This Shabbat we read parashat Emor. This parasha is particularly challenging. The Torah says that Kohanim, priests, cannot mourn their relatives. The High Priest may not even mourn his parents. Kohanim may not offer korbanot if they have a range of physical blemishes. Already these teachings challenge modern sensibilities and what we know about human psychology. Mourning is a healing process. Furthermore, the prohibition against offering korbanot to God because of a physical “imperfection” challenges our sensibilities about inclusion and disabilities. How can we understand the Torah’s teachings without sacrificing our commitment to the value of inclusion and human dignity? Inclusion of people with physical, as well as cognitive disabilities remains a central value for healthy, dignified, complete community life. Then the portion pivots to describe the Jewish holidays. What is the connection between the laws governing Kohanim, and the calendar? Finally, the reading concludes with perhaps the most disturbing section, called the section of the mekalel, the “blasphemer” against God. In the heat of an altercation, a person curses God, resulting in a death sentence by stoning. Beyond trying to make sense of such a capital offense, how does this story relate back to the previous two topics, each of which seems unrelated to each other? In addition, that section includes a description of the oil, bread and incense that Kohanim prepared in the sanctuary daily, as well as penalties for causing injury to another person and injury to a person’s animal. It includes the famous law of lex talionis, an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” which the rabbis correctly interpret as monetary compensation. These topics, in addition to containing disturbing, challenging statements, seem random and disconnected from each other.
Perhaps the language of the parasha provides a key to seeing a bigger picture. The two motifs that run throughout the section are food and blemishes. The Kohanim are responsible for the spiritual nourishment and well-being of the people. The symbolic representation of that nourishment is their bringing korbanot, which the parasha describes several times with the words, lechem elohechem haim makrivim, “the Kohanim offer bread, i.e., food, in the sanctuary.” Then, the parasha describes the pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot as agricultural holidays celebrating the harvest seasons with gratitude to God. In this parasha, the Torah does not mention the historical events associated with each holiday: redemption from Egypt, receiving the Torah, and the journey through the wilderness towards the land of Israel. Instead, only agricultural bounty and produce, food, is mentioned. Finally, the parasha concludes by emphasizing three ingredients for maintaining the sanctity of the Mikdash: the daily lighting of pure olive oil, the burning of incense, and the weekly baking of fresh loaves for the shulchan, the table, inside the Mishkan. That bread is called, lechem haPanim, twelves large loaves that the Kohanim eat in the Mikdash every Shabbat. Since God does not require food literally, the parasha’s theological message is likely about spiritual nourishment. Food–eating and smelling– is a tangible artifact to help us experience spiritual connectedness and satisfaction. Just as it is a blessing to feel satiated after a meal, so, too, the Kohanim and the Mikdash provided a way for the nation to feel spiritually satisfied through daily offerings to God.
If the parasha uses physical phenomena as an antecedent to the spiritual experience of inner satisfaction, contentment and well-being, then the language of blemish might similarly have a symbolic meaning. Physical blemishes often cause people to recoil. The ancient rabbis understood, however, that the Torah was not especially speaking about physical disabilities. The rabbis quickly disabused us of that superficial reading by teaching in the Talmud that once a community becomes used to the way a given Kohen’s body is configured, of course that does not invalidate the Kohen’s ability to serve as a priest (either by offering korbanot or by blessing the community, “duchanening,” during a holiday prayer service. The rabbinic teaching is called, dash ba’iro), and this principle was codified in the Shulchan Aruch in laws of the priestly blessing:
A Kohen who has a deformity on his face or his hands…deformed [fingers], or paralyzed [fingers] should not perform the priestly blessing…because the congregation will stare at him. And this is also the rule for one who has a deformity on his feet, in a place where they ascend to the platform without socks. Also…if he has saliva drooling down his beard, or if his eyes tear up. And similarly, one who is blind in one of his eyes should not perform the priestly blessing. However, if he “is a regular” in his city, meaning that the people are familiar with him and everyone recognizes that he has this deformity, he may perform the blessing, even if he is blind in both eyes. Anyone who has stayed in the city thirty days is called “is a regular” but only in his city — whereas if he goes temporarily to a different city and stays there thirty days, no. However, even if he did not come to live in the city to become one of the city residents, but rather to become a schoolteacher or scribe or attendant, for a year or half a year, he is considered to be “a regular” after 30 days (Shulchan Aruch 128:30)
The rabbis interpreted the Torah as less interested in physical blemishes, and more concerned with the psychological and emotional responses to perceptions of normativity. Once people experienced a Kohen’s presence as familiar, his physical characteristics no longer defined the boundaries of normativity that would preclude his full participation in the community as a Kohen. Put in contemporary terms, the rabbis recognized that boundaries defining inclusion or exclusion were socially constructed. One’s wholeness does not depend upon measurement against a “perfect hand” or a “standard, normative eye.” Sensitive to the need to allocate time to a process to support inclusivity of differences, the halacha grants a period of 30 days for people to build enough familiar relationships to widen their communal tent. Unfortunately, the rabbis did not describe the structure of that process, or its underlying values. That is now left up to the sensibilities and skill of any particular community. A most powerful model for cultivating a lens of inclusion today is based on the traditional, indigenous people’s wisdom of peacemaking circles. The very structure of “circle” enables people to make room for each other, providing a place for the whole person to be completely present. (see, Kay Pranis & Circle Processes; Peacemaking Circle Training) Such sensibilities might lie at the root of the rabbinic explanation of physical blemishes in the priesthood.
