Q. I don’t like Jews being divided into Kohen, Levi and Yisrael. It looks like a rigid class structure. What do you think about it?
A. Let’s first ask what a class system is. A closed class system allocates a person a position in society as a matter of birth. The old British class system was like this. Your place depended on who your father was. The aristocracy was at the top of society and the commoners were at the bottom. It was described as an “upstairs, downstairs” society. You were either the 14th Lord Wilson or the 14th Mr Wilson. In contrast, an open class system allows for movement. You can go from rags to riches or from riches to rags. Your own effort determines who you are and where you fit in.
The Jewish type of class system was a combination of both. In some respects you were stuck with your heredity. You couldn’t move from Kohen to Levi or from Levi to Yisrael. Even if you were a Kohen who transgressed the laws of marriage and could no longer claim the privileges of being a Kohen, you still had to carry out the Kohen’s responsibilities. But this aspect of Jewish identity was not an end in itself: it merely defined one’s role in the Temple.
On the other hand there was an area in which your status was entirely fluid and depended on your own actions and aspirations. The Jewish ideal had nothing to do with what money you had or what size your house was. It was a matter of learning. The scholar was esteemed regardless of his wealth or lineage. The aim was to marry your daughter to a scholar (a talmid chacham) or the son of a scholar (I remember saying under the chuppah when two fellow students married that they had the best of both worlds – a scholar was marrying a scholar). The fear was that a person would marry someone who had neither piety nor learning.
When the sages spoke of learning being the defining characteristic which was open to everyone they did not measure it by the number of books you had read (or written), but by the effort you had made at study. They thought of study in terms of Torah; in modern times this Jewish value concept has been extended to include the pursuit and attainment of knowledge in other fields too. Being a Kohen depends on your father; gaining a Nobel Prize depends on your own self.
When you criticise the Kohen-Levi-Yisrael system you do not explain which group you belong to. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to want to rebel against whichever group it is. There are many aspects of our identity and personality which we are born with and have to handle as a fact of life. Did anyone ask me, for instance, whether I wanted to be a human being? Was I consulted about which gender I preferred to be born into, which colour, which nationality? Since I have no control over these or other aspects of who I am, have I any better option than to say “That’s who I am: now let me get on with it”?