Confronting Discrimination and Parsha Emor Head On

Not much is known about Australia’s indigenous people who served in World War I and World War II. Even less is known about the treatment of returned indigenous soldiers. These brave young men who risked their lives alongside European Australians were denied the dignity accorded their white counterparts. They were refused entry to the Returned Soldier League or to the many clubs formed for members. They had to fight for, but were often denied, the pensions and other benefits granted to Vets. They were even denied the right to march in the ANZAC parades – held on ANZAC Day, the most sacred day in the Australian calendar. As a nation, Australia is only now beginning to recognize the discrimination experienced by Indigenous soldiers.

Like Indigenous soldiers, people with disabilities are often subjected to discriminatory treatment. People with disabilities have been excluded from schools and the workforce, from synagogues and cinemas. Sometimes the discrimination is overt, the discriminators unapologetic. Other times the discrimination is structural or institutional and the practitioners may be unaware of the discrimination. Laws around the world have tried to remedy this and some of these are having an impact on the lives of some people. At the very least there has been a move to remove offending laws that facilitate discrimination or openly proclaim it. So a law prohibiting the participation of people with disabilities is now rare.

Yet, as Jews we cannot ignore the fact that in the Torah there is a mitzvah from which people with disabilities are overtly and by name excluded. In Parsha Emor the Torah is very clear — Kohanim (those within the community charged with responsibility of the Priesthood) who have disabilities may not participate in the majesty of the sacrifice. True, this is a mitzvah limited to men and only to those men whose fathers were Kohanim. Nonetheless, the explicit nature of the exclusion is deeply disturbing.

In case we were uncertain who is specifically excluded as disabled, a list of disabilities is provided (Leviticas/Vayikra 21:16-23):

Anyone among your descendants who has a blemish may not approach to present his God’s food offering. Thus, any blemished priest may not offer sacrifice. [This includes] anyone who is blind or lame, or who has a deformed nose or a misshapen limb. [Also included] is anyone who has a crippled leg, a crippled hand, who is a hunchback or a dwarf, who has a blemish in the eye, who has severe eczema or ringworm, or who has a hernia… [H]e may not come to the cloth partition [in the sanctuary], and he may not approach the altar if he has a blemish. He shall thus not defile that which is holy to Me, since I am God [and] I sanctify it.

It is true that men with disabilities are still allowed to remain Kohanim. Like Australia’s Indigenous soldiers they are allowed to wear the uniform. They are allowed to eat of the sacrifice like other Kohanim. But they are specifically excluded from participating in the key function of the Kohanim. They may not participate in the majesty and theatre of the sacrifice that brings the nation together. They may not be present at that moment on Yom Kippur, that most holy day, when the Kohanim have the attention of all the people of the community.

This is outright discrimination and all the subtle readings in the world cannot change this. The reference is NOT to spiritual blemishes and cannot be dismissed on the basis that we all have spiritual limitations. First of all that would have to include all the Kohanim who were allowed to officiate. Secondly, were that the case, there would have been no need for the specific list of disabling attributes.

Equally, to simply say that we are better now than people were then, is not a good enough response to the overt discrimination – even if it were true. We may now, I guess, be better at seeing past the body to the person; past the form to the substance. However the focus in the media on an idealized body suggests a level of body worship that the Hellenists would have recognized. And the fact that there are laws against discrimination is evidence of the reality of discrimination on the ground.

We also cannot excuse God – as s/he is the proclaimer of this law – by saying that there are lots of other positive, inclusive statements in the Torah, the Talmud and other sacred sources. We can say that Emor need not frame the debate, because we are all made in God’s image. But this does not change the fact that this statement of exclusion is specific and demeaning.

So what can we do? Other than feeling acutely uncomfortable, is there no way we can respond? No possible way out of this? We cannot pick and choose which words of the Torah we are going to acknowledge, although there are always the interpretive methods of reading text adopted by the Rabbis. But there is no authoritative source that specifically responds to and provides a means of overcoming this discriminatory mitzvah.

I think there is one way out that is distinct from the responses above.

