The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 1no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’” – Leviticus 21: 16-23
These words from parashat Emor are troubling. This is a commandment given concerning the kohanim, the priests of the Temple. It seems to say that anyone blind, lame, disfigured, or deformed is not as good as a “whole” person. It seems to say, “We won’t starve you – you have a right to live! – but we ask that you keep out of sight. You are not good enough to serve in the Temple.”
And indeed, there is a long sad history of human beings saying exactly that to family and community members who were physically or mentally different. Stay out of sight – or at least keep your disability out of sight. This attitude has also taken the form of pretending that disabled people are invisible. And sadly, these verses from the Torah seem to support the notion that the best thing we disabled folk can do is to stay out of sight.
For years, I hid my own disability when it came time to lead services, despite the fact that standing for any length of time gave me excruciating pain. I got the idea from this Torah portion that a person who was leading services should be physically perfect, and that if I needed a cane or a wheelchair to function, then I was not fit to lead a service. As a result, I was not at my best on the bimah (the raised area from which services are led.) I was fuzzy minded, clouded with pain. I mispronounced words. I forgot things. I did not give the congregation the leadership it deserved. Eventually, I decided that I should not be a congregational rabbi, because of the disability I struggled to hide.
I have changed my mind about all of it. First of all, there can be strength and beauty in the prayers of a person who sits in a chair or holds a cane. I know, because I have seen it.
Secondly, I look at the historical context of this commandment. Other ancient cultures exposed (killed) infants who were deemed defective. Even Plato says that in an ideal community, infants with defects would not be allowed to live. So anyone with a congenital disability was deemed unworthy to live: compared to that attitude, saying, “You can eat the holy food, but don’t serve at the altar” seems like a big step forward.
Third, we can look at the interpretation of the tannaim, the earliest rabbis who actually recalled a time when the Temple was standing. In Mishnah Megillah 4.7, Rav Yehudah says that a kohen with stains on his hands also may not give the priestly blessing, “because people would be inclined to stare.” If in fact the reason for keeping the kohanim with visible “defects” from the Temple service was that “people will stare” then it suggests that the problem is not in the disability, but in the reactions of the public to disabilities. Later rabbis went even further: in the Gemara, Megillah 24b, they say that if the kohen is known locally, and “people are used to him,” then there is no impediment to his participating in the service.
This clearly locates the problem with the distraction of the congregation. The kohen may not serve publicly if his disability makes it impossible for the congregation to concentrate.
In this day and time, since we know that it is wrong to discriminate against those with disabilities, this is a red herring. If I am “distracted” by someone’s race, or accent, or the wheelchair they use, it is my task to “get over it” – or more accurately, to get over myself. It is not fair, it is downright wrong, for me to say to anyone, “Don’t lead services, your disability is distracting.”
So if the literal understanding of this verse does not hold up to scrutiny, if a physical disability should no longer prevent someone from serving, what “defects” should keep one from publicly leading a service? Further on in tractate Megillah 29a:
Bar Kappara gave the following exposition: What is the meaning of the verse, “Why look ye askance, ye mountains of peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode?” (Psalm 68:17) A heavenly voice went forth and said to them: “Why do you look askance at Sinai? Ye are all full of blemishes as compared with Sinai. It is written here “with peaks” and it is written elsewhere “hunchbacked or a dwarf.” (Leviticus 21:20) R. Ashi observed: You can learn from this that if a man is arrogant, this is a blemish in him.
The Psalmist asks why the greatest mountains, with beautiful peaks, look disapprovingly at little Mt. Sinai. The heavenly voice retorts, “Why are you criticizing Sinai? You are all full of blemishes!” Bar Kappara is drawing a parallel between the beautiful tall mountains looking down at Sinai, and the beautiful human beings looking down at a hunchback or a dwarf. Indeed, says Rav Ashi, the real blemish is arrogance.
Thus while this passage appears to reek of old prejudices – and in fact it may represent an old, bad solution to the problem of ableism – further study in the Oral Torah reveals it to be something quite different. If the real blemish is arrogance, then the arrogant may not lead services – but we’ll still feed them.
I can live with that.