Can Kohanim Attend Funerals? - Episode 62
Rav Avi: Hi, I'm Rabbi Avi Killip, here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. And we're coming to you live from the Manger Winter Learning Seminar! Rav Eitan, tell us a little bit about the Winter Learning Seminar — what are you studying this year?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, this is a great two weeks, actually. It's, like, the darkest time of the year, but it's really intense learning — we have our year-round fellows who are here, who are at the yeshiva all year, and joined by folks from university campuses and various communities all around the country, and devoting their, many of them, their precious semester break time to studying Torah!
Rav Avi: True commitment — it's really the definition of carving out time for Torah.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, it's either for the pious or the insane, but it's great either way.
Rav Avi: We're so excited to have you all here. We're gonna start with a question, today, that touches, I think, on the fact that so many halakhic questions are actually also pastoral questions. I feel like this question really fits that. It also fits into another category that I would give it, of people who are taking on new practices and really trying to be thoughtful about in what order you take on those practices and what it means to choose to take on one particular practice, or not.
Rav Eitan: Alright, I'm intrigued — that sounds really interesting.
Rav Avi: It's a little bit long, so you'll bear with me. Okay. The person writes: "I am a kohen, a Jew of priestly descent. I come from a not particularly observant family, and my father did not really observe any of the specific restrictions that the Torah applies to Jewish priests, such as avoiding contact with the dead. My mother's father passed away, and the entire family is going to the funeral. They are expecting me to be there as well. I am worried that if I do not attend, it will cause major family friction, and even turn my family against my Jewish observance in the future. But, it also feels wrong for me to compromise on a clear Torah prohibition for the sake of everyone getting along. What should I do?" So I'll start by saying, we may be a little bit too late in answering this question — I don't know if you sent back an answer more immediately, but I'm hoping that by answering this question on the podcast, we'll be able to give some thoughtful answer that will be useful to others who have this question when it comes up, especially, as funerals do, which is usually a very timely decision.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. Look, as you point out, it's a rich question with a lot of layers. So as we usually try to do, maybe we'll kind of break it down into different components, and hear about specific issues of priests and people of priestly descent defiling themselves, there's stuff around family dynamics, and we have to kind of address those one by one.
Rav Avi: But the other piece that I'm curious to hear is, he or she doesn't actually say that this is going to cause a family problem or has caused a problem, but that they're concerned that it could cause a family problem. And I'm curious, also, to hear if that will play out differently.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, so, alright, let's start talking about it. Let's begin with the core idea here, so the notion that a kohen, someone of priestly descent, does not defile themselves to the dead. So, you know, that's rooted in the Torah, very clearly spelled out in the book of Vayyikra, and it says, basically, people are not allowed, if they're kohanim, to defile themselves in the context of a funeral, except for their very close, nuclear relatives. So it doesn't come up in the sense of if a kohen is burying their parent or their sibling or their kid, G-d forbid — that's something that's kind of built into the system as an exception, but the questioner here is talking about a grandfather. And a grandfather is actually one step removed, and according to traditional Jewish law in this area, that doesn't qualify for an override of this prohibition.
Rav Avi: Although it strikes me that the fact that there are exceptions for these close family members makes it feel almost like the law is anticipating this problem, that there are some funerals you just have to be at.
Rav Eitan: Yeah.
Rav Avi: And you just have to be there, because they're family, you know, as different than your best, best friend in the world, you know, or your teacher — I don't know if there are exceptions for your teacher but it's almost written into the code that this is obviously gonna be a problem sometimes.
Rav Eitan: Right. It seems like it's almost a mitzvah that's, like, a little bit conflicted about itself, right, from the get-go. You know, one of the things I think you always have to kind of start with is, okay, what's it about? I mean, it's notoriously hard to get at what is the reason for a Biblical prohibition, but I do want to show one story on this, which is very powerful for me. I remember when my mother-in-law passed away several years ago, and we were back at the house right after the funeral, I was there with a few other people who were setting up, and there was one guy from the shul who was there. And someone else kind of asked him, you know, oh, are you with the caterer? Because they were sort of surprised that he wasn't still coming back from the cemetery, whatever it was. And he said no, I'm a kohen, so I always come and set up the food for when the mourner comes home.
Rav Avi: Wow.
