Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Torah is not easy.
Nor is spirituality just about finding those warm and fuzzy feelings.
Both require work; work which is more than worth the effort.
Yet there are times, like with this week’s Torah portion, when that work seems especially challenging. In many ways the book of Leviticus can seem foreign and distant to the contemporary reader, especially because of its laser focus on the rites and rituals of the ancient Israelite priesthood. One of the most difficult passages is in Emor, where a whole section of chapter 21 is devoted to the various defects and deformities which would prohibit a priest from entering the sanctuary and performing his duties. The list is long:
“For no man in whom there is a defect shall come forward, no blind man nor lame nor disfigured nor malformed, nor a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm, nor a hunchback nor a midget nor one with a cataract in his eye nor scab nor skin flake nor crushed testicle. No man from the seed of Aaron the priest in whom there is a defect shall draw near to bring forward the fire offerings of the Lord. There is a defect in him. He shall not draw near to bring forward his God’s bread. From the holy of holies and from the holy, he may eat God’s bread. But he shall not come in by the curtain nor shall he draw near to the altar, for there is a defect in him, and he shall not profane My sanctuaries …” [Lev. 21:18-23]
How do we even begin to understand this passage today? How can we reconcile this with our tradition’s emphasis that we are all made in the divine image, regardless of any of the “defects” mentioned in this week’s parasha?
Many have tried.
Some look to history and say we no longer do these things. And they are correct. Kohanim (priests) still have a role in many synagogues today. They are given the first Aliyah in Torah services and they offer a special blessing to the congregation on Yom Kippur, and none of the Toraitic disqualifications are even considered. Yet, that approach does not satisfy because it allows us to negate any bit of Torah we find uncomfortable by simply allowing us to say, ‘that was then, this is now.’
Some look to history and say that while this may disturb us today, it was progressive for its time. Greek culture and philosophy, for example, characterized people with disabilities as “not human” and, in some cases, would suggest death as the only humane response. Compared to their views our Torah portion is generous! Yet, while it may be comforting to know that we have a progressive history, that does not soften our struggle with the text and how to apply it in our lives today.
Some rationalize these laws on practical terms, suggesting that these disabilities would make it difficult for the priest to perform his duties. But as Rabbi Jack Reimer points out, that approach does not cover every disability mentioned, and makes no attempt to address the end of the passage, which declares that their very presence is a desecration.
Finally, some create new interpretations out of whole cloth. Interpretations which resonate with us today, but which have only loose connections to the actual (con)text.
I do not pretend to have the answer, but I would like to share a teaching from Rabbi Judith Abrams (by way of Jack Reimer) which has changed the way I look at this. But first, one more Midrash from the Jerusalem Talmud, another little gift from Rabbi Reimer:
“Rabbi Yochanan said: each of the forty days that Moses was on Mount Sinai, God taught him the entire Torah. And each night he forgot what he had learned. Finally, God gave it to him as a gift. If so, why did God not give it to him as a gift on the first day? In order to encourage the teachers of slow learners.”
Just think about this. It means that Moses, the greatest of all of our teachers, had a learning disability in addition his already well documented speech impediment. Even God required patience to keep on going until Moses was finally able to reach his potential. And Moses wasn’t the only one. Isaac was blind in his old age, and Jacob suffered from a permanent limp. We are descended from people who have had disabilities, which is to say that disabilities are in our very blood. We all have them. None of us is perfect. Not even the priests who are technically allowed to enter the sanctuary.
I find this to be an effective counter-narrative to the priestly restrictions in Emor, but when combined with the deep wisdom of Rabbi Judith Abrams, a whole new perspective opens before us. She saw a direct connection between Emor and a well-known midrash:
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah (who had miraculously appeared before him): ‘When will the Messiah come?’ Elijah said to him, ‘Go ask him.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: ‘And where is he sitting?’ Elijah said to him, ‘At the entrance of the city of Rome.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him, ‘And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him?’ Elijah answered, ‘He sits among the poor who suffer from illness. And all of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one bandage and ties one at a time. He says, Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed.’” [Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 98a]
Rabbi Abrams saw this passage as the polar opposite of the priestly disability restrictions. The priest cannot serve if he has the disabilities listed in Emor because those disabilities make him ritually impure. The messiah chooses to be ritually impure by living with the lepers and infirm at the gates of Rome in order to serve.
Why is this insight so breathtaking?
The role of the priest is to facilitate our connection with God. The role of the messiah is to bring redemption to the world. Redemption comes not from the sanctuary and the priesthood, but from the messiah. The messiah could easily stay in the Temple precincts among the pure and the wealthy, where he would be welcomed with open arms. However, instead, he endows cosmic dignity on the sick and disabled by living among them as one of them, and thereby supporting them in community.
If we want a role in bringing about the redemption, then we should first look to how we treat each other, and especially, the most vulnerable among us. Only then will our worship and the offerings of our hearts be acceptable before God. For, as an anonymous preacher once quipped, “Any church that ain’t no good on Monday, ain’t no good on Sunday.”
So as we read this week’s parasha, let us hold fast to what Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Abrams teach, “Let us judge ourselves before we judge the Torah.”
Beth Ami has proudly been and continues to be an inclusive holy community. Yet, there is still more we can do. May we learn from our missteps and omissions along the way and grow in our commitment, as we strive to become the synagogue of our dreams, and in our own way, to help bring a little more redemption to our world.
 I was not able to locate the source, but it is similar to another Midrash in the name of Rabbi Abihu [Exodus Rabbah 41.6] which is exactly the same except it omits the last line about teaching slow learners.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras