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Free Will, Cohanim and Game of Thrones - David Reissner

I recently read a review of a new book that suggests we have far less free will than we think; and our actions are dictated more than we realise by a combination of complex factors including genetics, upbringing, and the society we live in, rather than by independent thought. 

I was mulling over about my apparent lack of free will before catching up with the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Even if you haven’t been watching it, the hype about the new and final series can’t have passed you by. Many of the principal characters believe they are following a destiny.  Some are driven by the claims of the families they were born into, such as rights to the throne, others are driven by the loyalty members their families owe to other families. Revelations in books of genealogy discovered in dusty archives have driven the Game of Thrones storyline from the very start. I appreciate that not everyone watches Game of Thrones – even if you have Sky Atlantic, the sex and violence might not be your cup of tea, but bear with me.

This week’s parsha concerns the rules for the Cohanim. God told Moses to instruct the priests – Aaron and his descendants - that they could not marry divorcees and could not enter any place where there is a dead body. When I read this, I pondered whether there is any connection between God’s instructions and our modern way of life.  The short answer, I concluded, was that there is a connection in the sense that so-called orthodox Jews still observe these rules.  I have friends who are Cohens who, for example, will not enter a funeral hall. Incidentally, I use the expression “so-called orthodox” because I don’t accept that any Jews are entitled to appropriate the word.  If you want to know why, ask me for a copy of the sermon I gave here in July 2012. Anyway, despite my reservations, you know what I mean when I use the word, and I can’t think of a suitable English alternative.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain, in his book Faith & Practice, gives a number of reasons why the position of a cohen has been abolished in Reform synagogues. Primarily, the position was based on sacrificial rites and, since we no longer have the Temple and do not perform animal sacrifices, we regard the position of cohen as redundant. Not so, “orthodox” Jews, who pray both for the restoration of the Temple and the renewal of sacrifices. Secondly, Rabbi Romain points out, the biblical hierarchy is at odds with our present-day notions of equality. A hereditary priesthood would not be out of place in Game of Thrones, but progressive Jews don’t consider some people are purer than others because of their birth. That idea has what Rabbi Romain describes euphemistically as “distasteful associations”. By which I presume he means, amongst other things, the notion of racial purity. We need no reminding of where that notion has led. Only last week, we marked Yom Ha’Shoah, and 59 years ago today, Adolf Eichmann was captured in Buenos Aires and taken to Israel where he was put on trial. The allegations against him were that he managed and facilitated the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and killing centres in the German-occupied East – in short, that he was among the major organisers of the Holocaust.  Indeed, his trial is said by some to be the first time the word “Holocaust” became embedded in public consciousness.

Eichmann’s defence was that he had not dictated policy, but had only carried it out: in other words, that he was merely a little cog in the machinery of destruction.  He was only following orders: he had no free will.

Rabbi Romain’s third reason for abolishing the position of a cohen is that there is serious doubt whether anyone claiming to be a cohen is actually a cohen because, unlike Game of Thrones, there are no genealogical tables lying around in dusty archives, enabling anyone today to trace their ancestry back to Aaron. Having the surname Cohen has limited validity.  The fact that my mother’s maiden name was Cohn doesn’t mean that she was descended from the priestly family.

One of the roles of a cohen is to take part in a pidyon ha’ben ceremony in which he father of a first-born son who is 31 days old presents the baby to a cohen, and then redeems the baby by buying him back with five silver shekels. The ceremony is rarely performed in Reform synagogues because we have abolished the role of a cohen.  There are other objections, such as the discrimination against first-born girls. Our daughter Miriam had a baby boy this week. He is currently called Baby Poppet and he’s still in hospital because he has an infection. Miriam and her husband are planning a pidyon ha’ben. I share Rabbi Romain’s reservations about the ceremony, but I am going to exercise my free will, and I will be there. If nothing else, I can remind my son-in-law Steven that because no one can actually prove they are descended from the priestly family some “orthodox” authorities say the cohen doesn’t have a right to keep the five silver shekels, and should return them.

And I remind myself a week on from Yom Ha’shoah that, priests or not, life is fragile and we should not pass up the opportunity to celebrate it.

Shabbat shalom.

David Reissner





Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781