I am a Cohen (at least my father said so), and I wonder how severe is the prohibition of marrying a divorcee or convert?
Are the laws as currently applied Toraitic (Biblical), or Rabbinic, and does this distinction make a difference?
If one marries anyway, despite the prohibition, is it serious?
I saw an item in the New York Time a few years ago that reported on a women in Israel who could not marry a Cohen because her ancestor, 2000 years ago, had married a divorcee. She was therefore forbidden to marry a Cohen since she was considered a hallalah (someone from priestly descent who has lost his/her priestly status). The records were kept by the Rabbinate.
I will refer to both your questions separately:
1) Marriage of Cohen and divorcee:
There is a clear Bibilical prohibition against the marriage of a Cohen and a divorcee. (see Leviticus 21:7).
In 1952, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement approved such marriages in our days, in which divorce is not seen as an "unseemly thing" (see Deuteronomy 24:1), since most marriages end due to incompatibility. Rabbi Bokser's responsum (published in Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1954, pages 55-58 and reprinted in Golinkin, ed. Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement 1927-1970, Vol. 3, pages 1459-1462) points out that such marriages are recognized once entered upon, even according to Talmudic law. The children of such a union are legitimate. Therefore he concluded that a Cohen should relinquish his status as a Cohen and the couple should refrain from a large wedding in such cases, but a Conservative rabbi could perform such a wedding.
In 1996 Rabbi Arnold Goodman reconsidered the responsum. He wanted to deal specifically with the problem of the Biblical prohibition. He refers to the authority the rabbis have to uproot a Biblical prohibition, in this case as a hora'at sha'ah, the demands of the moment. We are in a time of crisis due to intermarriage and the high divorce rate. It is highly probable that a Cohen seeking to marry will meet a divorcee. His conclusion is that a Conservative rabbi may perform such a wedding, the Cohen does not have to relinquish his status as Cohen and the wedding may be celebrated publicly (no need for a small wedding). He leaves the possibility open that a future Law Committee may decide to reverse this decision should intermarriage rates become much lower.
2. Marriage of Cohen and convert
In 1967 Rabbi Isaac Klein wrote a responsum adopted unanimously by the Committee on Jewish Law (see Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 1968, pages 219-223, reprinted in Klein, Responsa and Halakhic Studies, New York, 1975, pages 22-26) in which he pointed out that most Cohanim today can't trace their status back to the Second Temple period (they are only presumed to be Cohanim). Converts today do not come from an idolatrous society and therefore do not lack moral integrity as it was presumed in Talmudic times.
In the same verse in Leviticus that prohibits the marriage of a Cohen and a divorcee, the Cohen is also prohibited to marry a zonah (harlot). Because today we do not consider non- Jewish women to be "of a questionable character", we therefore do not need to uproot a Biblical prohibition. Rabbi Goodman, in his 1996 responsum (see Responsa 1991-2000, edited by Abelson and Fine, New York, 2002, pages 599-601) reaffirms that we do not consider non-Jews to be any more promiscuous than Jews. The Conservative movement welcomes Jews by choice, and therefore converts can marry Cohanim as well.
A Conservative rabbi may perform such weddings.
I don't have statistics, but I think that while some Conservative rabbis have qualms about marrying a Cohen and a divorcee, that is not the case regarding a convert and a Cohen, where there is no clear Toraitic prohibition.
As far as the Rabbinate in Israel is concerned, since Orthodoxy does not recognize these responsa, they will not marry a Cohen and a divorcee or a convert. Children of such unions, however, cannot be considered illegitimate. I wouldn't be surprised if they kept records, they have lists of people they consider mamzerim (bastards according to Jewish law, children of forbidden marriages, usually a woman who had a child without obtaining the get or Jewish writ of divorce from her first husband) and probably other cases as well.
So, Rafi, you can go ahead and marry a divorcee or a convert, with a traditional and halakhic Jewish wedding performed by a Conservative rabbi, and should you come on aliyah (immigrate to Israel), the Ministry of Interior will register you as a married couple based on your marriage license. Any children you have will be considered Cohanim in Conservative congregations but not in Orthodox ones. It is up to you to consider if you need their official approval.
I'm answering you on election day, when freedom to choose one's Jewish denomination is an issue for many parties here in Israel, in the U.S., your choice is easier.
Sincerely, Rabbi Diana Villa