Rav Eitan: And I had this eureka moment, where it was like, oh my G-d! That's what it's about, right? This is actually about taking a class of people, classically in the time of the Temple, redirecting them away from the moment and seat of death, to engaging in the life-giving power of atonement, of getting people back on their feet with sin-offerings and all sorts of other things. And here was the actual enactment of that, of, yeah, there actually need to be — I think this is really the Torah's vision — a subset of people in the community who don't go to the cemetery — their job is to be the let's-get-back-to-living-again force on the other end of that.
Rav Avi: It's different — you're not allowed to, versus you're exempt from, versus you're actually obligated to be doing something else right now.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. And it gives it sort of meaning and purpose. So I say that not because our story will end there, but I think whenever you're trying to kind of make sense of a mitzvah, particularly in a context where everyone else might be like, what are you caring about this, what's going on, it's very important and powerful to have something positive to say. As you say, this isn't something just about don't do x; "don't do x" here is meant to redirect you to doing y, right? And something that's really powerful. So that's in the background — I mean, the other thing I'll say before we get into the guts of this case is, you're totally right that the exceptions in the Torah already point, potentially, to places where certainly, like, the halakhic tradition will feel like, yeah, you're not supposed to toe this line.
So two examples of that that are striking: one is, you talked about your teacher, so what comes up is the case of the nasi, like, that there are people that are very prominent communal leaders, and the Talmud Yerushalmi talks about, oh, you know, like, when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the editor of the Mishnah, died, it's like all the kohanim defiled themselves. And that you have this notion of certain people in prominent positions, that they're kind of like a universal family member, or we'll say this also about certain kinds of sages who are, you know, merit the title of chacham or gadol hador, and they're sort of stand-outs in their generation, everyone is the relative of a great teacher or a sage.
Rav Avi: In some ways that's beautiful, and in some ways that feels to me really problematic, because that makes it actually into a case of, and if I didn't go to your funeral, it's because you didn't merit me to defile myself, which is maybe exactly what this person is afraid that their family is thinking, is, you know, he might be saying, oh, it's not that you weren't like a mother to me, it's that you're not my mother, and so the rule doesn't apply to you. But once you can bend the rules in that direction, actually, that feels to me — that's harder to swallow.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I think you're right — there's something dangerous about getting into that subjective category territory. And another one that's like that, which is another exception, is what we talk about as being the met mitzvah case, a case literally, I would say, in its most extreme form of, there's a body by the side of the road and no one is taking care of it and you pass by and you're a kohen — you're not allowed to say, well, I'm a kohen, that's not my business. It's sort of there, it needs someone to take care of it, and that is more important than your local position. And that also, you know, has sometimes been suggested, could that be creatively expanded to include anyone who is maybe not gonna receive a proper halakhic burial if you're not there. There are some rabbis who are kohanim who justify performing funerals, certainly in less observant and less knowledgeable communities, on the theory of if I'm not there, they're not gonna do what they need to do. These are some of the things that are sort of internal — I don't think they hit on the questioner's point, because it sounds like the questioner is dealing with a case where there is a funeral, it's gonna happen, there's just a lack of understanding that you would limit the attendance to the close, nuclear relatives.
Rav Avi: Yeah, there's something about that second example that actually fits well with your image of kohanim can't be at a funeral because they're busy doing something else. Assuming that there is someone else to do the burial — to say, yeah, division of labor. Everybody else is on this so you can be somewhere else. But if nobody's on burying the dead, then obviously that division of labor, you know, that's gonna take priority, and you have to actually step up and do that. Which, I suppose in this case, would lead me to a question of what's my role? And maybe this is a broad question that's useful for everyone attending any funeral — something I think people ask themselves is, when you hear about a death and you think, my role in this death is to be the mourner, or to support the mourners, or to make a shiva call, or to show up at the funeral and, depending on your relationship to the person and maybe to the community, you decide whether you show up or you show up at the shiva house to set up the food.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. So I think we're sort of still at the ground floor of the question of, assuming there's no obvious carve-out of why this case is different from what the Torah is imagining, more generally, is there any other language that gets us to a place of either thinking about the prohibition here as being less serious than we might have thought, and/or is there a way of thinking about the specific circumstance, particularly involving parents, in this case, who are expecting you to attend, that might be a kind of mitigating factor allowing you to, you know, override something you otherwise would be strict about.
