When the midwives of the Exodus story, in defiance of Pharaoh’s order to kill all the male children, instead help the women to give birth, the Torah declares: “And because the midwives feared God [rather than Pharaoh], God made for them houses (batim).” (Exodus 1:21) Rabbinic interpretation suggests that the word “houses” refers to dynasties. Because the midwives feared the divine and saved the children, these women gave birth to whole dynasties! According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 11b), the midwives were not, in fact, Egyptian women, but rather Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Aaron and Moses. And the dynasties that these women produced were either those of the priesthood — both priests and levites — or those of kingship, even messianic kingship. Two sages, Rav and Shmuel, debate which dynasties were born to Yocheved and Miriam. One sage (it is not clear who) proposes that Yocheved is given the reward of priestly dynasties as the mother of Aaron and Moses. The other sage proposes that the reward is kingship: Miriam is an ancestor of David and thus progenitor of the messianic line. The Talmud never resolves this debate, leaving us with a picture of both Yocheved and Miriam as the ancestors of our ancient hierarchies of status: of priest (Kohen), Levite (Levi), and Israel (Yisrael), and of king and commoner.
One of the most frequent ways in which we mark and remember the ongoing hierarchy of Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael is during the Shabbat and weekday Torah service through the giving of aliyot, where the first two blessings are reserved for, respectively, priest and levite. Communities committed to egalitarian worship, where all adult Jews count toward the required ten of a prayer quorum (minyan), have responded to this hierarchy in three ways: 1) They have kept the status quo and given the first two aliyot only to male descendants of priests and Levites; 2) They have retained the first two aliyot for Kohenim and Levi’im but included females within the category of those eligible for these aliyot; 3) They have made the first two aliyot available to all adult Jews, regardless of status. In other words, while some communities choose to retain this ancient hierarchy, others have chosen to extend egalitarianism beyond gender to hierarchies of status.
I am a feminist Jew with a deep belief in gender equality, and yet, in the case of this hierarchy of status, I remain committed to retaining its markers within the synagogue liturgy, both in aliyot to the Torah and in dukhenen, the priestly recital of blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 during the Amidah (the “standing” prayer). I do ask, though, that these privileges of blessing be extended to women. While I believe that hierarchies of gender are damaging, I do not believe that in the case of synagogue ritual, the hierarchy of priest, Levite, and Israel has the ability to harm. Aliyot are still open to all, and while inside the synagogue only priests dukhen, at all other times everyone else may recite these same words as blessing. I find these simple acts that recall ancient Temple ritual to be ritually powerful. Increasingly, too, I also find a disturbing sense of loss in erasing this hierarchy from the synagogue, loss not only of Temple memory but also of our long-standing stories about women — in this case, the midwives who defied Pharaoh.
As the tale from tractate Sotah teaches, priests and Levites stand in the line of Yocheved. Thus, when a priest or Levite takes one of the first two aliyot or a priest recites the priestly blessing, she or he does so as a descendant of Yocheved. These rituals act not only as memories of the Temple service, but also as memories of Yocheved’s defiance of Pharaoh’s order — the beginning of liberation from slavery — and her divine reward.
Paradoxically, though, on Yom Kippur, when we retell the atonement ritual of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) in the Avodah service, any adult Jew may act as prayer leader and recall the words of the ancient Kohen. In other words, while most of the time only those in the priestly line act as priests, on this one particular day, in a service where one would expect to demand a priest as leader, all Jews have the potential to act as if they are descended from Yocheved, mother of Aaron, the first Kohen Gadol.
In choosing to keep this one hierarchy as well as to recite the Avodah service, I also choose to tell the story of Yocheved and her courage.email print