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Who Is a Jew? Who Is a Kohen?

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the priestly blessing for Kohenim during the intermediate days of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover on April 02, 2018. Photo: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.

JNS.orgWho is a Kohen, a Jewish priest? Technically speaking, of course, the Kohen is a member of the priestly tribe of Israel descended from Moses’s brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons—the first Kohanim. Today, scientists claim to be able to detect the “Kohen gene” in those descendants’ DNA. It’s mind-boggling that, well over 3,000 years later, we can identify the descendants of a certain family and determine who is a Kohen through genetics.

But this is not only a question of discovering our biological lineage. There are often important halachic issues at play if one is a Kohen. As a member of the priestly tribe that once served in the Holy Temple, the Kohen is held to a higher standard in a number of areas of life. He may not act as a pallbearer at funerals and must keep his distance from graves. Nor is he permitted to marry a divorcee or a convert. Other rules apply as well.

As a rabbi, I’ve had my fair share of trying to establish with certainty whether someone is a Kohen or not in order to confirm, for example, whether he is allowed to marry a divorcee. I’ve done identity checks and genealogical searches, including trying to locate the tombstones of great-grandparents.

This week, in Parshat Tetzaveh, we read about the sacred vestments of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, and the ordinary priests. The High Priest looked quite majestic in his regalia. His ornamental garments included a decorative robe, tunic, turban, breastplate, apron and gold headband. He cut a very impressive figure indeed when he entered the Temple.

But believe it or not, according to Maimonides, every Jew is a Kohen.

Just before the Ten Commandments and the great Revelation at Sinai, God told Moses that He had a mission for the Israelites: “You will be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So, the entire Jewish people was given a mission on the mountain. We are all expected to be singular people with a particular mission. We have been made messengers of God, a “light unto the nations,” and to make the world a better place in every way we can. We are all part of the “kingdom of priests” and together we are called upon to be a “holy nation.”

But what does “holy” mean? The dictionary definition is “sacred, dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose.” Personally, I have always preferred translating “holy” as “distinctively different.”

Not every Jew is a genetic Kohen. The vast majority are not. But according to Maimonides, we can all be a Kohen spiritually.

In his magnum opus Mishneh Torah, at the end of the Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, Maimonides states:

What differentiated the tribe of Levi [which the priestly tribe comes from] was that they were designated and set apart from the ways of the world. They do not receive land, nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power. Instead, they are the Legionnaires of God.

And not only the tribe of Levi exclusively, but anyone whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him. … Proceeding justly as God intended, removing from his neck the yoke of the many material schemings which people seek, such a person is sanctified as holy of holies.

So, figuratively speaking, everyone can be a Kohen. By dedicating our lives to a higher purpose, to more noble pursuits, we become part of the “kingdom of priests” whether our father was a Kohen or not.

If you weren’t convinced that Israel and the Jews have a special place in the world, all you need to do is read the headlines. That the whole world is so preoccupied with Israel, that they ignore the real atrocities and genuine genocides around the world in China, Russia, Syria, Iran and elsewhere, actually proves that we are distinctly different.

Why do we attract the world’s undivided attention? It’s not normal. As Douglas Murray put it recently, “Israel is the only country who isn’t allowed to win a war.” Clearly, we are an exceptional people.

Many times in the past, however, Jews have been described as “a messenger who forgot the message.”

If we did, then Oct. 7 reminded us. It was a horrible wake-up call, but the mission is now well remembered. We got the message loud and clear. Even secular, unaffiliated Jews have woken up to the eternal reality of their true, inner identity; their separateness from the mainstream and their distinctive differentness.

But we must never allow that distinctiveness to be defined by victimhood. We must be what we were meant to be: Nothing less than the moral conscience of the world.

In the book of Kings, seeking to guarantee that her son Solomon will inherit the throne, Bathsheva says to her husband King David, “The eyes of all of Israel are upon you.”

Eighty years ago, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, told his troops just before D-Day, “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

So it is with our brave defenders today. And not only our valiant warriors, but all of us must remember the message and the mission.

With faith and fortitude, we must recommit ourselves to our national calling of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

And as G-d promised to look after the tribe of Levi, his “legionnaires,” so will He keep all of us—especially our soldiers and the hostages—safe and secure, forever enveloped by His loving and protective embrace. Amen.

