Parashat Emor: On Bodies, Leadership, and the Public Sphere

Parashat Emor opens with a description of right priestly conduct. In Leviticus 21:17-23, we find a lengthy list of those Kohenim who have a mum—often translated as blemish which disqualifies them from sacrificial service. This list includes blind Kohenim, as well as Kohenim who have a limb-length discrepancy, those who are short-statured, those who have a broken hand or foot, those who have a visible disease, and many others. Such Kohenim must not “profane those places which God has made sacred.”

Though these Kohenim are barred from priestly service, they are not forbidden from eating sacrificial meat that was only permitted to them and their families, nor do they lose their priestly status outright. Nevertheless, this passage is jarring. Our Torah appears to be saying quite explicitly and without qualification that those who are tasked with public leadership positions must be absolutely and wholly able-bodied. In previous commentaries on this passage, I have written about the myriads of ways people have interpreted this difficult passage, as well as how I, as a blind rabbinical student grapple with its implications in my personal and professional life. And while it is important to begin a candid—and often immensely difficult and painful—discussion about the ways in which this passage still resonates, even with all of the incredible advances our society generally and Jewish community specifically has made over the many centuries since its composition, I am going to broaden the scope of my discussion this year a bit and talk about the implications of this passage in terms of how it relates to our very contemporary discourse surrounding those of us who are not “typically bodied” inhabiting public space.

When reading the list of Kohenim whose disabilities or physical differences preclude them from priestly service, a question which comes immediately to mind is why the emphasis placed on physical, visible difference? I believe the answer lies in the very nature of their status. Kohenim were tasked with the daily performance of the sacrificial service in the Mishkan and later the First and Second Temples. They were, essentially, the conduit between the Children of Israel and God. This fact alone lends itself, in my view, to two drastically different means of reading this passage. On the one hand, it could be read as God rejecting Kohenim with visible differences from God’s service, and that, personally, is not a God I wish to worship. On the other, we can take this passage and apply it inward—what is it about a Kohen’s role as a public representative that makes it such that we want to ensure that that individual’s body is what we would today perhaps call typical? What is it, in other words, about the presence of those who inhabit “atypical” bodies taking up space in public alongside their “typical” peers that makes us so uneasy?

It is convenient, perhaps, to notice that there are a growing number of folks with disabilities of many religious traditions in the clergy doing incredibly holy and sacred work, making our religious communities truly sanctuaries in which the Divine Presence can dwell. Though this shift in religious leadership is slow-going and involves incredible amounts of spiritual, emotional and physical labor, it can be used as proof, perhaps, that times are changing—that the ideas we have about leadership and bodies are changing—and that we can congratulate ourselves for our social progress. Without minimizing the incredible work that has happened before me—and the fact that I am humbly and proudly standing on the shoulders of giants for whom I have nothing but boundless love, respect and gratitude—I am deeply troubled to witness in recent weeks the fact that our larger social notions about bodies in public spaces are seemingly more entrenched and resistant to change than many of us would like to believe. We are seeing this most acutely and dangerously, in my view, in the relentless onslaught of so-called bathroom bills.

It is easy to fear and even vilify an entire population of people one has never encountered, especially when that population is relatively small, stigmatized and highly misunderstood. As those who have socially marginalized bodies begin to exercise our power, laying claim to what is rightfully ours—the right to be included in society as we are without fear, our existence interrupts many notions of what is or what should be, or results in subconscious fears surfacing that perhaps one would prefer remain buried. Further, many of us receive messages that tell us it is upon us to make those who are “typically bodied” comfortable with us—that it is us who must acclimate ourselves to a world not designed for us. The burden of proof is upon us to show them that we are just like them, that our lives, our ways of being in the world, our experiences of ourselves in our totality are not a threat. It is not upon the majority, in other words, to do a bit of internal reflection, work through the fears, the biases, the subconscious prejudices that emerge when in the presence or proximity of someone different from themselves—someone about whom they may have only learned to fear or even loathe. When your worldview is such that supposed deviance from the “natural order of things” is cause for existential angst, tolerance for those of us who are different in some way becomes an impossibility. For too many, this tragic lack of empathy becomes a life and death issue. And that is unacceptable.

This societal discomfort with “atypically bodied” folks in public spaces, including bathrooms, has a long history and is applied to many marginalized groups. Indeed, I regularly encounter people who subtly—and not so subtly—react to my presence with varying degrees of discomfort, fear and, unfortunately, even panic due to my disability. My body might look a little different, but my inherent humanity is not debatable. My experiences in this world might veer off the mainstream path, but my worth as a human being created in the image of God, as Judaism so beautifully and profoundly teaches is inherent and cannot be taken away. This applies to all of us who find ourselves on the margins and it is often so difficult to remember this when the going gets rough.

Though our parsha has some hard things to say about who is fit for leadership, I believe we can take this passage and think collectively about ways in which we can, through the work we do and the lives we lead, challenge its narrative. Though discomfort around “atypical” bodies is with us still, as more of us fight for our rights, forcing us to unlearn misconceptions we may have possessed, we will, with God’s help, plant the seeds which will result in radical change. May it be so.

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