YHVH 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… (Leviticus 22:17-20)
I know. I know. After reading these verses (from this week’s portion, Emor) it’s difficult to know where to even start.
Of course we could follow the lead of most commentators and interpret these verses allegorically. Since the priesthood and the sacrificial system are long dead, these commandments are meant to be taken symbolically: i.e., to find God we must offer up our highest selves, we must give with a whole and “unblemished” heart, etc…
As for me, while this approach may work for some passages in Leviticus, in this particular case it feels forced – and frankly just plain wrong. On balance, I believe the imperative to see God’s image in all people simply trumps a Torah passage that prescribes the physical “appropriateness” of the ancient Israelite priesthood.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat put it perfectly in her commentary on this passage:
I think of the generations who have read and cherished this text, and I imagine how many of them were halt or lame, how many had spines twisted or lungs sickly, and I wonder what reading this passage meant for them, how it damaged their sense of who they might be. I remember the cruelty of eleven-year-old girls, confronted with a classmate who had a foreshortened limb, and how their barbs sting even now, so many years after their insults were lofted in the chalky classroom air.
No, there are some things in Torah that simply cannot be allegorized – and indeed this is one such case. If the Jewish people does consider itself a “kingdom of priests,” then it is beyond shameful to suggest that anyone with a disability might be considered unworthy of divine favor. In a contemporary world that values the ethic of inclusivity, I believe it’s exceedingly problematic to even try to rationalize passages like these.
Besides, if pure physical perfection were truly the benchmark, none of us would be considered worthy. Forgive me, but I can’t help but think of the classic Jewish joke:
Mrs. Goldberg went to the butcher at least once a week to buy a chicken. And every week she would pick it up, pinch it, fondle it, smack it, then put her nose in it to smell it. When she was through, she would ask the butcher “Is this chicken fresh?” Each time the butcher would assure Mrs. Goldberg that it was.
One week she came in and again went through her ritual: pinching, fondling, smacking, smelling, then asking “Butcher, is this chicken fresh?”
Finally, the butcher replied: “Lady, could you pass that test?
No, at the end of the day, to be human means to be “broken” to a very real extent. One way or another, the truth of our imperfection is part of our very humanity.
Even so, this realization need not be an occasion for internalized shame. To be sure, if we choose to embrace the whole of who we are, we might well find that this reality offers us the potential for inner growth and transformation.
And so: as an antidote to these verses in Leviticus, here is a sampling of spiritual teachings that invite us to face our imperfections and greet our essential brokenness as a spiritual opportunity:
– “God is close to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18)
– “True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit” (Psalm 51:17)
– “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” (Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)
– “A broken heart is an open heart” (Rumi)
– There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)