic positions of the various Rishonim and claiming that none of them actually held the zonah law as applied to converts to be Biblical (rather than Rabbinic).
In 1962, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked about the following situation: A kohen was civilly married to a non-Jewish woman with whom he had had several children. He wanted to convert his wife and children and threatened that if the rabbis did not satisfy his request he would undergo baptism. Rabbi Feinstein found no room for leniency. Moreover, he disagreed with Rabbi Hoffmann’s analysis and considered it worse for a kohen to marry an [non-observant] convert than for a kohen to remain married to a non-Jew. Why? Because a non-Jewish woman never has niddah status under Torah law, whereas a non-observant convert would have such status (Iggerot Moshe Even Ha-Ezer 2:4).
Rabbi Feinstein did not always rule strictly on kohanic matters. In a different case, a Jewish man was married civilly to a non-Jewish woman with whom he had a daughter. Under the influence of Chabad, the man before more observant and wanted to convert his wife and child. The trouble was that his father had told him that he was a kohen. Rabbi Feinstein was able to be lenient and allow the wife’s conversion and the couple’s marriage by rejecting the father’s testimony about the family’s priestly status. The family had emigrated to America from the Ukraine in 1923, five years after the Communist Revolution. Since the grandfather was already a non-observant Jew back in the 1920s, and, in light of the fact that many Jews in that region had abandoned religious observance as far back as the 1905 Russian Revolution, the hearsay about priestly status could be disregarded as unreliable (Iggerot Moshe Even Ha-Ezer 4:39).
In 1967, Rabbi Isaac Klein wrote a responsum for the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. (The Rabbinical Assembly is the international association of Conservative rabbis.) Breaking with tradition, he permitted marriages between a kohen and a convert. He advanced several arguments: a) All kohanim in modern times are considered of mere doubtful priestly status in light of our inability to prove genealogy back to Temple times (Shu”t Rivash 94; Magen Avraham Orach Chaim 457). b) The Torah never expressly states that a kohen cannot marry a convert. The rule is no more than a rabbinic interpretation of the word zonah. c) We treat converts as full-fledged Jews in every other instance, thus making it difficult to justify this one exception. d) It is a chillul Hashem for contemporary Jews to claim that all gentiles are steeped in licentiousness.
In 1996, Rabbi Arnold Goodman wrote a responsum for the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that was approved by a vote of 15-0 with three abstentions. That responsum affirmed Klein’s earlier ruling permitted kohen-convert weddings. Goodman argued that to forbid such unions would make a mockery of American Jewry’s efforts to bring people, especially intermarried families, into the faith. He further argued that, in late 20th century America, it would be false to claim that non-Jews have looser sexual ethics than do Jews. Goodman claimed that the prohibition is offensive to all converts. Those who choose Judaism should not be subject to unwarranted moral reproach about their sexual past. Scripture implores, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20).” One is forbidden to remind a convert of his heathen past (Mishnah Baba Metzia 4:10). Instead, we are to harbor a special love in our hearts for proselytes and treat them as kindly as possible (Deuteronomy 10:19). Goodman also cited Rambam’s letter to Obadiah the Righteous Proselyte, which states that converts are not outsiders and that they are truly the spiritual descendants of Abraham (Shu”t Ha-Rambam 293).
Rabbi David Novak of the Union for Traditional Judaism parts company with the Conservative rabbinate on the question of kohen-convert marriages. (The Union for Traditional Judaism favors an “open-minded approach to Torah study and observance of Jewish law” that weighs “dominant societal values against the yardstick of traditional Judaism, eschewing denominational labels.”) Rabbi Novak does not favor the approach taken by Rabbi Hoffmann, because it results in the birth of challalim. He also rejects the idea of having a kohen’s priestly status cavalierly discarded.
For a contemporary Orthodox rabbi faced with this and similar issues, there are no good answers. During their teenage years, kohanim need to be taught those halakhot that pertain to them and how the existence of those halakhot needs to inform their social behavior. Much heartache can be avoided if the problem never reaches an acute stage. But if it does, the rabbinic gatekeepers of Judaism need to act in a kindly and caring way even when they may have to deliver disappointing answers.