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Judaism and Disabilities: Parshat Emor

In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read of the Kohen and the many rules to which he must subscribe, above and beyond those of a regular Israelite. In addition to not becoming impure by a dead body and limitations on who he can marry, the Torah says: 

“Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.  No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long;  no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes….”

We no doubt find such a commandment to be offensive and perplexing. Offensive—because the Torah does not not seem to be a superficial book nor Judaism a superficial culture and religion which would judge people by their skin or their physical conformity, but rather by the measure of their character.  Perplexing—because indeed our greatest leader, Moshe, was just such a person with a blemish and the Torah does not hide the fact, nor is it something that disqualified him. 

Judaism has a blessing for when we see a person or other creature who is formed differently than the average.  It is a blessing in the category of birkat hashevach, blessings of praise to God when we see something inspiring in the world which can help us to recognize the Divine. Other blessings in this category are those over wonders of creation, like shooting stars or the sea, or over beautiful things like blossoming trees. The Talmud states, “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees spotted people…One who saw a person with unusually black skin, a person with unusually red skin, a person with unusually white skin, an unusually tall and thin person, a dwarf, or one with warts, recites: Blessed is the One Who makes creatures different.”  

This is really an amazing testament to how modern ancient Judaism was, that its reaction to someone who looked different or disabled was to see God’s praise in diversity.  A world where everyone is the same does not inspire us. A world of diversity is a testament to God’s creative power.   

But if this is so, how are we to understand the rules in our Torah portion requiring a blemish-free kohen?

In 1919, on the occasion of the 15th yahrzeit of Theodor Herzl, Rabbi Silverstone, the first rabbi of Kesher Israel, wrote the following (Matok MiDivash p.29): “How wondrous is the photo of Herzl. Look at his picture and you find in it what you desire to see in someone who is tall and lofty. The more you see him, the more you desire to look upon him…He had the beauty of King Saul, who was taller than everyone else…he had the strength of King David…”   

Theodor Herzl’s ability to inspire and to galvanize was, to some extent, due to his looks, his stature and his voice. In contrast, Moshe’s ability came from his love of the Jewish people, his loyalty to them and his relationship to God. It seems the Kohen work requires Herzl’s tools and not Moshe’s.  

This makes me think about Sheryl Grossman, a woman I first met when she was an undergraduate at Washington University in 1996. She stayed for many years in my community in St. Louis, then moved to several cities in order to do her life’s work of advocating on behalf of those who are disabled. She had a very rare Ashkenazi inherited disease, Bloom’s syndrome. As a result, her life and stature were short, but no one was more dedicated, more passionate, and more persistent than Sheryl. She drove a car, advocated on Capitol Hill, taught others with disabilities they could be independent, and had no self pity; only a strength and heroism she maintained until the end of her life. I believe that her disability, her stature, her differentness, was her great strength.  Short or tall, well spoken or not, are tools—just realities of who we are, they are nothing except the way we use them.   

Both Sheryl and Herzl made a profound difference, one used tall stature and one short stature, one a loud voice and one a quiet voice of perseverance. There is not one method for things. The Kohen must look a certain way, but this is not a value judgment; it is just the right tool for the stage he is on. I think Moshe could not have been the leader he was if he had been a blemishless Kohen; he could only be the great Moshe because he was the stuttering leader, humble and powerful, loyal and dedicated, an insider and outsider.   

We all are who we are. What really matters is how we use what God gave us.

About the Author
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, MSW, MA, LCSW, is the Rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. He is a founder of the blog Morethodoxy.org, the author of the Everything Jewish Wedding Book (2008), and a periodic contributor to Conversations: The Journal of Jewish Ideas and Ideals and The Washington Jewish Week. He holds a Certificate in Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.
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