In synagogues where women have Aliyot, may a Bat Kohen and a Bat Levi be called up for the first two Aliyot?
1) Historically speaking the priesthood was intended for men only. (The same holds true for the Levitical functions. We shall speak below mainly about the Bat Kohen but much of what is said about the Bat Kohen holds true for the Bat Levi as well). In biblical Hebrew there is not even a feminine form for a female priest or Levite. All aspects of the Temple cult were performed by men. For example: “Take Aaron and his sons with him…” (Leviticus 8:2)). “Record the Levites by ancestral house and by clan; record every male among them from the age of one month up”. (Numbers 3:15). The only connection between women and the priesthood was certain benefits. A single Bat Kohen was able to eat from her father’s priestly gifts while a married Bat Kohen could eat from her husband’s priestly gifts.
2) In our day, after the destruction of the Temple, we retain certain “remnants of the priesthood” as a reminder of the Temple. Kohanim retain the honor of the first Aliyah, the priestly blessing, Pidyon Haben, and some of the priestly gifts. They also retain the restrictions of not marrying divorcees or converts and not entering a cemetery except to attend the funeral of a close relative.
3) The main Talmudic source dealing with our specific question is Gittin 59a-b. The duty to honor the Kohen with the first Aliyah is explained there in two different ways. A Beraita states: “‘And you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God’ (Leviticus 21:8). ‘And you must treat them as holy’ in every holy matter – to be first to read the Torah, to lead the Birkat Hamazon, or to take a good portion of food”. Both the verse and the items mentioned in the Beraita are clearly referring to men, and this is the way the Rambam understood the Beraita. Thus, according to the Beraita, Kohanim receive the first Aliyah because there is a biblical obligation to honor male priests. According to this interpretation, there is no reason to give a Bat Kohen the first Aliyah.
On the other hand, the Mishnah in Gittin states that the rabbis decreed that the Kohen and Levi receive the first two Aliyot “for the sake of peace”. Indeed the Gemara already noticed the contradiction between the Mishnah and the Beraita and tried to solve it in two different ways.
In any case, if the Mishnah is correct and this law was decreed to avoid arguments we must ask ourselves whether giving the first two Aliyot to a Bat Kohen and a Bat Levi will prevent arguments or increase them. Since Benot Kohen never participated in the Temple cult and were never honored by the first Aliyah, there is no reason to assume that their feelings will be hurt if they are not given the first Aliyah. On the other hand, many people might be offended if they are given the first Aliyah. Therefore it seems to us that the proposal under discussion will increase arguments rather than avoid them.
4) If a congregation today wants to observe the “remnants of the priesthood” in order to retain a historical memory of the Temple, it must do so within that historical context which means men only. There is no point in inventing female Priests and Levites who never existed in the past.
Lastly, we should add that in the days of the Temple a priest’s main functions were connected to the Temple and having the first Aliyah was simply an additional honor. Today, however, the first Aliyah is not just a fringe benefit but rather one of the main rituals that a Kohen does, and thus by allowing women to fulfill this function, the people will think that a woman can be a Kohen, an idea which has no basis in Jewish tradition.
In summation, in congregations where women receive Aliyot, a Bat Kohen and a Bat Levi have the same status as an Israelite.
Rabbi Robert Harris
Approved Unanimously 5748 and 5749