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Important Announcement About Changes to Beth El's Ritual Policies

Dear Friends,

During the past four years, I have explored different questions with the Ritual Committee regarding egalitarianism in our community. In particular, we examined whether a Bat Kohen (a woman whose father is a kohen, priests) may recite the first aliyah (which is always reserved for a kohen) and duchen (bless the congregation with the priestly blessing) on the holidays? We also examined the question of whether it is permissible to add the Imahot (Matriarchs) to the Amidah and if so, should our prayer leaders do so during Beth El services? This letter explains in detail the analysis that went into answering these questions as well as the process. To begin, I will share the answers to each of these questions, and please note that there are opportunities for the community to study each one of these issues (see the schedule at the end of this letter).

Starting on Passover, we will incorporate the following changes into our communal practice:

- Women whose fathers are Kohanim or Leviim will be entitled to the first and second aliyot.

- Kohanim will duchen (bless the congregation with the Priestly Blessing) on our festival holidays (Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret).

Women whose fathers are Kohanim are included among the Kohanim who duchen.

- The service leader will have the option of including the Imahot in the repetition of the Amidah in all of our services.

As one must do with all halachic deliberations (questions about Jewish Law), we examined the legal, religious, ideological, and sociological elements of the question in order to arrive at the right answer for our community in this moment. Please continue reading to learn a bit about each one of these questions.

Egalitarianism and Beth El Synagogue Center

The rabbinic process is one in which each generation of rabbis strives to codify their understanding of God’s will as expressed at Sinai into halacha (Jewish law). From the beginning of rabbinic Judaism, the halachic process reflected this ongoing process of interpretation, bringing each successive generation closer and closer to actualizing what they understood to be God’s Will. Egalitarianism is a religious expression of this evolution, not merely a political or ideological concept. The development of Halacha (Jewish Law) forbade or frowned upon women performing certain mitzvot (time-bound, positive commandments) and surely excluded women from having central roles to the communal fulfillment of religious obligations. Conservative Judaism has remedied this through finding ways to reinterpret these gender limitations within the halachic system. The halachic responsa that brought women from the margins of Jewish communal religious life and into the center are among the greatest contributions of the Conservative Movement to the development of Judaism.

Beth El has applied many of these egalitarian responsa to our shared communal experience, and this should be celebrated. And, we still have a great deal of work to do. I want to create a communal space in which women feel wholly integrated into our communal religious ritual practices. But simply adjusting policy will not commence further culture change. I would like to see the religious and spiritual needs of women better integrated into our communal life. We need more women in leadership roles, from the clergy team to lay davenners. As we better align some of the halachic practices of our community with egalitarianism, we must also design processes in which we support women to feel more comfortable taking aliyot, leading services in our daily minyan, and taking on mitzvot that have felt foreign to them. To do this successfully, we need women’s voices to help craft these processes, and I am committed to methodically working on this cultural change.

Below is an explanation of the policy changes that I referenced above, all of which have been endorsed and supported by our Ritual Committee.

Daughters of Kohanim

Traditionally, only Kohanim and Leviim are called up for the first and second aliyot during the Torah reading. The status of Kohen or Levi is determined by the tribal lineage of one’s father. Since women were not traditionally permitted to have aliyot, the question of whether a Bat Kohen (daughter of a Kohen) may have the first aliyah was not explored among poskim (decisors of Jewish Law) of the Orthodox world. One of the responsum of the Conservative Movement posits that just as a woman whose father was a Kohen had enough lineal sanctity to enjoy specific ritual privileges unavailable to non-Kohanim (during Temple times), she is permitted today to be given the honor of the Kohen aliyah. Starting on Passover, April 9th, the following will be our communal policy regarding B’not Kohen:

- A man or a woman whose father is a Kohen or Levi will be given the first or second aliyah. Just as a male Kohen or Levi may only receive the first or second aliyah, a Bat Kohen or Bat Levi may only have the first or second aliyah (or hosafot, the additional aliyot added to the required seven on Shabbat).

- If a woman whose father is a Kohen chooses to get married, her lineage as a Bat Kohen is not impacted by her spouse’s lineage.

