Making halachic decisions is almost always about comparing two sets of competing Jewish values. I will never forget growing up and hearing a story from a paraplegic who was told that he could not bring his motorized wheelchair into his orthodox synagogue on Shabbat. In circumstances like these, as conservative Jews we must ask ourselves: Is it more important that we follow the “letter of the law” of the Torah, or set up a community where we are kevod habriyot, inclusive, and respectful of all of God’s creatures?
Traditionally at Etz Chaim, we have always called up a Kohen and Levi up for the first two aliyot. This is not a practice we intend to change; however, if you’ve been to synagogue over the past two weeks, you may have noticed that instead of referring to the first two aliyot as Kohen and Levi, we’ve been using the words rishon and sheini (meaning the “first” and “second). As it currently stands in our community, a Kohen or a Levi may not take an aliyah later in the Torah reading, but may only take the first two or the Maftir.
Together, the rabbinic advisory council and I studied the responsa from 1991 on this subject that have already led a large number of conservative synagogues to change their practice. Rabbinically, the original intent of the Kohen-Levi paradigm was enacted to ensure an orderly service in which people did not fight for the first two aliyot, and which darchei shalom, ways of peace would be maintained.
However, what I have found in our community is that by sticking to this paradigm, the exact opposite has transpired:
- During a joint couple aliyah for an aufruf or bar mitzvah, one spouse was a Kohen, and the other was an Israelite. There was no easy way to remedy this scenario, because they could not take either aliyah together.
- Three Leviim needed an honor on the same day. To accommodate, we had to reschedule or add a new Hosafa (additional) aliyah, lengthening our service.
- A bar mitzvah family came up where everyone was a Kohen. In this case, we added some additional aliyot to accommodate, while other members of the family who were Kohanim were penalized and could not have aliyot.
Our intent in making this change is not to alter the current practice of calling up a Kohen or Levi first. But rather, to give our Gabbaim, Shabbat Honors Committee, and me enjoy greater flexibility (should the need arise) with the remainder of the six aliyot.
Chazal, our sages of blessed memory, were quite concerned about the notion of Tircha DeTzibbura, causing undue burden on the community. We expect that this subtle “fix” will now help to streamline our service and bring true Darchei shalom, ways of peace to our community.
Ad Kan. Until next time.