Re: Cohanim and their rightful name. #general


Judith Romney Wegner
 

Tom Chatt asked:

This had never occurred to me before, but does being a Cohen or a Levite
only pass through male lines? That seems a bit odd, since doesn't being
Jewish at all technically come >from the mother and not the father? (Couldn't
you theoretically end up with a Cohen having non-Cohen grandsons through his
daughter who married a non-Cohen, and also having non-Jewish Cohen grandsons
through his son who married a non-Jew?)
Dear Tom,

The question you raise is both interesting and important, and
reflects the fact that most people never notice the obvious
discrepancy within the Mishnah itself between the so-called
matrilineal rule for inheriting Jewish ethnicity and the patrilineal
rule that defines a Kohen, Levi, or Yisra'el. However, there was
originally no discrepancy, because the mishnaic system, in common
with the biblical Israelite system and for that matter all
patriarchal systems of antiquity, did NOT intend to (nor did it)
introduce a "matrilineal rule" applying to marriages between Jewish
women and gentile men.

Most people never disvover , because the complicated subject is not
addressed properly in Jewish educational institutions) that the
"matrilineal rule" which defines a child's ethnicity or caste by
reference to that of the inferior-caste parent (as defined in
Mishnah Qiddushin 3:12) boils down to only two types of case:

(1) the Mishnah made a new ruling about children of unions between
Jewish men and women of assorted castes (which included not only the
three castes of Kohen, Levi and Yisra'el familiar to most Jgenners,
but also some other, even lower categories (which we never even hear
of unless we study this particular Mishnah and need not worry about
for present purposes!) In all cases, by virtue of M. Qiddushin 3:12,
the child's identity would henceforth be that of the lower-caste
parent (which in real life was almost always the mother, because it
was not customary for fathers to marry off their daughters to lower
caste men - and back then fathers called the shots -- whereas by
contrast men quite often chose to marry lower caste women, as was
permissible in Jewish law).

(2) (and this is the case that concerns us here) the Mishnah made a
new ruling about children of unions between Jewish men and gentile
women. In the Misnnah, non-Jewishness is consistently treated in
effect as being the lowest possible "caste" status. This of course
was typical of ancient cultures, because each ethnic group thought
it was the highest form of life, and every other group was deemed
inferior; this is known as "chosen people syndrome" and has never
been limited to Jews -- but that's a whole other story, not for
today!).

Anyhow, getting back to case (2) (unions between Jews and gentiles)
it is important to note that as a matter of obvious historical fact,
the mishnaic sages who framed M. Qid. 3:12 were contemplating ONLY
marriages between Jewish men and gentile women and NOT the other way
around. That's because it would never even have crossed their minds
that a Jewish father would so much as think of marrying his daughter
off to a (by definition lower-caste) gentile man! But in real life
in mishnaic and talmudic times most Jews were living in the
Diaspora, and the sages had no effective way to control the marriage
choices of Jewish men, who could (and often did) freely choose to
marry according to the laws of the land where they resided -- and it
seems they often selected gentile women. (So, what else is new?)

So the sages decided to make a rule to control (or at least
influence) the marriage choices of Jewish men, specifically a rule
that would make it more advantageous for them to select Jewish
brides. That's why M. Qiddushin 3:12 enacted that the child of a
Jewish man and a gentile woman would henceforth no longer be
routinely considered a Jew, as had previously been more or less
routine. (One has only has to read the Bible carefully to realize
that -- but it is amazing how few people read the Bible carefully
enough! )

But (as all scholars agree) the mishnaic sages who made these rules
were an academic community who were in essence talking to each other,
and everyone in their "club" knew there was no such thing as a
marriage between a Jewish girl and a gentile man (because it was
unimaginable that any Jewish father would ever permit such a
union!). So they didn't even bother to spell out the "obvious" fact
that they were considering only the two real-life possibilities:
(a) marriage between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman, in which case
there was no problem -- so they didn't need to discuss it; and (b)
marriage between a Jewish man and a gentile woman -- in which case
the mishnaic rule aimed to reverse the existing situation (in which
Jews, like all other patriarchal societies before and since, had
followed a patrilineal system). Before M. Qiddushin 3:12, the
child of a Jewish man and gentile woman was automatically deemed a
Jew by everybody -- Jews and gentiles alike.(That's how patriarchy
worked then and in general still works now.)

The new rule, in effect, warned Jewish men that if they insisted on
going ahead and marrying a gentile woman (by definition a person of
inferior caste), henceforth their children would follow the inferior
caste, i.e. the children would not "count" as Jews but as gentiles.

No one knows exactly when the new rule began to be enforced (possibly
not until late or post talmudic times) -- and in particular no one
knows when the rule was first actually (albeit erroneously)
applied to marriages between Jewish females and gentile males.
Obviously it did not happen until such marriages actually began to
occur frequently in real life. And when this new interpretation
began to be applied, this became known as the "matrilineal" rule.
But the "matrilineal rule" clearly contradicted the manifestly
patrilineal system of the mishnaic sages themselves -- which shows up
most clearly in the rules that caste status among Jews descends in
the male line.

So, if you're still with me, Tom, that's the answer to your very
important question. Sorry it took so long to expound! Shabbat
Shalom to one and all!

Judith Romney Wegner
jrw@brown.edu

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