Author’s note: This commentary was written in May, 2017, in the Jewish year 5777 and was significantly updated in 5779.
The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the LORD’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the LORD have sanctified them.” (Leviticus 21.16–23 JPS)
Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24) contains what many have dubbed this year in the commentaries I’ve read particularly as one of the Torah’s most disturbing passages. In Leviticus 21, we are informed that any Kohein who has a mum—often translated as blemish but which can also refer to any sort of disability or physical abnormality—is barred from serving in the Temple. Though kohanim thus barred are permitted to eat of the sacrificial meat, they are not permitted to go behind the curtain or approach the alter because by so doing, they will profane those places which God has made sacred.
After reading such a profoundly disturbing passage, it is quite understandable to ask why the Torah includes such painful, hurtful and exclusionary words. After all, this is not the only difficult text we find in Leviticus to our modern sensibilities. This text cries out to me, with profound pain and existential anguish—darsheini!—explain or interpret me. It is my deeply held belief that as Jewish communal leadership slowly begins to reflect the true diversity that is the Jewish people, we will each benefit immensely from the Torah of leaders with disabilities and others to which we previously would have been denied access precisely because positions of leadership—lay and clergy alike—were barred to us.
The natural inclination, when reading a passage such as this to ask why the Torah would include something so painfully alienating and disturbing for many of us is quite understandable, and that question does not interest me at present. I am more drawn to the question of what—given this passage is in our Torah, and given that many of us encounter it annually, what are we going to do with it? The reasons why the Torah included these prohibitions offered up by numerous contemporary and ancient commentaries I have read are profoundly dissatisfying and in many cases add to the pain and discomfort. There’s no way of getting around the starkness. Attempting to explain it away might make us feel better about its presence, and indeed, I have come to deeply believe that for Jews with disabilities and many others, unearthing messages in this text that apply to our lives is a subversively necessary act. As my teacher, colleague and friend, Dr. Rabbi Julia Watts Belser eloquently reminds me, when Emor comes around every year, we hear the Torah telling us a truth that is deep in our bones, a truth about the world in which we live with it’s half-baked, snap judgements about others based on appearance alone and the narratives we love to craft about those whom we fear or simply don’t want to know. . As our world becomes increasingly visual and increasingly uninterested in holy pauses to get to know others, or even in slowing down for the extra moments it takes a person with a disability to navigate a world which structurally disadvantages them, this truth rings even louder in my ears.
Throughout subsequent halakhic literature, we see the prohibitions of this text mitigated and qualified, and we see a clear line of reasoning pointing to the assumed natural inclination to stare at that which is different. The distraction that accompanies the presence of one whose body is unlike our own might mean that we are not able to direct our hearts towards our religious obligations. The challenge, then, is placed upon the community to hold its discomfort and anxiety about that which it does not know or understand. Just as people with disabilities are excellent innovators by dint of having to navigate a society human beings built to advantage some over others, so, too, are we excellent managers of the anxieties and discomforts of others. Ask around and you will surely get a wide array of strategies, some conscious, others subconscious that disability communities have developed to navigate that omnipresent elephant.
Often, we are inclined to either spiritualize this passage or thank God that we live in a time now in which discrimination of this sort is no longer commonplace. If only that were actually so. I am profoundly committed to the inner life and a life of heartfelt spiritual practice. Our Torah contains infinite opportunities and pathways for us to grow spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and religiously. However, thinking about the named disability groups as metaphors leads us down highly problematic paths. Those who do work at the intersection of disability activism and justice work, both in secular and religious contexts rightly bristle at the metaphoric use of disability because the stigmas attached to such metaphors—lame, deaf and blind come immediately to mind—are stigmas that are long-lasting and are nearly impossible to wholly eradicate. I still cringe when I hear this kind of language nearly every day, and I find myself despairing of there ever being a culture shift. Our tradition radically and boldly teaches us that we are all created b’tzelem Elokim, in G-d’s Image, and we are all inherently valuable and worthy of existing on this holy planet of ours. Unfortunately, we too often fail to live that value out when it comes to individuals with disabilities.
We might not think twice before calling something so lame, or asking why you’re turning a blind eye to something, but if we take but a second and think about the words we use, words which, particularly when they come from leaders matter greatly, we will hopefully come to realize that the metaphor we are employing is a profoundly negative, demeaning and disempowering one, ascribing an inherent negativity to disabled embodiment. How much of that assumed negativity is rooted in our own fears of our ever-changing bodies?
Leviticus 21 asks us to begin to challenge notions of normativity that we all, despite how far we have come in the past decades, still harbor. And the work is work we all must do, regardless of ability status. Simply living with one’s own disability or disabilities does not absolve one from the hard work of unlearning prejudicial beliefs about other disability groups. We can all perpetuate ableism, whether we ourselves are disabled or not.
Instead of getting hung up on why our Torah includes this passage, let’s use Leviticus 21 as a charge to each of us. The Torah is not in heaven but in our mouths to do it. So what are we going to do with it? Are we going to allow the Torah to remind us, no matter how uncomfortable it feels, of the truths in our world–that to inhabit an atypical, non-normative body means one is constantly navigating the anxieties and judgements projected upon it? How might our Torah’s charge here call us to live out our mission to be an or l’goyim? Bereshit calls us to remember that we are all created b’tzelem Elokim. Vayikra challenges us to live that out wholly and radically. If Torah is truly a Torat emet and a torat chayyim, and if we want to be in genuine and grounded relationship to and with it, we cannot only latch onto the things that we like. We must also allow ourselves to be met, face-to-face, panim-al-panim, with those dark corners of our own neshamot we’d prefer to keep hidden. We must do the cheshbon hanefesh required so that we might live our lives and treat everyone we meet with the knowledge that we each carry a spark of divinity within.