I spent this past Shabbos in a small community. There is no standard prayer service on Shabbos day, as the local Reform Temple only meets Friday night. The local Chabad Shaliach and Orthodox locals meet Saturday morning, but they generally fail to make a Minyan unless several Orthodox travelers have a good reason to spend Shabbos there. Additionally, a monthly Conservative prayer service congregates in the same building as the Orthodox group, and I was lucky enough to be staying in that building this past weekend.
I woke up early and prayed as I did not anticipate the Orthodox Minyan collecting ten men. So, at 10am when the two Services started, I decided to walk between the two services and meet some of the congregants. After playing with a 4 year old for a bit, I strolled into the Conservative Service right before they started to read from the Torah, and I got to witness something that really stuck with me.
The gabbai/chazzan noted that there were at least four Kohanim or Bas Kohanim in the House, so they would have to resolve who to call up for the first aliyah. Then she noted that possibly their group self-identified as a truly egalitarian group, in a way that rejects the Kohen-Levi-Yisrael traditional trifurcation, in addition to patriarchal synagogue models. So, she decided to put it to a vote (even though this group has been meeting monthly for years, and probably encountered this issue every single previous prayer service). But, it seemed that this was the week the issue came to a head, and a decision must be made for the twelve person group.
In the end, most people just nodded indifferently, so the Chazan said that the group would call a Kohen. Suddenly, a middle-aged woman in the corner raised her voice to declare her exasperation, exclaiming: “I don’t think we should call a Kohen. We shouldn’t have this outdated caste system! It’s disgusting and has nothing to do with our religion today. I find it offensive and heinous.” The group, for the most part, was surprised by the outburst. Clearly, the middle aged woman was very passionate about rejecting this Kohanic privilege and traditional standing. Yet, her eruption enjoyed such abhorrence lining her every word, that the four Kohanim in the crowd were somewhat flabbergasted by her stance. “Offensive… Heinous… Maybe we shouldn’t have these classifications anymore, but what she’s saying is a bit much,” one man said.
After the discussion went back and forth a couple times, the Chazan realized that if she allows this debate to continue, she will not be able to finish by her self-imposed noon deadline for the conclusion of services. So, she noted that everyone’s opinion has equal weight and veracity, and that she would love to continue this pressing debate after prayers, but for now, they must start to read from the Torah.
And so, who does she call up for the Kohen Aliyah? The middle aged woman. Wow! I couldn’t believe it. On the one hand, we can mollify our exasperation by claiming the Gabbai was trying to maintain order and affability among the group, but when we look closer, that did not happen. Everyone present, excluding myself and the two children, were mildly annoyed, and the hater got her way.
As I took a step back, I wondered: why had the Chazan given the middle aged woman the Kohen Aliyah. I don’t think she was worried about a(nother) hissy fit. They group had already voted – with their lifeless head nods – and she ignored it. It seems in the past, they had called a Kohen without debate. What was different about today?
It seemed to me that the chazzan was worried about the progressive nature of the Services. Or, to put it another way, that the Services should be flawlessly egalitarian in all ways. If democracy won out, one of the Kohanim should’ve gotten the first Aliyah. But as the chazzan was most worried about appeasing the reformist minded, tradition spurning, progressive Jew, everyone lost out. Her religion was manifest for everyone to experience, but it was not representative of the group.
Ironically, Chazal were worried about this exact situation. Well, not that people would reject the Cohen-Levi-Yisrael trifurcation at prayer services, but, that the order of aliyot would lead to dissension, and that is why Chazal established a standardized sequence for aliyot. It is interesting to note, Rambam writes (Gittin 5:8) that “it is common that the Kohen gets the first aliyah even if there is a sage, but this has no source in the Torah at all or in the Talmud…” Rambam appears to favor giving aliyot to the greatest Torah sage present at Services. Yet, traditional Jewish society has rejected this model in favor of the Kohen-Levi-Yisrael model, for several reasons, but not least of to make sure that there’s no fighting at synagogue. Next time I’m there, and I assume the topic is uncomfortably debated again, I’ll have to keep the chuckle to myself as I acknowledge Chazal’s insight into prayers.