Rav Avi: You sometimes give the language of, if you're strict about one thing, then are you being lenient about something else, where you could say they're very strict about the way they honor their mother and father, and it's not a matter of their being lenient on their practice of kohen tradition — it's a matter of being strict about this other mitzvah.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. So let's get back to that, because I think that's where we'll ultimately kind of go. But I want to raise one other big question, which people, I think, intuitively raise, and it does have some degree of discussion in the halakhic literature. Which is, okay, great, the Torah says kohanim aren't supposed to come in contact with the dead. Okay. But sort of, why, in the sense of, not kind of what's the purpose, but what's the scope of that mitzvah? And the thing that people will often ask is, I don't know, aren't we kind of all ta'amei meit these days, don't we all come in contact with the dead and we have no way of purifying ourselves, like, should this matter anymore? And in a way, that drills down on a discussion, which you can see in great depth across halakhic literature, trying to nail down the parameters of this. And you have, really, like, kind of three, almost four major views on this — there's one view that's manifested in the Sifrah, which is, every act of coming in contact with the dead, any additional contact that you have, is an act of being in that space of death, and the Torah forbids it.
But you then have a view of Rabbi Tarfon, who says no,whenever you're like, actively in contact with a dead body, any additional amount of defilement doesn't matter. So, for instance, if you were in a room with a corpse, there's no prohibition for people to bring in another body to that room at the same time. And Rabbi Akiva goes even further and he's like, actually the main thing we're concerned about is not adding on any additional days of impurity, such that if on a given day you already defiled yourself, there's nothing really happening from the Torah's perspective if you kind of leave the graveyard and come back in for the rest of the day, because you're still gonna have seven days of impurity no matter what, you're not yet adding on an eighth, you know, until you get to the next day. Now, that last position of Rabbi Akiva opens up the possibility of, oh, well, if I'm not gonna be purified until we rediscover the ashes of the Red Heifer that the Torah talks about being used to purify someone who comes in contact with a corpse, and the seven-day count of purity is gonna start whenever we find and concoct that potion in the future, aren't we in a kind of tumat meit, corpse-impurity-free zone, as it were, until that, you know, messianic or some such feature?
Rav Avi: Right. It sort of becomes irrelevant, or maybe less serious?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, or maybe it's only d'rabbanan, where there's a way of getting around that. So there are a whole bunch of medieval authorities that say some version of that: the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, the Raavad — a whole bunch of other Provencal authorities from the Middle Ages that say yeah, today kohen-corpse-impurity regulations are only rabbinically forbidden, and maybe they're not forbidden at all. Now, I want to note very quickly: this has not been the normative practice of Jews caring about, you know, the details of halakhah broadly, and kohanim caring about the mitzvot that apply to them — and I think that's in part because of the story I began with, or some version of it, remains compelling to them, there's something actually about the space and experience of death, beyond my technical purity, that feels powerful. But once a view like that exists out there, it kind of goes into our consideration more broadly when we're dealing with difficult cases, pressing cases, is there something there to build on if other factors are at play?
Rav Avi: Yeah, there's another way that I feel like I've heard people get out of questions that are tricky, about being a kohen, which is, question whether we really know you're really a kohen. And I'm curious either if that comes up for you in this question, and/or if it makes a difference that this person's father, who presumably is also a kohen, isn't observing these, if there's some way that we are continuing these practices because it's so powerful to be in this lineage, if it feels any more or less incumbent upon a person to maintain this as a practice, versus to take it on anew when their heritage, at least for some period of time, have not been practicing it.
Rav Eitan: Right. There wasn't an unbroken chain of caring about this. Yeah, so that's really actually a longer discussion — maybe we should do — we could even do another episode on what is the status of kohanim in our time — but maybe just to mention it briefly, yeah, you know, Rav Moshe Feinstein has a responsum about this, where basically, you know, someone comes to him with a kohen-related question, and he, you know, essentially is like, did your grandparents observe shabbat, did your parents observe shabbat, and if the answer is no he's willing to be like, well, then you don't know anything in terms of if the sort of unbroken religious line is true. What I think he's trying to capture is some version of, without the unbroken line, it's not clear the power of the kehunah has its sort of deep power. But the reason I don't think it's helpful with questions like this is, this is quite clearly a person coming, asking as a kohen, how do I handle this? Which is very different from, let's say, a rabbi discovering that someone's a kohen and wanting to make a problem that therefore results go away. This person actually feels like no, the entire narrative that they're bringing to the table is one where I am a kohen, that matters to me, I want to connect to that, but I have this local problem. And that's the other thing: any solution that depends on questioning your kehunah, if it's gonna have any integrity —
Rav Avi: You have to give it all up. No more aliyot for you.
