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Parashat Emor

May 12, 2017

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

This week’s parashah is a priestly delight. It’s filled with numerous teachings that were relevant to the lives of priests, kohanim, in the past, and for some kohanim, still today. Many people, not only kohanim, are challenged by some of the restrictions that were placed on the priests. Along with the numerous benefits that came along with the priesthood, there were also prohibitions, some related to whom they could marry, while others addressed certain physical characteristics that disqualified a priest from performing his priestly duties.

“The LORD spoke 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 the LORD’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the LORD have sanctified them.” (Leviticus 21:16-23)

It is quite clear that according to the Torah priests who were born with certain physical characteristics, while permitted to “eat of the food of his God,” were disqualified from performing the priestly duties related to the altar.

While today there is no Temple or altar, we still want to see the Torah as a source for eternal teachings about the Jewish people and our relationship to God, and what kind of lesson are these Biblical verses transmitting to us? Do we accept the disqualification of someone from serving the Jewish people and God based upon a physical characteristic with which they were born? We are not the first generation to struggle with the rules related to prohibitions placed upon the kohanim, nor will we be the last.

A number of years ago there was an exchange between two Orthodox rabbis about this very topic that illustrates well the struggle that many of us have not only with these teachings, but also with others that are found in our holy Torah.

The exchange began when Rabbi Benny Lau, the rabbi of the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem, wrote a Devar Torah about our parashah and said that the status of people with disabilities or certain physical characteristics is to a large extent determined by how other people within a community treat them and relate to them. At a time when these people were seen to be different, that is how Jewish tradition treated them. Today, when within our communities all people are hopefully treated equally and not understood to be different from anyone else because of how they look or what type of activities they may have greater difficulty doing, Jewish tradition should respond in kind. It is our sense of humanity and acceptance that shapes Jewish practice and acceptance of other people.

Rabbi Lau’s Devar Torah resulted in a strongly worded response by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rabbi Lichtenstein had a number of objections to Rabbi Lau’s approach, one of which was the influence that Rabbi Lau was willing to give to public sensibilities in determining halakhic practice, especially when this came from the Torah.

Rabbi Lau found support for his approach in the following Talmudic story.

Rabbi Yochanan said: A [priest] who is blind in one of his eyes may not raise his palms [to recite the priestly blessing]. Yet there was a certain man [like that] in Rabbi Yochanan’s neighbourhood who did raise his palms! [It was permitted because] that man was familiar in his own city. (Megillah 24b)

Rabbi Lau wrote that

It is clear that if the community had not reacted to those ‘blemished’ people with acceptance, the attitude of the halacha would not have changed…If this is the case, the public has enormous power to define the place and standing of people with disabilities in society. Our attitude towards the disabled is not decreed from heaven. It rests upon the attention and responsibility of the entire community. If we know to see the good and the light within each one of us, we will succeed in containing every creation, in fixing the place of people with disabilities in the very heart of the community, and in allowing each and every person to take a part in our shared effort to repair the world by the light of the Torah.

When we read the words of this week’s Torah portion may we remember that it is up to us to accept all of the members of our community, to see them as equals and to embrace them, thus playing our part in shaping the Torah.