It’s been nearly 50 years since U.S. rabbinical schools began ordaining women, and the role of Jewish women in religious and ritual practices continues to evolve. One Atlanta synagogue took egalitarianism a step further in time for the high holiday season.
These will be the first high holidays in which Congregation Etz Chaim’s bat kohen, women descended from kohanim or high priests through their fathers’ lineage, will recite the ancient priestly blessing over the congregation with male kohanim.
The kohanim were commanded in the Torah, dating back to Aaron and his sons, to “bless the people of Israel” on behalf of G-d.
The ritual is called duchening and involves a multi-step process in which kohanim, and now bat kohanim, remove their shoes and have their hands washed by leviim and, also for the first time this year at Etz Chaim, bat leviim. They then ascend to the duchen (platform or bimah), standing with their tallitot over their heads, and raise their hands to offer blessings to the congregation.
In the past, the benediction and the hand washing were only performed by men at Etz Chaim. This year, at least one-third of the 20 to 25 kohanim on the bimah for the blessing will be women, according to Rabbi Daniel Dorsch.
It’s still an exclusively male ritual in Orthodox circles and at least two other Conservative synagogues in Atlanta – Ahavath Achim Synagogue and Congregation B’nai Torah.
B’nai Torah Rabbi Joshua Heller called female duchening the last “holdout” in terms of egalitarianism. “By nature, it’s a very ancient ritual.” It’s only performed by a select few. Even he doesn’t qualify to duchen, he said. “It’s probably the most ancient ritual still in regular practice. It’s found in the Book of Numbers, and on an inscription that goes back 2,700 years. While we have many women reading from the Torah and leading services, this is one step we have not taken because it’s just so different from everything else.”
AA Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal echoed that sentiment. “Women do read from the Torah and participate (almost) fully in the service experience at AA. Interestingly enough though, we haven’t gotten to the point where Etz Chaim is, as we still only have men participate in the priestly blessing,” he said.
“We tried to address this issue years ago,” Rosenthal added, “but we weren’t able to move it forward as, at the time, we didn’t have any women who expressed any interest in participating. We asked, but it just wasn’t anything that our women cohanim felt was meaningful enough to take up the mantle.”
At Etz Chaim, a bat kohen member studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem led a women’s duchening class last week to teach a few other Etz Chaim bat kohanim how to perform the benediction.
Although bat kohen have long received Torah honors and aliyot, female duchening is a new development for Etz Chaim. The Conservative synagogue in East Cobb also recently added its first female clergy member, rabbinic intern Amalia Mark.
The evolution comes 25 years after the Conservative movement allowed bat kohanim to duchen and 34 years since the first female rabbi was ordained by the Conservative movement. For the Reform movement, it began in 1972.
But duchening, in general, still isn’t a common practice at many Conservative synagogues, let alone Reform ones, according to the rabbis interviewed for this story.
Rabbi Rachael Klein Miller of Temple Emanu-El said the Reform synagogue recites the priestly benediction as a part of the service. “It is not our custom to do the raising of the arms/hands.”
Still, like in the Conservative synagogues, women are fully embraced in services. “At Temple Emanu-El, women have always been included in receiving honors throughout the High Holiday season.” At the Sandy Springs synagogue, “like all Reform congregations across the country, gender does not prohibit participation in any part of synagogue life, especially as it relates to services or the use of ritual items (tallit, tefillin, kippot, etc.)”
She added that women also make up half of the Reform synagogue’s clergy team.
The evolution of women in the service has been rather recent at B’nai Torah – the past 10 years. “Who is on the bimah is very different than 15 years ago,” when he became rabbi, Heller said. The synagogue was founded as Traditional unaffiliated and became Conservative around the same time he started. So women being called to the Torah was part of that transition as well, he said.
At Ohr HaTorah of Toco Hills, a modern Orthodox synagogue, men duchen and lead the high holiday services, said Rabbi Adam Starr. “In terms of Yom Kippur services, they are pretty much standard Orthodox services that are male led, although we appreciate the congregational voices in song emerging from both the men’s and women’s side of the mechitza.”
He reiterated that even in the Orthodox community, duchening is one of the most ancient practices. “It’s one of the few areas in Jewish ritual that uses the caste system nowdays.” Starr said the ritual stresses the distinct role of the kohanim and the levites. The latter are descended from the tribe of Levi, who help with the ritual.
The discussion about egalitarian duchening began to take shape at Etz Chaim over the past year, Dorsch said.
Rachel Schwartz, who led last week’s duchening class, joined the synagogue’s rabbinic advisory council several months ago for a presentation on the issue, Rabbi Dorsch wrote in an Etz Chaim blog post Sept. 20.
“As a bat-kohen, Rachel regularly participates in the ritual at the yeshiva. Like her male counterparts, her hands are washed by leviim and bat leviim. She then walks before the ark, raises up her hands, and blesses her community, just as her father and brother do each high holiday season at Congregation Etz Chaim,” said Dorsch, who has been senior rabbi for three years. His predecessor Rabbi Shalom Lewis assumed emeritus status July 1. Both of their wives are bat kohanim.
“Rachel deeply touched us as she spoke about her experience as a committed, serious Jew and what the practice has meant to her spiritual life in Israel. As a bat kohen who at Etz Chaim has had to remain in the kahal as her brother and father have duchened in an otherwise fully egalitarian community each high holiday season, she is eager to bring what is being practiced in Israel back to the United States where it is permitted in other conservative communities.”
A newly trained duchener, former Etz Chaim president Cheryl Miller said she always felt excluded from the practice. As the oldest child with three younger brothers, she believes she has a responsibility to carry on the tradition of her departed father. “I should have the same rights to do anything my brothers can.”
In a follow-up email to the AJT, Rabbi Dorsch said, “As a proudly egalitarian synagogue, we are delighted at Etz Chaim to permit women who are bat kohanim to engage in the practice of nesiyat kapayim, popularly known as duchening.
“As a child in the 1990s, I remember when my own Philadelphia synagogue chose to experiment with this practice. In more contemporary times, conservative-style legal think tanks like Mechon Hadar have written papers on the permissibility of women duchening as well.” Still, duchening has “has fallen out of favor in most conservative synagogues as a practice,” he said.
For Etz Chaim, though, it’ll be a novelty during the high holidays.