Rav Eitan: Exactly, exactly. You're going in and stripping down from Superman to Clark Kent and there's no going back. Of course there there's going back, but that's enough.
Rav Avi: It's not quite the metaphor. I think there's something in that, what you're saying, that's really compelling about this question, that a lot of the questions we receive, they have a I'd-like-to-do-this, can I? And this one really feels like a genuine, I'm not actually sure what the right answer is. You know? They didn't say, I obviously need to do this, can you tell me some language to use to explain it to my family? Or, I would like to be at my grandmother's funeral, can you tell me if that's okay? It feels like something really genuine here.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. So let's actually try to zero in on that genuine space, which I think really also relates here to the notion that the person is essentially articulating, I feel like there's some parental order for me to be there. That is to say, respecting my parents in this context, even my parents, sort of, what they expect in terms of my role in comforting them in this moment is to be there. And does that matter? So we're here recording live at the Winter Learning Seminar — last year we actually did a whole bunch of interesting sources when the theme was family. And we looked at a set of really interesting Talmudic passages about what do you do when your parent, as sort of a condition of respecting them, basically asks you to violate a mitzvah?
Rav Avi: This person is not the first person to ever have this situation come up.
Rav Eitan: That's right. And the amazing thing is, one of the cases that is brought is a father who says to his son, I want you to go get this thing that I lost in the graveyard. Okay? Now, it's sort of amazing because, like, what was the father doing in the graveyard? Maybe he was burying his own father, but presumably he's a kohen — you might even have a glimpse here of a kohen who doesn't care about those laws. And he's telling his son, who has reconnected to them in some way, that's very nice that you're becoming all pious and everything, but come on! Like, I'm your father, and I expect you to do this. Now, the Mishnah and then the Talmud there is actually very clear, it says no, sorry, actually the command to obey your parents is a positive commandment, like, the Torah says, you should do this, but the command to a kohen not to defile himself with regard to the dead is actually a dual affirmative and negative commandment. There's sort of an affirmative command of, be holy and be sort of, you know, pure, and there's a negative commandment, don't come in contact with the dead. And it's almost like a simple math problem, right? You got a positive commandment next to a positive and a negative commandment, and it cannot overpower it. So the interesting thing —
Rav Avi: Does it tell you what to tell your dad?
Rav Eitan: No, it does not — this is sort of where the Talmud's counseling skills are perhaps a little more limited. But it opens up the following question. The question is, there's two ways to read that Talmudic passage. One way is to say, that's just the rhetorical way that the Talmud is talking about, your parents don't get to force you to violate your religious integrity as a condition of, sort of, their love or acceptance of you. And this is just the way we articulate, no, you're supposed to respect your parents, but we kind of draw the line when it goes into the territory of almost prove your loyalty to me by breaking this mitzvah. And if that's the way you read it, then we're kind of at the end of the story here — maybe you can rely on this, you know, far-out view, if you feel you're really up against the wall, that this mitzvah doesn't apply anymore, but you don't have much wiggle room. There's another way of reading the sugya there: Rav Chaim Shmuel Florentin, who's from 18th century Salonika — he says, no no no, the math here is real. Actually the sugya is saying, the reason that the command to respect the parent doesn't override the defilement prohibition and commandment is because it's one against two, as it were. But if —
Rav Avi: If you can stack the two back in the other direction —
Rav Eitan: If a parent just told you to violate a simple lo ta'aseh, a simple negative commandment that has no positive aspect, he says actually you would do that!
Rav Avi: But what's the one-to-one? Does it tell you, would you even out the scale?
Rav Eitan: So there you have the general principle, actually, of positive commandments are more important than negative commandments. And therefore when it's a tie, the tiebreaker goes to the thing. Now, a lot of people get very upset about this — Rav David Pardo, the Mikhtav of David, how could you say such a thing, parent's cant have license to go around ordering people to break mitzvot — but there's a more conservative application of Rav Florentin's psak that I'm not sure actually Rav Pardo has a good rejoinder to, which is, okay, but what if the parent's telling you to do something which is only rabbinically forbidden? What if you actually have a Torah commandment against something that is forbidden but is not sort of even in the same playing field?
