The Blemished and the Whole
Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1–24:23
By Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT
For decades, Western society has been making concerted efforts to be more accepting and inclusive of those who have physical and mental disabilities. This means that accommodations must be made for impediments that have historically restricted people from living fully integrated into the greater society. In the past most of “civilized” society dealt with others’ handicaps by turning a blind eye. At best, the disabled were treated with dismissive sympathies and self-congratulatory charity; at worst they were often blamed for their disabilities and pushed to the margins of society. Only recently has the conversation turned toward treating those with disabilities as fully enfranchised members of society, rather than isolating them and consigning them to lives of degradation and exclusion.
Scripture also speaks of such disabilities through a complex balance of values, priorities, and perceptions. On the one hand, many of the heroes of the Bible suffered from physical and mental handicaps. Jacob limped, Isaac was blind, Moses had a speech impediment (and a fragile ego), Miriam dealt with dermatological concerns, and Saul clearly had bouts of depression and possibly psychosis. Rav Shaul dealt with some type of ailment but preferred to refer to it as “a thorn in the flesh,” leaving us to wonder about his issues of deep shame. What is most important to acknowledge is that these leaders were able to function in exemplary fashion.
But the narrative of Scripture is neither simple nor always inclusive. The parasha for this week, Emor, seems to prefer “wholeness” of both sacrifice and those who presented the sacrifice. The sacrifice could not suffer from any mum (defect) or it would be disqualified! This is an exclusion that I would imagine brought little complaint from the animal community of ancient Israel. But what I find most disturbing on its face is the disqualification of any kohen (priest) who exhibits permanent physical malady. “Any man of your offspring throughout their generations in whom there is a blemish shall not come near to offer food of his God” (Vayikra 21:17). The really troubling part is the elaboration that follows. Those who are blind, those who are lame are excluded. Then it gets personal! If your arm or leg is too long or too short, if you suffer from spine curvature or dwarfism, a scar, scurvy, or crushed testes you are eliminated!
It would be nice to dismiss this as merely a product of its time, but because it is part of the Holy Torah it must be addressed, and we should examine the legacy it has had on historical Judaism and perhaps even the taint it has left on the broader society. We cannot deny that this passage and others have lent a kind of legitimacy to the dehumanization of the disabled. Rabbinic legislation at one time forbade the disabled from participating as fully enfranchised members of Jewish society, either by functioning as acceptable witnesses in legal proceedings or by being part of a minyan. Why? Because Torah said so! Thank God this has been rethought, but in order to wash away the impure legacy of such thinking we need to continue to discuss and dismiss it as the intent of Torah.
There is another way, then, to understand this portion of Torah. Rather than merely seeing the service of the kohen as the privilege of the gifted, we might instead see it as the responsibility of the “whole” to the “broken.” Many commentators noted as I have the relationship between the exclusions of the sacrifice and those of thekohanim. They are precisely the same. Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century exposition on the 613 commandments, notes, “There are disfigurements that disqualify a kohen from serving, and if they are in an animal they disqualify it from being brought as an offering.” There is an indelible relationship between the animal that will perish on the altar and the one who takes its life. The slaughterer is forced to identify with the terror of the sacrificed animal and to perform the unsavory task of exchanging one life for another. It should also be noted that while specific disfigurements may prevent one from being the slaughtered or the slaughterer, it never prevents any person in the ranks of Israel from bringing a sacrifice. So, it is the unfortunate task of both unblemished animal and unblemished kohen to provide restitution and restoration for those who are blemished.
It is also helpful to consider the expanded meaning of the Hebrew word mum, blemish. In the Bible mum refers to moral. As well as physical, blemishes (cf. Deut. 32:5where it is often translated crooked or warped) and is used extensively in this sense in the Talmud: “Do not ascribe to your fellow your own blemish” (BM 59b). If a man falsely accused someone of being a slave, it was evident that he himself was a slave, since “a person stigmatizes another with his own blemish” (Kid. 70b). So we might further understand that while it is really only the morally “unblemished” that can offer redemption to the “blemished,” it is actually the responsibility of the “whole” to bring “wholeness” to the otherwise “broken.” A denial of such responsibility, and the stigmatizing of others, might just be a justification for our own deepest sense of “brokenness.”
It is no wonder then that when Yeshua was confronted by self-righteous pietists concerning the rather blemished company that he kept, he responded by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31, Matt. 9:12). Yeshua does not challenge the health of those who dismiss the health of others, but reminds them if they have received the gift of health, then they are indeed responsible for those who have not. In the same way that he is both kohen and sacrifice, he beckons us to follow him and live sacrificially daily (Luke 9:23).
We as they are challenged to see that we are all to some degree handicapped. We each must confront our weaknesses, our inabilities, and our injuries, both physical and emotional. But if we are willing to be honest and acknowledge our brokenness then we can be made whole and bring wholeness to others.