I am a Jewish woman, as my mother is Jewish. My father is not Jewish. I was raised as a Conservative Jew. I am in a relationship with a modern orthodox man who is a Cohen (a descendant of Aaron, one of the High Priests). We want to marry, but we have been told there are restrictions on him marrying me, because in addition to other restrictions on Cohanim (High Priests), one of the restricted classes of women for Cohanim are those whose fathers are not Jewish. Can you please clarify this for me? Is this true? I have done a lot of reading and I keep seeing the restrictions for widow, divorcee, convert, but not for a Jewish woman whose father was not Jewish. Since my mother is Jewish and Judaism is a matrilineal religion - and I have read in some places Judaism doesn't even recognize the religion of the father - I am Jewish. If it is true that one of the marriage restrictions of the Cohanim is to a woman whose father is not Jewish, can you please advise on what we can do in our situation to marry?
There is, to my knowledge, no restriction like the one you describe. As you point out, Cohanim are enjoined from marrying widows, divorcees, and converts. You do not fall into any of these categories. You are 100% Jewish, and, so far as I can tell, eligible to marry a Cohen.
Of course, this question is not one upon which I can offer a definitive ruling – that can only be achieved by meeting with the rabbi who is to officiate at your wedding. But, if the facts are as you describe, I can see no impediment to your marriage. Mazal Tov! May your future be bright!
According to our Talmudic Rabbis, Kohanim have a higher level of Kedusha than Yisroelim or Leviim. Our Rabbis add that if someone marries the daughter of a Kohen, he must be prepared to handle the additional Kedusha that accompanies his bride into the marriage. Because of the additional holiness attached to a Kohain we ask him not to marry a divorcee or a convert. There is a position in the Talmud that extends these marriage prohibitions to a woman whose parent, mother or father, is a convert. Though there is a strong custom among Ashkenazim (European) rabbis to accept this extension, not all orthodox rabbis do, given the fact that a number of our great sages of the Middle Ages rejected that Talmudic position. I would suggest that you find an orthodox rabbi that rejects that prohibition extension. The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest American rabbinic organization for orthodox rabbis, does not have a policy concerning this extension, and I believe that most Sephardic rabbis reject that prohibition extension, though in some communities they are very strict about Jewish family lineage.
As you state, you are considered Jewish by all streams of Judaism by virtue of the fact that your mother is Jewish. The fact that your father isn’t Jewish is, as you say, not of concern, for this issue. The only restrictions for cohanim (from traditional communities) are on marrying women who are converts or those who have been divorced. Since you don’t fit into those categories you should be free to marry your beloved. Good luck!
While the Reform movement does not place any such restriction and (I believe) the Conservative movement has a number of responsa that are quite liberal on the question of persons eligible for marriage with a Cohen – principally based on the notion of doubtful ancestry – some years ago in Israel there was a quite controversial case involving a Russian immigrant who was, like you, matrilineally Jewish. She wished to marry a man with the surname Cohen. Initially, the rabbinical court would not sanction the marriage, relying on the notion of a "higher standard for priests."
After protest, including political pressure from the Prime Minister's office, a ruling was issued permitting the couple to marry, but the court insisted the decision was based "under special circumstances and that it does not apply in all cases."
That said, in my view there is no religious obstacle to your marriage. You may find an Orthodox rabbi who will concur. You certainly will find Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis who will be delighted to assist you.
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