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University of Toronto seeks injunction to end protest encampment over ‘harmful, discriminatory’ speech outlined in court filing

The University of Toronto is now seeking a court injunction to put and end to the encampment in King’s College Circle after the 8 a.m. deadline passed Monday morning—while unionized workers joined students, faculty and other protesters at a rainy morning rally. Shortly after the ultimatum hour, the university announced in a statement from UofT […]

The post University of Toronto seeks injunction to end protest encampment over ‘harmful, discriminatory’ speech outlined in court filing appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Monday morning saw the Toronto community and politicians showing support for the Chabad girls’ school struck by weekend gunfire

Mayor Olivia Chow was among those who addressed the crowd.

The post Monday morning saw the Toronto community and politicians showing support for the Chabad girls’ school struck by weekend gunfire appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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‘A Call for Genocide’: South African Jews Blast Country’s President for Chanting ‘From the River to the Sea’

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in Chatsworth, South Africa, May 18, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Rogan Ward

South African Jewish leaders castigated their country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, for what they described as him calling for a “genocide” against Jews in Israel over the weekend.

Ramaphosa was speaking at an election rally in Johannesburg on Saturday when he deviated from his prepared speech to lead the crowd in in a chant of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine shall be free” — a popular slogan among anti-Israel activists that has been widely interpreted as a call for the destruction of the Jewish state, which is located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The address took place at FNB Stadium, where South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) held its final rally before South African elections on Wednesday. According to Politicsweb, a news website focused on South Africa, a call for the release of the “hostages held in Gaza” who Hamas terrorists kidnapped from southern Israel on Oct. 7 appeared in Ramaphosa’s prepared remarks but not in his final speech.

The South African Jewish community lambasted Ramaphosa for his remarks in a statement shared with The Algemeiner, expressing “its revulsion at the introduction of a call to exterminate Jews from their homeland” by the president.

“The president of the ruling ANC party and the head of state of a democratic country has called for the elimination of the only Jewish state in the culmination of the ANC president’s election speech made to thousands of ANC members and on national television,” said Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). “He uses the populist slogan ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be Free,’ which is widely regarded as a call to genocide of the Jewish people. The call to remove all Jews from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea equates to removing all Jews from Israel.”

Kahn compared the slogan with Hamas’ goal to “see Israel as ‘Judenfrei,’ or Jew free,” before noting that such an endpoint contradicts the South African government’s stated policy of supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The chanting of this slogan by a head of state of a government that recurrently tries to express their commitment to a ‘two-state Solution’ as their policy on Israel and Palestine is hypocritical to the full,” the SAJBD said. “How does a sitting president reject his own government and own party’s international relations policy? This reconfirms our understanding that President Ramaphosa and his government are not looking for a peaceful solution to the tragic conflict, but rather to cause discord among fellow South Africans against its Jewish community.”

Kahn added, “The president’s contempt for South African Jewry is evident in this unscripted outburst at the rally which amounts to nothing more than Jew hatred. The SAJBD is reviewing its options for holding the president accountable for these hateful words.”

South Africa’s ANC government has been one of the harshest critics of Israel since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists launched the ongoing war in Gaza with their invasion of and massacre across southern Israeli communities.

South Africa temporarily withdrew its diplomats from Israel and shuttered its embassy in Tel Aviv shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom, saying that the Pretoria government was “extremely concerned at the continued killing of children and innocent civilians” in Gaza.

In December, South Africa hosted two Hamas officials who attended a government-sponsored conference in solidarity with the Palestinians. One of the officials had been sanctioned by the US government for his role with the terrorist organization.

Earlier this month, members of South Africa’s Jewish community protested Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor’s recent call for students and university leaders to intensify the anti-Israel demonstrations that have engulfed college campuses across the US.

In January, the South African government failed in its bid to argue before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Israel’s defensive war in Gaza constituted a “genocide.” However, the top UN court last week ordered Israel to halt its military operations against the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. The emergency ruling was part of South Africa’s ongoing case at the ICJ.

The post ‘A Call for Genocide’: South African Jews Blast Country’s President for Chanting ‘From the River to the Sea’ first appeared on

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