A Teaching On Parashat Emor and Pesach Sheni

A Teaching On Parashat Emor and Pesach Sheni

A Teaching On Parashat Emor and Pesach Sheni

Emor 5777

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.

Emor 5776

This commentary was written in May 2016, in the Jewish year 5776.

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.