Parashat Emor: On Reading Leviticus 21 and the Problematics of Embodied Leadership

This piece first appeared here.

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24), read this week in synagogues outside of Israel, opens with a passage describing limitations placed on individuals whom a Kohen (priest) may mourn or marry, as well as limiting sacrificial service in the Mishkan to those who are able-bodied. We learn in Leviticus 21:17 that any Kohen who has a mum—blemish or defect—is explicitly forbidden from “offering the food of his God” (21:17). Kohanim thus disqualified include Kohanim who are blind, lame, have a limb length discrepancy, and are hunchbacked, have a broken limb and many others. They are forbidden from ritual leadership throughout the ages, though are not stripped of their priestly status and are permitted to eat sacrificial meat, and are not permitted to come behind the curtain or approach the altar. They mustn’t profane these places which God has sanctified (21:22-23).

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