Jewish conversion and Cohanim

I’m pursuing conversion to Reform Judaism. Dad’s Jewish, Mom’s Lutheran, and I was raised as a Lutheran. (They’re both still happily married, FWIW.)

A couple of days ago, Dad revealed that he was a Cohen. The Cohen line is patrilineal, from what I understand.

If I convert, would I be considered a Cohen under Reform Judaism? How about Conservative or Orthodox?

I’m just curious, is your name Cohen? Do all Cohens have to have that last name or a derivative? If not, how would you know you are a Cohen?

My first thought upon reading your post, is why would you care about being a “Cohen” if you are converting to reform Judaism? Reform Judaism doesn’t recognize such special statuses:
(from Wikipedia:Kohen)
“The majority of Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews consider all rules and ceremonies regarding the priesthood to be outdated. Many consider it to be anti-egalitarian, and thus discriminatory against Jews who are not Kohanim. Thus the above laws and customs are no longer observed in Reform or Reconstructionist Jewish communities. Many Reform and Reconstructionist Temples effectively forbid the practice of these laws and customs. Both Orthodox and Conservative Jews strenuously disagree with this latter view.”

I do know that you wouldn’t be considered a Jew under Orthodox law, much less a Kohen, if you convert to Reform Judaism since Orthodox Judaism doesn’t recognize Reform Judaism conversions as being valid - so the Cohen question is kind of moot:

(from Wikipedia:Orthodox Judaism)
“Orthodox Judaism maintains the traditional understanding of Jewish identity. A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Orthodoxy thus rejects patrilineal descent. Similarly, Orthodoxy does not allow intermarriage. Intermarriage is seen as a deliberate rejection of Judaism, and an intermarried person is effectively cut off from most of the Orthodox community. However, some Chabad Lubavitch and Modern Orthodox Jews do reach out to intermarried Jews.”

So you’d have to go through an Orthodox conversion to be considered an Orthodox Jew.

Also, from the “Kohen” article cited above:

“The Torah prohibits a Kohen from marrying women of certain specified categories: A divorcee, a “defiled” woman, or a “harlot”. It ordains that any Kohen who makes such a marriage loses his priestly status [Lev. 21:6–7]. The Talmudic understanding of the word “harlot” also encompasses the meaning “proselyte” (or “convert”). According to the Talmud the act of marriage, although prohibited, was effective if a Kohen married in disregard of the prohibitions. Any children born of the union are legitimate.”

I’d never thought about such a situation before.

I believe Rusalka has adequately covered the case of Reform Judaism. For the cases of Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, my answer is: Possibly, but ask a Rabbi. This is a pretty complex question that calls for an expert opinion.

My last name isn’t Cohen, or even a variant. Dad said the “live long and prosper” blessing sign is displayed on his father’s tombstone.

I guess that means, post-conversion, I wouldn’t be kohanim … not that it matters much, but it’s just something that I was curious about. Thanks for your answer!

A fairly large percentage of Kohanim don’t have a ‘Kohen’ last name, like Cohen/Cohn/Kohn/Kahn/Kahan/Kagan/Katz/etc.

IANAOrthodox Rabbi, but I think you wouldn’t be considered a Kohen by the Orthodox. IIRC, a Kohen is someone whose father was a Kohen and whose mother is someone that Kohen was permitted to marry according to Jewish law. Since a Kohen isn’t allowed to marry a non-Jewish woman, his sons aren’t Kohanim.

[old joke]
A wealthy, not particularly religious man goes to the rabbi of the local synagogue, and asks, “Can you please make me a Kohen?”
The rabbi says, “I’m sorry, no, it’s not possible.”
The wealthy man replies, “What if I gave a donation to the synagogue, say $10,000?”
But the rabbi still insists, “No, I just can’t do it.”
The wealthy man persists. “Rabbi, it’s very important to me. What if I donated a million dollars?”
The rabbi was tempted, and agreed. The man wrote out a check, the rabbi pronounced him a Kohen, and they were heading their separate ways when the rabbi asked, “Why is it so important to you to be a Kohen?”
The wealthy man answered, “Well, my father was a Kohen, and his father was a Kohen, and his father was a Kohen…”
[/old joke]

Unfortunately, Jewhoo is apparently having server problems, else I would be able to direct you to a supporting cite but as I remember, Leonard Nimoy (who is Jewish) co-opted the “Kohanim Hi-Sign” when he created the role of Mr. Spock.

Apparently there’s even a Cohen gene:

http://www.familytreedna.com/faqjg.html#q5.3

Of course, simply having the name “Cohen” (or some other derivitave) does not make one a Kohen.

However, in the event that your father is a true bona-fide Kohen, you would not be one upon your conversion.

If a Kohen has a child with a woman with whom he is forbidden (a divorcee for example), the child loses all status as a Kohen. As this applies when the child is Jewish, it would certainly apply when the child is not Jewish at all (as in your case).

In addition, upon conversion, a person “loses” all familial relations. The general rule is ger shenisgayer, k’katan she-nolad dami (a convert who converts is like a newborn child). Under biblical law, if two siblings converted, they could then marry each other, since they do not have any relationship to each other. (Note: This was forbidden later by Rabbinic decree). So, your halachic status as your father’s son (which isn’t recognized now anyway) certainly wouldn’t be recognized after your conversion; thereby not making you a Kohen.

Bottom line: After your conversion, you’ll be a plain, ordinary Jew. Like me.

Zev Steinhardt

That was likely written by an Orthodox Jew. Since, of course, when you covert under the Reform “rules” you are converting “to Judaism in accordance with (Reform) Jewish law and tradition.”

Thus, the wording should likely be:

"Orthodox Judaism maintains the traditional understanding of Jewish identity. A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law and tradition.
But, I am not jewish, so maybe I am wrong here. ;j

Nope, you’re right on the money.

According to Orthodox Jews, a sine qua non condition of conversion is the acceptence of the binding nature of the commandments. Since Reform does not adhere to that standard, Orthodox Jews view Reform conversions as invalid.

I have a cousin who underwent such a conversion. As much as I and my family love her, and as much as she is always welcome in my home, I cannot recognize her conversion as valid.

Zev Steinhardt