Tag Archives: Aliyah

Fighting over the Kohen Aliyah

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 We shouldn’t have this outdated caste system!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.



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Na’aseh ViNishma, the Diaspora, and the Failure to Make Aliyah

By Eytan Meyersdorf

“And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and we will hear (na’aseh vinishma).‘” Exodus, 24 7.

As Jewish intellectuals and modern-rabbis broaden their search for ta’amei hamitzvot (reasons behind the commandments), this passage grows more and more problematic. “Na’aseh vinishma,” the Jewish people’s blind acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai, poses serious questions for many independent-thinking Jews.

However, when examining the context and history more closely, one can see how this “blind acceptance” by the Jewish people was not so blind after all: God had just performed ten extraordinary miracles that devastated the world’s superpower, split the sea, and engulfed the remainder of the Egyptian army in its waters. After seeing all of these miracles, it is not hard to understand the Jewish people’s willingness to accept God’s Torah without knowing its contents. It is actually logical.

With all the imperfections attributed to the generation of
Matan Torah, they managed to grasp something that our generation fails to understand – the recognition of God’s will and intervention.

The very existence of the State of Israel is God’s modern-day splitting of the Red Sea. God sent us miracles and signs in the form of the IDF, the Six Day War, and Israel’s thriving world of Torah, yet we still insist on waiting, we still insist on “hearing.” God sent us the weatherman, the boat, and the plane to save us from the storm, but we are waiting for God Himself to save come and rescue us – meanwhile, God is crying out, “This is me saving you, get on the boat, get on the plane!”


We pray three times every day, “Sound the great shofar for our freedom and raise a banner to gather our exiles and unite us together from the four corners of the earth” – the shofar has been sounded and the banner has been raised – we just need to open our eyes.

People give many reasons for not making Aliyah, but whatever their reasoning, they’re waiting for more, they are waiting for nishma, and only then vina’aseh. But the time where God will cast ten plagues on our enemies is over – we are no longer living in a time where God performs open miracles. Rather, He communicates to us through nature, mundane occurrences, and messengers, and it is our obligation as Jews to identify them.

If there is only one thing that we can learn from the generation of Matan Torah, let it be their ability to recognize and credit divine intervention for what it is, divine. From the ashes of the Holocaust to the miraculous victories of 1948 and 1967, the boat and the plane have come to us in the forms of Nefesh B’ Nefesh and the Jewish Agency. It is our job, our obligation, as Jews to recognize all these miracles and exercise the appropriate action – na’aseh vinishma.

Eytan is studying Political Science at Bar Ilan University and runs the My Nation Lives (עמי חי) group on facebook.

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