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Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.


Shabbat Emor - Is the Torah’s Discrimination Against the Physically Disabled Priest Cruel or Appropriate?

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 21, 2016

The Torah is a book that we do not access with ease.  There are passages which inspire and challenge us.  Last week we read Parashat Kedoshim with its inspiring demands of generosity, both financial – leaving the corner of one’s field and the gleanings of crops for the poor in addition to a series of tithes – and also emotional generosity – Love the stranger, the outsider.  We are forbidden from hating in our hearts and responsible not only for our behavior but the behavior of those around us.   However, at the same time there are passages which rightly disturb our modern sensibilities – proscriptions against homosexuality, calls for genocide against certain enemies and a rule regarding priests with physical disabilities in this week’s Torah portion.  

The greatness of our tradition is that it is an interpretive tradition.  We begin with the confidence that the great pre-war Lithuanian commentator, R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his Meshech Chochma, expressed about Torah that “the entire Torah and all its commandments teach compassion, mercy, and chesed.”  Based with that deep belief, each generation reads and rereads the verses in order to make sense of these passages that do not seem to uphold this foundation.

Regarding the passages in this morning’s Torah portion about restrictions on the Kohen with a physical disability from offering up sacrifices are difficult in our day to understand.  True, these individuals were permitted to function in priestly roles outside the Sanctuary, and to partake in the priestly gifts.  Attempting to make sense of this discrimination, Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz, in 16th century Prague, distinguished between a ‘mum’, the deformity which befell a person later in life and that with which one was born.  Acknowledging that in either case such a disability disqualified the Kohen from serving in the Temple, he focused on the Kohen who acquired the disability later in life.  For him, the physical malady was an outward manifestation of a spiritual corruption.  Thus the restrictions were really teaching that moral turpitude and sinfulness was what kept the priest, the holiest person in the community, from serving.  Our modern scientifically supported view that biology is not linked to morality or ethics has difficulty welcoming such a view, but it’s a nice try.

Rabbi Bradley Artson explains this rule as a reminder to us that none of us but God is perfect, and therefore that we must come before our God with the shleimut, the completeness, that comes from admitting our imperfections.  This is a very appropriate lesson, but does not explain why some kohanim do get to serve in the Temple.  It’s a little too close to a paraphrase of the infamous commandment in Animal Farm, “None of us is perfect, but some of us are a little less imperfect than others”.

Rabbi Judith Abrams, a well known feminist theologian, noted that the sanctuary was a special place where heaven and earth met, and so it was dangerous. The kohen stood at the nexus between two worlds -- between life and death, between supreme purity and imperfection, between order and chaos -- and therefore he had to be healthy and strong and pure in order to serve there.  Again we are accepting a notion of purity and strength that is based on prejudices about physical perfection and imperfection implies.

But William Herlands, a lay person writing a davar Torah for the Bronfman Fellowship website, offers a very different way of approaching this question.  He begins by wondering what is it that kohanim did in their daily role as community leaders?  He noted that for the average Israelite the Temple existed on the fringe of society. People in ancient Israel rarely entered its domain and when pilgrims did show up they were only permitted in the peripheries of the sanctuary. The building’s regular denizens – the kohanim and Levi’im – often worked behind the veil of holiness, invisible to all but God, briefly interacting with pilgrims on the holidays or when sacrifices of thanksgiving and sin were brought. The Talmud in Masechet Eiduyot describes how even the priestly dormitories and passageways were sealed off from the outside world in an ongoing battle to keep tumah, ritual impurity, outside.

Instead, lay people would most often interact with kohanim in their respective towns where local kohanim received regular tithes of fruit and bread. They may have functioned as religious authorities much like local rabbis today, teaching lessons and educating children.

So why the rule about no Kohanim with physical defects or disabilities serving in the sanctuary?  Mr. Herland compares this with another rule we read this week.  No offerings were permitted that had physical defects.  Offerings had to be in perfect condition.  The Torah fears that people will view sacrifice as a means of ridding themselves of a burdensome beast. Left to market forces alone, people would bring sacrifices from old cows that cannot produce milk or injured goats that cannot be sold at market.