And you could imagine, and I think it's one thing you have to talk through the mechanics of the case, but there are any number of situations that are involved with going to funerals that actually don't involve stepping directly over a grave, being in the room with a body, that are actually only about a rabbinic-level restriction of staying away. And there might actually be cases in the context of family strife, some of the longer-term issues that the questioner is raising, where, I don't know, I would feel like that might be a responsible ruling to give, particularly in light of the fact that there is this other view, sort of, also lying in wait, that maybe the whole force of this commandment is a little bit weaker in our own day.
Rav Avi: Yeah, well, at a minimum, those texts make it very clear that "because my parents told me so" is actually really significant. Right? The fact that that text even exists, the fact that that would even be a conversation, that you should consider breaking the commandment because somebody told you to do it, I think is validating of this question, regardless of where you might play out an answer. And I think where you ended also makes me think, yeah, I wonder if there are ways to think creatively about how you show your parents that you're committed to this person and to this funeral by writing a eulogy that you would give to somebody else to recite, by showing up and sitting nearby in the car, you know — whatever the borderline case may be to show that you're making the effort. I wonder if there's some way, actually, to both honor your family and honor this prohibition.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. What I really like about what you're saying and sort of listening to the Talmud's voice on this, is that it's almost like independent of where you kind of calibrate the final response, the Talmud is very clearly saying, you don't just get to blow off your parents. Right? Even if you're making a calculation of, it's too much stuff from the other side here, it just doesn't simply outweigh, you know, the issue that I'm raising, still, right, you have to account for it. And I do believe this as a general point that, yeah, to the extent that there is a way of constructing things and sort of handling things in a way that that balance comes out in a way that it doesn't feel like so much is being violated, I would even say there's some degree of, like, obligation and responsibility on the person, to try to figure that out.
But I do think what you said at the beginning is also important, which is that these are the kinds of questions that are also deeply pastoral questions behind the details. And we're doing this in the context of a radio show podcast recording, in any kind of personal engagement with a person's story, you have to hear, what is that person's relationship with their parents, what are the long-term concerns, and what's the long game here in terms of playing that out?
Rav Avi: I want to ask you one other follow-up question on what I think was the first read of this situation, which was if your parents are telling you to do the thing intentionally, as a test, right? They know that you're violating the law. It feels to me highly likely that this person's parents may not even know that there is a such thing as a prohibition for a kohen going to a funeral. It feels different than saying I made you a pork sandwich, take a bite! You know? There you would say, yeah, they know what they're doing, although we've been there — I have some southern family members that offer treif without honestly knowing what it is or that that would be a problem. But if you assume that the parents here actually don't even know this is a problem, does that feel like it changes the situation at all?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I don't think it ultimately creates a larger ground for leniency, but it's more that it opens up, potentially, a different pastoral conversation in terms of what you're trying to do. It may make the initial place we started of trying to sort of articulate, oh, what's this value of this thing that I am dealing with in the first place about, in a way that there might be more receptivity. But even there, I think it can be tricky. Because particularly when you're dealing with something like the kehunah, for someone to come back with an explanation like that to their father, who at the end of the day is then also a kohen, is very hard to keep totally free of some notion of judgement, son being holier than father, and all the places in which this can go off the rails.
Rav Avi: What are we leaving this person with?
Rav Eitan:Yeah, so I would leave them, practically, with the notion of, I think there's a pretty solid basis, if you could find a way to be present in a way that would only run afoul of, you know, rabbinic restrictions around contact with the dead, and that would be a subject for another podcast, but I would talk through with the person that I think there's solid basis of potentially saying that, you know, your parents' command and need to be there potentially overrides that, even though you really also do, I think, if you're intending ot kind of take this on as part of your practice, you have to find some way of articulating to them why this is not gonna be a non-issue, and this is not a non-factor. But, you know, in the most pressing and difficult circumstances, the notion that you would rely on those more lenient views of the Raavad and the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, and just think about this mitzvah as being very different in our time and place — it's not something I would recommend as a general course of action, but it's something that you refer back to when someone feels like they're completely stuck and they don't know where else to go.
Rav Avi: I hope this question, this episode, is helpful to anyone who finds themself in this particular situation, and I'll also just say, more broadly, I hope it's helpful for people who find themselves at odds with their family members on observance and in particular parents, that there's wisdom here to be mined for a much broader context.
Rav Avi: Responsa Radio is a project of the Hadar Institute and Jewish Public Media. Thanks to Annah Leah Bernstein Simpson for producing this podcast, and to Noa Gendler for editing this episode. Have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected] You can also leave us a message at (215) 297-4254.