What do we do with the verses in Torah that seem to explicitly exclude people with physical disabilities? Need they be read literally, as an illustration of how we might intentionally marginalize such members of our communities?
Teaching parashat hashavuah (weekly Torah portion) to a group of young people, I stumbled upon Leviticus verses which offended the sensibilities of that generation of youth raised to envision full inclusion of people with disabilities.
We read the curious prohibition in Torah that forbade kohanim (Israelite priests) with a moom (blemish) from serving in the priesthood and precluded them from approaching the altar to offer the fire-offerings. Leviticus 21:16-23 enumerated the specific disqualifying blemishes: blindness, injured thigh, sunken nose, hands or feet of unequal length, broken arm or leg, bone deformities, hunchback, cataracts, certain skin diseases and crushed testicle.
The subsequent verses and a related Mishnah sharpened the exclusion: Such kohanim were permitted to carry out only Temple functions not involving actual service at the altar, since “they were not standing before the Eternal.” The Torah forbade a kohen (priest) who had been blemished to approach the veil (Lev. 21:23), and as a result he was forbidden during the Second Temple period not only to enter the Temple but even to step between the altar and the sanctuary (Mishnah Kelim 1:9).
My students were horrified. Weren’t we all considered “a kingdom of priests to Me, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). How could the Torah, which teaches that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), summarily disqualify certain people who merely had some physical differences?
We explored some of the responses offered by some “traditionalists”: That back in Torah times, physical deformities were considered punishments from God, which sometimes reflected moral sins. That just as the Honor Guard for a king must consist of the most good looking and strong soldiers, so too the kohanim who worked in the Holy Temple had a special immaculate uniform, and physically, would need certain uniformity in appearance. That priestly behavior personified dedication, proficiency, and efficiency and similarly their perfection in physical appearance stood as a quick and constant reminder that in our service to the Holy One, we must aim for perfection as well.
These explanations did not pacify our study group. Soon, the indignant young people exploded with righteous indignation at the Torah teaching. No one could make sense of the words.
I noticed one young person patiently raising his hand. He said this,
Nothing really can make this make sense. It just doesn’t feel right. But I wonder if there is an important lesson in here.
How many societies hide away people with disabilities, secreting them within the walls of their homes or putting them away into institutions? The Torah could have hidden these people behind the curtains in the center of the mishkan (Tabernacle), where the Israelite community could have easily pretended they did not exist.
Rather, Jewish tradition insisted that these leaders remain directly in the line of sight of the entire Israelite community, so that everyone would need to recognize and embrace the reality: that people with physical differences are people just like everyone else. Thus, the kohen was permitted to go everywhere else, into the other parts of the Temple area, and to “eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy” (Lev. 21:22).
I learned a lot that day from this young person.
That when they sat down with the rest of the kohanim to eat, the message of inclusion would be directly in the eyesight of all the people.
That God accepts everyone, including and especially people with physical (or emotional) differences, as part of am kadosh, the holy people.
And that it takes an open mind and a loving heart to see through the righteous indignation to find inclusion at the heart of our community.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami, a Reform congregation in Calabasas, CA, where they have been welcoming and embracing Jews with disabilities since the congregation began. Or Ami is the synagogue home for Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults ages 18 to 88. Rabbi Kipnes was honored by the Los Angeles Dodgers for his work with people with disabilities. He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com