Mr. Herland draws a parallel in the case of kohanim with a disability.  He writes, “ Baalei mumim were an unsettling enigma to ancient (and even modern) eyes. We can imagine the desire to remove them from the community and hide them away in the mikdash, assuaging our lingering guilt with the thought that their tasks are sanctified.  There is a sinister comfort in a society without visible disability…the Torah requires us to embrace the disabled into society. By specifically permitting a kohen baal mum to partake of the tithes and other offerings made in Jewish towns across Israel, the Torah indicates that these kohanim must dwell in the heart of the community. They are to serve the everyday religious needs of the people, instead of being shunned to the obscure recesses of the mikdash.”

It’s a creative reading that turns our initial understanding on its head.  The Torah by restricting the physically disabled and physically deformed from the Temple, forced Israelite society to welcome these individuals into the normative life of its social order.  Is Mr. Herland’s interpretation correct?  I don’t know, you would have to decide yourself.  But I think it is less overtly apologetic than telling us the sanctuary was a spiritually dangerous place and therefore only the physically whole were safe enough to serve.

And it fits an element of the role of priest.  The priest was ritual afficianado, teacher, upholder of law and also pastor.  Last week I noted a book by rabbis Nancy Weiner and Jo Hirshman, two pastoral counselors, Maps and Meaning, in which they discuss the role of the priest as pastor.  One of the important functions of the priest was to care and connect with the metzora, the individual struck with the terrible and terrifying skin condition called tzara’at.  This affliction would cause the person to be banished from the camp.  The priest was his or her contact from the unaffected community.  Hopefully the priest would be able to declare the illness as passed and allow them back into the community with holy rituals.  But if not, at least his visits offered compassion to individuals with an unsightly and most likely painful skin disease.  The ability to offer words of comfort to one who is under such distress is priceless.  How much the more so if the priest offering such comfort can do so through empathy, sharing with the sufferer his own disability or imperfection.

In a Jewish ethical text called Maalot HaMidot, translated as On the Improvement of Moral Virtues, by Rabbi Yehiel ben Yekutiel of Rome, the author in his section on Tzedakah writes, “The sages said, Greater are comforting words to a poor person then one who gives charity. For one who gives a pruta to a poor person is a blessed with six blessings, But one who comforts another with words is blessed with 11 blessings.  Rabbi Yehiel derives this lesson from a passage in the Talmud.  There the rabbis suggest that the value of comforting words are rewarded with even greater blessing than a monetary gift from an interpretation of the verse found in Isaiah 58: 

"you should offer to the hungry, your soul, nefesh; You shall satisfy the afflicted soul, nefesh" 

Reading the verse carefully one sees that more than just words, one is to offer one’s very self, one’s presence.  The word nefesh is used twice in the verse.  Initially it refers to the comforter, in the second half to the sufferer.  They are both referred to as nefashot.   This indicates to us that for Isaiah both are in many ways the same.  The caregiver may be comforting or satisfying the needs of the other nefesh, but the caregiver is a nefesh too.  In their interaction there will be transference of benefits and significance from both sides.  

In my study the last two years of Clinical Pastoral Education I have learned that pastoral work is valuable in a concrete way in the healing process, just as doctors and nurses concretely assist in the healing process.   The Maalot HaMidot is pointing to a direction in which the pastoral presence can see his or her value in this healing transaction.  The mutuality that connects healer to sufferer brings s’viah, satisfaction and gratification, to the afflicted soul and also to the one who is willing to offer his or her soul, or presence, to the one in need.

In this way, Mr. Herland’s understanding of the priestly restrictions which have the consequence of inducing the physically disabled Kohanim out into the community gives even greater healing power to such kohanim.  Shutting them up inside the sanctuary would have been comparable to putting the victims of Tzara’at skin disease outside the camp. But having teachers and pastors with their imperfections working in the community normalized these conditions and taught the powerful lesson that disabilities do not impair one emotionally, intellectually or spiritually.  We would do well to learn that lesson today for ourselves.  And to learn the value that each of us, dealing with our own imperfections, can serve as pastors, comforters and sacred vessels to others in need of support and solace.