What is being regulated at this point of the Torah is the practice of the Kohanim in the Temple. In other words, it is part of the law pertaining to animal sacrifice. This was pertinent at the time of the Temple, but not while  there is no Temple. The question, then, is will this law be operative once the Temple is rebuilt with the coming of the Messiah. The answer must be yes. Unless, of course, we adopt the position of Maimonides (the Rambam) about animal sacrifice. After all, the Rambam is one of the most important, influential and authoritative explicators of the Torah.

Maimonides has us believe in perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple. However, he argues that animal sacrifice was only ever intended to be a part of Jewish history for a limited time. This is because Rambam considers that God provided for centralized animal sacrifice as a concession to B’nei Yisrael because this was the way that the people among whom they lived engaged in worship. It would be too much to expect that the nascent nation could imagine the modern practice of prayer and could do without the spectacle of  sacrifice in Temple worship. So Maimonides argues that there will be no sacrifice when the Temple is rebuilt.

Many commentators do not accept this argument and believe that sacrifices will be re-instituted when the Temple is rebuilt. However, one consequence of accepting the Rambam’s approach is that the discriminatory law about people with disabilities was only for a time and place in the past. Whether this is because people at that time could not see past disfigurement, becomes a  moot point. If there are no animal sacrifices, there will be no officiating Kohanim. If there are no officiating Kohanim, the lack of people with disabilities among their number becomes irrelevant.

This does not completely answer the question about the exclusion of people with disabilities that we find in Emor. This is because the Temple practices have morphed into modern worship that includes a role for modern-day Kohanim – Birkat Kohanim. This is a blessing of the community offered by Kohanim every day in Israel and less often in the Diaspora. So the question arises whether a person with a disability can take part in the ceremony involved in Birkat Kohanim.

It would seem, at first sight, that the prohibition of Emor would apply to Birkat Kohanim as this is the last remnant of Temple practice and attempts to contain some of the majesty of Temple services. But unlike the discussion of Emor, there is attention paid to this question in the Talmud. In Megillah 24b the discussion about who may or may not recite Birkat Kohanim is concerned about the impact that the person with a disability has on the community, who may be distracted by the disability. This is odd, because we are also told not to look at the Kohanim while the blessing is performed. So we should not be distracted in the first place!

Nonetheless, it is suggested that people with certain disabilities may be excluded from performing Birkat Kohanim: those with deformities of the hands or feet, those whose eyes run, a person who is blind, a person whose hands are coloured. In each case, though, there is a response which always comes down to the same thing. If people in the neighborhood are familiar with the person they won’t be distracted – so the person can perform the blessing.

So it seems that the Talmud recognizes that community values have a complex relationship with law and religious practice. If something is really foreign to us, we are distracted by it, we lose focus on what’s important and we forget what we are doing. Distraction from ritual practice is bad, so if a person’s disability distracts us, the Rabbis believed that the person with the disability should be excluded from the important task of the blessing. But the Rabbis also recognized that quite often the disability won’t be a distraction, in which case the person can participate in Birkat Kohanim.

This provides a solution to the whole sorry business of discrimination. If we know the people in our community, we will overcome our initial limited reaction that sees the disability rather than the person. By coming to know people with disabilities, we will cease to stereotype them. By coming to know people with disabilities, we will have better insight into the diversity of God’s image in which we are made. And once we know people with disabilities we will realize that discrimination in unjust.

If we truly want to include all people in our community, we must come to recognize that any exclusion is an affront to dignity. I haven’t addressed the issue of women and Birkat Kohanim, but disability discrimination is gender-neutral. An Indigenous Australian soldier should have always been allowed to march alongside his fellows. A Kohan with a disability should be allowed to officiate in Birkat Kohanim where the majesty of the Kohanim now resides. It is within our power, as Jews, as people, to change the world simply by getting to truly know the people in our community. Discrimination must be confronted head on – whatever its source – or the whole society will be poorer.

About the Author
Melinda Jones is a feminist human rights scholar & activist, working on a range of social justice projects on women's empowerment; disability, Judaism and Jewish law; and gender and children's health rights. Her previous research has included books, chapters and articles about the rights of vulnerable people in domestic and international law. Topics have included the rights of people with disabilities; free speech & racial hatred; the rights of the child; religion & the law; and feminism, gender & women's rights. Melinda taught political science and law at Australian Universities for over 20 years.
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