If you are interested in a detailed study of this halachic issue and the legal sources and precedents that led me to make this change, please join me in study on March 22nd or 28th (see below for those dates).

If you are a woman whose father is a Kohen or Levi, please send an email to my assistant Zoe Raynes zraynes@bethelnr.org so that we can include you as we honor the Kohanim and Leviim of our synagogue with the first and second aliyot. Remember, moving forward, just like men, if a woman’s father is a Kohen or Levi she may only have the first or second aliyah.

Adding the Matriarchs in the Amidah

The ritual committee and I spent the good part of a year studying the question of whether it is permissible to add the matriarchs to the amidah. It is surely permissible to add to our liturgy, even our set liturgy, so long as the additions fit specific requirements. The addition must be in keeping with the existing theme of the blessing, ideally expanding that theme and not disrupting it, and the addition must maintain the structure of the liturgy. In my opinion, it is clear that adding the imahot to the amidah fits within these parameters and is thus a halachically permissible liturgical addition. Of course, our siddur has two versions of the amidah, one with the matriarchs and one without. This allows for people to choose whichever version they prefer during the silent Amidah and does not change with a new religious policy.

As far as the repetition of the amidah, our core value of halachic pluralism guides us to set a policy that allows for multiple ways of reciting this prayer. The leader of the service will determine whether to add the matriarchs, and if so, how. The following are halachically acceptable ways to lead the repetition of the amidah (whether in our daily minyan or Shabbat and holidays services):

  1. One may lead the repetition without adding the matriarchs.
     
  2. One may lead the repetition and include the matriarchs in the first part of the amidah with the words: אלהי שרה אלהי רבקה אלהי רחל ואלהי לאה, אלהי אברהם אלהי יצחק ואלהי יעקב (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel, the God of Leah) and finish the hatimah (blessing) with the words: ברוך אתה ה' מגן אברהם (Praised are You, Hashem, Shield of Avraham. This method does not include the matriarchs in the hatimah of the blessing but does in the earlier section of the amidah.
     
  3. One may lead the repetition and include the matriarchs in the first part of the amidah with the words: אלהי שרה אלהי רבקה אלהי רחל ואלהי לאה, אלהי אברהם אלהי יצחק ואלהי יעקב (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel, the God of Leah) and finish the hatimah (blessing) with the matriarchs as well, saying ברוך אתה ה' מגן אברהם ופקד שרה (Praised are You, Hashem, Shield of Avraham Guardian of Sarah. This method does include the matriarchs in the hatimah of the blessing.
     

The Beth El clergy team will use the matriarchs when leading services by using the liturgy of #2 or #3 above. If you are interested in studying the halachic issues with regard to this change please join me on March 10th or April 5th for a shiur (see schedule below).

Birkat Kohanim / Duchenning (The Priestly Blessing) and Bnot Kohen

In America, it is traditional for the kohanim to bless the congregation with birkat kohanim during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah on our festival holidays. This practice is called duchenning (which comes from the Yiddish associated with the Hebrew word duchan, or platform, suggestive of the platform on which the Kohanim ascended to bless the Israelites in the Temple). The Torah itself mandates this blessing as well as its exact wording, which makes this blessing our oldest prayer. The kohanim of the community bless the larger congregation with material and spiritual blessing, as well as the wish for shalom, wholeness or peace.

Leviim have a role to play here as well, as they facilitate the washing of the hands of the Kohanim prior to the blessing (you may be familiar with the Pool of the Levites in our lobby which was used to wash the hands of the Kohanim and which has a gorgeous mosaic copy of the floor of the 6th Century synagogue Bet Alfa in the Jezreel Valley).

I remember first experiencing this special moment in Israel where it is performed every day. Children huddled under the tallitot of their parents who placed their hands on their children’s heads as the kohanim blessed them. Because I believe that this ritual will add a stirring and spiritually rich moment to our holiday services, I have decided to bring this ancient ritual back into the communal religious life of Beth El.

