Question: Is Kohanim status inherited from the father only?
My father's maternal grandfather was a Kohen (Cohain). Because the connection was through his mother, he was never considered a Kohen. With so many changes toward egalitarianism, I am wondering if this has changed. Could my father now be a Kohen? And if so, what about his sons, his daughter (me), and he grandchildren of both sexes?
Answer: Thanks for your letter. You state that your father's maternal grandfather was a Kohen and you wonder, based on all the "changes toward egalitarianism" in Reform and Conservative Judaism, if you could be considered a Kohen.
Kohanim (plural of Kohen) are the male-line descendants of the priests of ancient Israel. In the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, this caste was charged with performing the rituals of the Temple, including sacrificial offerings of animals, fruits, grains and wine. Levi'im (plural of Levi) are male-line descendents of the ancient Levites who assisted the priests in the Temple.
Since the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 c.e., Kohanim have taken on a more symbolic role in traditional Jewish practice. Orthodox and most Conservative congregations continue the tradition of giving Kohanim the first aliyah (blessing over the Torah reading) when Torah is read. Kohanim in these communities also perform the ritual of dukhenen, blessing the congregation on festivals, and receiving the five shekels of redemption for a firstborn Jewish boy (pidyon ha-ben).
In traditional observance, there also are restrictions on the caste of Kohanim. In orthodox and Conservative communities, Kohanim are expected to abstain from coming in contact with the dead, which includes a prohibition on visiting cemeteries except for the funerals of close relatives. Orthodoxy continues the prohibition of Kohanim from marrying converts or women who previously divorced.
In contrast, egalitarianism is an important principle of Reform Judaism and the Reform Movement has promoted egalitarianism in the realms of both gender and caste. Reform Judaism has eliminated almost all of the ritual distinctions between women and men and between the castes of Kohen, Levi and Yisrael (non-priestly Jews). Most Reform communities do not call up a Kohen for the first aliyah, or perform the rituals of dukhenen and pidyon ha-ben. Reform Jews do not use the appellations, "ha-kohen" or "ha-levi" as part of the Jewish names of Kohanim and Levi'im.
(The Reform movement also eliminated another caste, that of the mamzer. A mamzer is a Jew whose Jewish parents are ineligible to marry each other -- either because they are close blood relations or because the woman is married to another man. According to traditional Jewish law, a mamzer is not permitted to marry another Jew who is not also a mamzer.)
Most Conservative congregations continue to use the caste distinctions of Kohanim and Levi'im, but some are moving away from it. Congregations that recognize the castes of Kohanim and Levi'im only recognize male-line inheritance of caste identity.
Finally, to answer your question, all orthodox and Conservative communities that maintain the distinction of Kohanim and Levi'im continue to follow the tradition that caste status is conveyed only through the father. More liberal communities, those that insist on thorough gender equality, do not observe the distinction of Kohanim and Levi'im at all. There are, therefore, no Jewish communities that would convey the status of Kohen or Levi on the basis of matrilineal descent.
I hope this is helpful.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser