Ableism in the Torah? Say it ain’t so!

Leadership and Disability: totally compatible!
Leadership and Disability: totally compatible!

 

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.

Image: FDR in Wheelchair, public domain
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A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain

Vayakhel — O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz?

I love this! Best answer I have seen to the question: Why pray if I am not sure anyone is listening?

For readers on mobile devices, here is the link.

Godtalk

It seems that every time that I get a cold it goes straight for my voice. Instead of my usual mezzo-soprano, my voice has spent most of this week somewhere in the baritone range. My deepest gravelly voice, in fact, sounds a bit like Janis Joplin, which is precisely why I have one of her songs on my mind today:

O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz

I love that song! It’s just so direct about it.

But we all know, of course, that this kind of pleading does not work. We are all sadly familiar with the fact that God does not take special orders of this kind. It’s usually something we learn as kids: you can’t get a…

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Parshat Tetzaveh (5774)

A great post about Jewish headwear from a blogger from whom I always learn something interesting:

Hardcore Mesorah

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Jewish Tall Hats and Turbans

Today we are going to talk about hats. The hats we wear and the roles that hats play in society. We will be looking at the function that hats play in Jewish culture and ritual as well.

Even if you aren’t a hat wearer, we all take notice of hats. Some of us more than others. However hats and head dresses are something that are not just pervasive in our society, they are actually part of the uniform of many important people. From the earliest years most of us have looked to people’s hats as a symbol of who they are and the role they play in our world. We begin to identify the different notable people by their hats; police, firefighters, nurses, chefs, etc.

Hats can tell us a lot about a person. Be it a baseball cap, a sun…

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Within the Mess, There is Holiness

The Kohen Gadol
The Kohen Gadol

Parashat Tetzaveh begins with the pure olive oil for the Temple lamps, and continues with a detailed description of the priestly vestments and the ordination of Aaron and his sons as the first priests of Israel.

This is a Torah portion that lends itself to flights of fancy. The ancient rabbis and modern Hebrew school kids both love to visualize the vestments and imagine the exact appearance of the great candelabrum. The ordination is a bit grubbier, with its orders for dabs of blood here and there, and splashing of blood and stacking of gory sacrifices.

It is tempting to separate the two, to focus on the beautiful priestly garments, made from wool and flax, woven with many brilliant colors and studded with jewels. It is no accident that the two descriptions come together in the Torah: first the beautiful clothing and ornaments, then a description of what was to be done in those vestments.

The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, did not sit on a throne observing the action in the Temple. The work of a Cohen was the work of a holy butcher, calming the beasts, blessing them, then slipping a very sharp knife through skin and veins and cartilage. When the animal collapsed, then the priests had to work together to skin it, to cut it into the pieces the sacrifice demanded, and to stack it up on the altar to be burned. This is not delicate work, and it is certainly not clean work. By the end of a busy day at the Temple, the Cohanim must have looked ghastly. Even their ordination required them to be anointed with the blood of a sacrificial animal, underlining the work that they were to do.

In the 21st century, we often talk about “spirituality” as if it is something very beautiful and serene. And I imagine that the priestly garments, when new, were magnificent. But in the actual business of doing the holy work, something happened: everything got messy. Blood and tears and mess were smeared about, splashed about, and the beautiful garments got dirty with blood and soot and gore.

And folks, that is real life: the “perfect” Shabbat table gets messy with spilt wine. The most elegant Chanukah menorah will be covered with wax at the end of the holiday. Real, adorable babies wear diapers. And our real lives are not as we dream them: they are messy with frailties, bad habits, neuroses, and failings.

Our task is to learn to see the toddler under the spaghetti sauce, the human being in a sneering teenager, and the spark of the Divine in our own fallible selves and others. It is then that we have truly internalized the lesson of the Kohen Gadol in his magnificent, bloodied vestments: within the mess, there is holiness.

Image:  Andreas F. Borchert, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Holy Places: Terumah

Our Jewish homes are sacred places.
Our Jewish homes are sacred places.

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is pretty easy to summarize in large strokes. It records the first Jewish fundraising campaign and then an extended narrative blueprint for the complex called the Mikdash, the Holy Place. The famous Ark of the Covenant is at the center of this complex.

Notice the attention to detail in this portion! When Jews build a holy place, we must do so with the greatest care, with attention to the details of Torah. We have had only a few holy places in our history, and each was built with care: this portable desert Mikdash, which was finally set up in Shilo after the Hebrews arrived in the Land. That’s where Hannah went to pour out her heart to God in 1 Samuel 1.  (If you don’t know the story, click on the link.) Later, King David moved it to Jerusalem, where his son King Solomon built the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple. The Babylonians destroyed that building in 586 BCE and its contents disappeared. In 516, the Jews dedicated a new Beit HaMikdash, the Second Temple, built with funding from Cyrus of Persia. That modest structure was completely rebuilt and considerably expanded by Herod the Great in 19-20 BCE, and then destroyed by Roman armies in 70 CE [Common Era = AD].

Since then we have not had a Beit HaMikdash. The Jewish people have built synagogues, known as Batei Kenesset (Houses of Gathering) for communal activity, but the place designated as Mikdash, a holy place, is the Mikdash Me’at, the “little sanctuary.” The little holy place of the Jewish people is the Jewish home, no matter how humble or how palatial.

Our homes are not built according to the narrative here in Terumah, but they should be built according to other blueprints in the Torah, commandments to make the home a safe place (Deuteronomy 22:8). We moderns would extend that not only to physical safety, but also to emotional safety: our homes should always be places of peace. They are also places of hospitality, following the example of Abraham in Genesis 18. They are the place where we observe the commandments. In our homes, we observe Shabbat, we observe Passover, we observe Chanukah and other holidays. We observe the daily mitzvot, like teaching our children, giving tzedakah, and the commandments regarding our speech. We hang a mezuzah on the doorframe, as commanded in Deuteronomy 6.

This week I’m going to take a few moments to look around my home. I’m going to ask: how is this a mikdash, a holy place? What can I do to make it safer, more welcoming, more beautiful? What would make it more peaceful? What can I change? What would I not ever change about it?

How is your home a Mikdash Me’at, a little sanctuary? What single change would you like to make, to make it better serve your household and the people of Israel? What about it would you never change?

 

 

I will not forget (BaShallach)

2048px-Seashore

I will not forget the night that we left Egypt.
I remember clutching the baby, and the borrowed treasure,
And the screaming in the houses
As those people found their children.

I was not sorry, I was glad and terrified
Because I knew that when they made the connection
They’d be on our heels

We were on our way, through the dark
Night and day, following that cloud, that pillar of fire
It circled behind us, when the army came
We could hear the horses in the dark, hear the chariots grinding
All through the night

And the wind blew so hard I could not breathe.

We were caught between the fire and the shoreline knowing
That Pharaoh was just behind the fire, just behind
And we were trapped.

Moses kept waving towards the sea, hollering that we should go
And what, drown? but Nachshon waded out until
All we could see was his head, disappearing
And the sea, churned up by the wind, seemed to part before him

We rushed into the breach
on our way to the future.

Image by By Chenspec (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons