Naomi Graetz

The Exclusivity vs. Inclusivity of Priesthood: Parshat Emor

When I used to teach English, I would have to explain to my students that “exclusivee” which in Hebrew has a positive meaning—as something special, is built on the premise, that what makes it special is that it excludes, leaves out, is not shared. And that unfortunately describes our priesthood:

God said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not become someone’s [wife], for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself (Leviticus 21: 1-4).

So what this means today is that a Cohen can only attend the funeral of his immediate relatives, but not his married sister, because she is not a virgin.


The chapter goes on to limit who an ordinary priest can marry:

 They shall not take [into their household as their wife] a woman defiled by harlotry (אשה זנה וחללה), nor shall they take one divorced from her husband. For they are holy to their God (Leviticus 21:7).

Why are there two different words for the harlot, zonah and cḥalalah? Is one a prostitute, who willingly has sex with others, and the other a woman defiled by rape, who had sex unwillingly? And in Orthodox communities the cohen who takes his ancestry seriously will not consider marrying a divorcee. What happens if it is the daughter of the priest who is “defiled” or “defiles herself”?

When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire (Leviticus 21:9).

Since it is her father (who owns her) he is the one defiled and she is burnt alive. (And we thought this only happens in India). And it gets worse when it comes to the High Priest, for the only person he can marry is a virgin:

He may take [into his household as his wife] only a woman who is a virgin. A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is degraded by harlotry—such he may not take. Only a virgin of his own kin (מעמיו) may he take as his wife— that he may not profane his offspring among his kin, for I God have sanctified him (Leviticus 21:13-15).

The addition of the widow to this list is troubling. Not only that but the virgin has to be related to him in some way. Does it mean she has to be from the priestly family, or can she be from one of the tribes? Can she be from the nation? Or does she have to be an Israelite? Fortunately, the text is deliberately vague. There is clearly a contradiction between profaning, defiling, and being holy, kadosh. But what immediately follows these passages–with the implication that something is wrong with non-virgins and that being a virgin is the highest quality for a woman–is difficult for this modern reader to stomach:


God speaks further to Moses: 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. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer God’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God (Leviticus 21:16-21).

In true rabbinic mode, I ask: מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני    “What does Shmita have to do with Mount Sinai?”  This question was famously asked in one of the oldest midrashim, Sifra (Behar 1). Shmita, has to do with the land resting every seven years. The land takes a sabbatical. But the root also has the sense of omission—to make something go away. Pretend it’s not there, to leave out.  I ask myself: What in the world is the connection between non-virgins and those who are disabled and therefore forbidden to function as priests? My answer is that there is something unsettling about them, about their lack of perfection. They are perceived as dangerous to the status quo. Sacrifices that are offered up at the altar have to be perfect and without defects. This has even carried over to the laws of kashrut. A chicken that has a defect or that is slaughtered improperly cannot be considered kosher.


I was in graduate school in 1966, when Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo was published. We all eagerly read it and it became the guideline for reading the Book of Leviticus. Her book was particularly influential to me at the time because my thesis was about the Grotesque in English Literature and I was studying binaries: good vs. evil; war vs. peace; life vs. death and so on. Suddenly all the laws of what was allowed and what was forbidden fell into place. If we were on the wrong side of the binary, then we were in danger. And perhaps the most dangerous of all states was that of the liminal, the between, the status that was unclear. The mezuzah on the threshold now made sense, it was to protect us from death, but also to announce proudly that we were not of other faiths. What kept us safe, kept us in, kept others out. It took me a long time to realize that those who abide by the concepts of absoluteness, purity, perfection, wholeness are more dangerous than those who engage in relativism and the ability to hold on to two opposing truths at the same time. The latter are safer ways of living in our complicated society.

Are virgins considered to be pure, as opposed to non-virgins (divorcees, widows, harlots)? And what about rape victims? According to the great scholar, Jacob Milgrim who wrote a monumental commentary on the Book of Leviticus, the word חללה (ḥalalah) refers to a raped woman (someone who has been penetrated, pierced, fatally wounded). Is this why the passages about disabilities and defects follow?  I find this very disturbing.  To put this into contemporary terms, what if I were to say the unthinkable, that those who were hostages (and specifically the women whom we presume were raped) are now considered to be impure and not to be welcomed back into society. And what about all the amputees who were injured during the last seven months?  Are they to be pariahs?  Not only have the 132 hostages (of whom many are no longer alive) been violated, maimed, mentally and physically and possibly pregnant, but are they to be sullied and not able to be full citizens?


We can say this is just a metaphor.  We don’t have a priesthood anymore that sacrifices animals and then shares their food with a select few. What does any of this have to do with us.  However, metaphors are not just metaphors. This idea of exclusivity vs. inclusivity permeates society. It affects our way of thinking. We do not welcome those who are different. We often demonize them. And in some societies, like the case of the daughter of a priest who is a harlot, the women are killed for the honor of the family.

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, who is blind, writes that “Our sacred texts continue to be used as weapons of exclusion”. She asks whether “a supposed broken body equals a broken person? What does that say about the ways in which we subconsciously or otherwise dehumanize those without a perfectly normative presentation?” She concludes by asking: When reading or teaching Leviticus 21, don’t shirk it off and pat yourself on the back for the fact that times have changed. Ask hard questions. In what ways is this text still so relevant to our current society? …How do we silence those who are different, subtly and explicitly, because their stories and experiences, their truths, make us uncomfortable?

Her comments are applicable to our political situation today, where both sides scream at each other—there is no dialogue—no ability to see the other as being worthy of respect. That is not to say of course, that all points of view are worthy of respect, but we should at least listen to what the other side is saying, rather than cut them off without a hearing. Who knows, we, or they, might learn something.

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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