In Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24), read this past week in synagogues around the world, we are introduced to the relatives for whom Kohanim (priests) are permitted to mourn, as well as a list of various classes of priests who, owing to a mum (blemish), are barred from performing the sacrificial service in the Mishkan (Leviticus 21:16-21). They include those who are blind, lame, have a limb which is too short or too long, one who has a broken arm or leg, one with dwarfism, a hunchback, one who has a growth in his eye, a boil-scar, scurvy or crushed testes. Our Torah starkly states that people with a “mum” are forbidden from going behind the curtain or approaching the alter, lest they profane a place that G-d has made sacred (Leviticus 21:23). However, they are permitted to partake of the sacrificial meat, just as all other Kohenim are.
As Jews, we are heirs to a rich and sacred tradition of commentary, and this deeply troubling passage is no exception. There is a strong tendency to spiritualize this passage; the physical disabilities listed are read allegorically such that they apply to all people. In what way is our service of G-d impacted by our own hang-ups? There is also the tendency to contextualize it as a passage emblematic of its time. Thirdly, there is a strong tendency in some circles to engage in disability apologetics. Those with disabilities, according to some strains of thought, are possessed with higher souls, and though they suffer in this world and are barred from sacred sacrificial service, G-d will richly reward them in the world to come.
Although I can certainly empathize with the need to recast this list by framing it in such a way as to sound more appealing to those of us who find these regulations irredeemably alienating, by allegorizing or rereading this passage, unintentional though this may be, those with disabilities and our lived experiences are once again written out of the text.
I am grateful to be a link in the chain of a tradition in which vigorous critique and questioning is not only encouraged but is lauded. With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era, the sacrificial service ceased, and Kohanim today do not enjoy the privileges they once did. The rabbinic tradition, of which we are all heirs, gives us a much richer and more expansive definition of leadership—indeed, there were several Talmudic rabbis who were blind, including Rav Sheshet and Rav Yosi, both of whom contribute immensely and on an equal footing with their sighted colleagues and students. The rabbinic tradition emphasizes sacred study and prayer as a substitute for sacrifice, and such an emphasis continues to this day. Indeed, I personally find the act of study to be an incredibly intellectually as well as spiritually stimulating endeavor.
This shift notwithstanding, we are left to figure out what, exactly, to make of this passage. We live in a society today which is utterly obsessed with physical perfection and physical beauty. This obsession permeates all aspects of our culture—from movies and television, to the latest fad diet or fitness guru giving us the quick and painless way to lose weight and achieve the ideal form. So many of us struggle immensely with this pressure and, in our attempt to fit the norm, often look at those who do not unkindly, be it through fat shaming or other means. Those of us who inhabit bodies which, due to disability do not meet this norm are often faced with incredible pressure to do all that we can to “pass” as normal. Add to this the fact that, as we go out into the world, we are filled with the knowledge that, even if we cannot see it, as is my case, we are aware that others are judging us implicitly and explicitly for how we move and otherwise accommodate ourselves to a world that was not designed for us. This implicit knowledge can be quite grating, and we try to do all that we can to present the best impression of ourselves. This notion is referred to as the burden of representation, and is experienced by minority groups of all kinds.
Let’s face it; human beings of all stripes, including those of us who have disabilities, are intrigued by and curious by difference. If we see or hear something that is different from what we are aware of, our interest is piqued, and though we know better than to stare or judge, we do so anyway. Too often, we do not realize how our implicit and explicit judgment impacts the individual being judged.
Just as Leviticus proscribes groups of Kohanim who are not permitted to perform the sacrificial service due to blemishes, we, too, often determine the best leaders by how they look. Celebrity worship is alive and well, and worship of the perfect physical form alongside it.
As religious people, I believe it is our task to take full responsibility for how we read and apply our texts. I believe it essential that we grapple with this passage and with its implications not only within its Biblical context, but also the implications which are implicit and explicit for us today. Who are we leaving on the margins of our communities because their appearance is nonstandard, hence leaving their leadership potential untapped? How do our institutions hold up in this regard? Are we, too, choosing our leaders based on their ability to adhere to the notion of normal which is all-pervasive?
The Torah presents us with a deeply uncomfortable passage but one which I believe compels us to look within at our own preconceived notions and prejudices. May we be mindful and intentional with how these subconscious attitudes impact us and others, and try mightily not to allow them to do so. May we soon live in a world in which normal is not an ideal and in which the irreplaceable uniqueness of each and every person is cherished.