This, of course, raises the question of whether women who are daughters of Kohanim and Leviim may participate in offering the congregation this blessing. It is sensible to have a coherent and consistent approach to the status of B’not Kohanim and Leviim in our synagogue. Just as women whose fathers are Kohanim and Leviim have the lineal sanctity required to be honored with the first and second aliyot, their lineal sanctity fulfills the requirement necessary to offer the congregation this blessing as well. Women whose fathers are Kohanim or Leviim will be called on to participate in this ritual.

We will have two sessions that teach Kohanim and Leviim how to perform this ritual, as it is new to many people in our community (March 28th and April 4th- see the below schedule). I hope that all of our KFohanim and Leviim will partake in this opportunity to offer us blessing, which we will do for the first time on the first day of Passover, April 9, 2020.

Halachic Process at Beth El

As the mara d’atra (legal decisor) of the synagogue, I take full responsibility for the rulings on all halachic questions that arise in our community. And still, I do not think of p’sak halacha (determining a legal ruling) as a solitary endeavor when it comes to communal norms. To determine the proper ruling for a community, a rabbi must understand the values of the people in his / her community and how they think about Jewish life. These answers must be mapped onto the larger historical understanding of the questions at hand as well as contemporary interpretations. I have spent my first four and a half years at Beth El doing just this: listening, asking people questions, and working hard to understand the core values of our community. 

I have also been blessed to work with a strong and active ritual committee comprised of people with diverse backgrounds, all of whom have wrestled with determining the most appropriate policy for our synagogue. As I thought through the halachic intricacies of these communal questions, I taught and discussed these issues with the committee. Their feedback, reactions, and insights helped me determine the most coherent way to answer these questions for our community. I am grateful for their probing questions, feedback, and guidance with regard to what they think is best for our synagogue. I encouraged the members of the ritual committee to think about what is best for our larger community rather than simply represent their own personal desires. I am grateful to Mark Silver and Brian Bosworth who have each chaired this committee since I have been your rabbi and supported my efforts to determine the wisest course of action for our shul. It also goes without saying that all halachic issues are thought through and discussed with my clergy partners, Rabbi Zach Sitkin and Cantor Uri Aqua, both of whom have insight and wisdom that have been clarifying, and both of whom endorse these changes along with me. Finally, our rabbinic fellows Jessica Fisher and Becca Weintraub have been crucial teachers for me on these and many other issues. 

Schedule for Study and Changes

It is important to me to have the opportunity to teach about these changes, listen to your feelings about them, and answer any clarifying questions that you may have. To this end, I am offering many opportunities to learn about and discuss these changes. The schedule is as follows:

March 10th- 8pm (Open Beit Midrash): Halachic Issues Behind Using the Imahot (Matriarchs) in the Amidah

March 22nd- 10am Status of B’not Kohen (Daughters of Kohanim)

March 28th- Sermon Slot- Status of B’not Kohen (Daughters of Kohanim)
                    12:45- Kohanim and Leviim Learn / Practice Duchenning (the Priestly Blessing)

April 4th- 12:30pm Kohanim and Leviim Learn / Practice Duchenning (Priestly Blessing)

April 5th- 9-10:30am Halachic Issues Behind Using the Imahot (Matriarchs) in the Amidah

All of the above changes to our communal ritual practices will begin on the first day of Passover, April 9, 2020. Please remember to contact Zoe Raynes to let her know if you are a woman whose father is a Kohen or Levi so we can add you to our database.

As always, I am happy to answer any questions that you have. Feel free to give me a call or to schedule an appointment with me through contacting my assistant Zoe Raynes zraynes@bethelnr.org 914-235-2700 x. 228.

I look forward to the ways in which these changes will further deepen our connection to one another and to God, as we work to align our practices with our understanding of what God wants for us. I will conclude with the words of blessing used by the Kohanim from the time of Aaron until this very day, and which will envelop us with blessing on each of our festival holidays at Beth El:

May God bless you and protect you.

May God deal kindly and graciously with you.

May God bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace.

L’Shalom,

      Rabbi David A. Schuck

 

 

Sun, May 24 2020 1 Sivan 5780