The Torah describes the Kohanim as exemplars of people who will be free of all “blemishes.” At Mt. Sinai, Hashem told Moshe that the divine aspiration for the Jewish people is to become a nation of priests: …you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Shemot 19:6) The rabbis offered many different explanations of God’s vision. Rashi explained that “a nation of priests” refers to the future monarchs of the nation. Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yaakov Sforno, 15th-16th century Italy, interpreted the phrase to mean that the Jewish people will all serve God by calling on God’s name in order to sanctify life. Some ancient rabbis, however, emphasized the spiritual and emotional identification that all members of the nation would feel for each other. Instead of a literal explanation of blemish as physical “wound,” the midrash turns our attention inward to the affective dimension of collective identity:
This teaches us that the people were as one body with one spirit. That is also what the verse means from Chronicles I 17:21, when the text says, “Who is like you, Jewish people! A singular nation in the world.” When one person sins, the entire nation suffers, as the text says, “Did not Achan, the son of Zerach, steal from the Lord, and the entire nation suffered the consequence? He is but one person, yet when one suffers, everyone feels the pain.” (Yehoshua 22:20) Additionally, “The Jewish people are a lost lamb.” (Yirmiyahu 50:17). If this lamb injures a limb, the entire flock suffers. The same is true of the entire nation: one person suffers, everybody feels the pain. [This is counter-cultural. The normative model is one person suffers while onlookers rejoice. (Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Shemot 19:6)
Bringing holiness into the world as a nation of priests means, according to this interpretation, feeling one another’s pain. It means living a life nourished by empathy and grounded by compassion. It means suffering when another suffers abuse, and the metaphor that runs throughout this parasha alerting our awareness of discomfort, pain, and abuse, is the language of “blemish.”
If one reads Emor metaphorically, therefore, the “unblemished” image of the priesthood is an instruction about the neshama, the inner person rather than their exterior. It is the Torah’s teaching about interior wounds, with priests representing the possibility of safeguarding and acknowledging the “whole person,” inside and out. The word the Torah uses to designate a condition of broken interiority, is tumah, misleadingly translated as “impurity.” “Blemish, “ מום in Hebrew, and “impurity,” tumah, mirror each other. Physical blemishes affect the physiological expressions of inner pain, hurt, wound. Tumah, caused by contact with death, or loss, or by sin, affects the inner person. Blemish, according to this reading, is the physical representation of the internal phenomenon of tumah.
This reading makes sense of the two sets of rules distinguishing the holiness of priests: rules governing mourning and marriage. Kohanim may not mourn for anyone but their immediate relatives, and a sister only if unmarried. The Kohen Gadol engages no rituals of public mourning. Kohanim may not marry widows or divorcees. The High Priest must marry only a virgin. Sexual intimacy causes physical blemish, while exposing a person’s most fragile emotional vulnerabilities at the same time. Emor, therefore, is the Torah of imagining a human life protected from blemish, from emotional wounds, emotionally pure and whole. Kohen, in this sense, does not only mean God’s servant. Becoming a nation of Kohanim means living collectively in ways that protect everyone’s emotional well-being against injury, and helping each other heal when one inevitably experiences loss, or victimization, or inadvertent insult, or injury.
Volatile, aggressive, hostile language wounds as well; hence, the tale of the blasphemer. The verb the Torah uses for “cursing” God is, “piercing God’s name.” Human language carried enough rage and aggression to perforate God’s name in the world, jurying and exiling the divine presence form that place in that moment. Injury to animals and to other human beings also fit within this motif of blemishing, and the Torah names occasions of bodily injury.
Now the terminology of food and blemish can be understood as forming a symbol-system of meaning-making, of spirituality. Kohanim offered korbanot as servants in the Mikdash. However, korbanot did not literally “feed” God. Instead, they provided our ancestors with a ritualized way of feeling nourished by God. Analogously, the Torah’s concern with blemishes is deeply emotional as well as physical. God wants the Jewish people to be a nation of priests, unblemished. How can one nourish an inner life of satisfaction, satiation, gratitude, and blessedness, if through our actions and words we cause emotional injury and pain? Or how can one heal from that pain and suffering? Even the most tender of interactions, sexual intimacy, can hurt. Even our attempts to give gifts to others, to be sensitive and giving, can result in a broken spirit or misgiving. Every day, therefore, the Torah describes the Kohanim rekindling the oil, refreshing the incense, and guarding the baking of nourishing loaves of bread, so that the sanctuary provided a model for life without injury, without hurt, without wounds. And when our actions inevitably wound, the sanctuary provided a restorative way for us to heal those wounds that we caused by injuring others, and in so doing, injured ourselves.