Disability and Parashat Emor:
Sometimes it is easy for me to excited about my Judaism, easy to be excited about Torah and the paths to goodness it opens up for me. Sometimes it is harder. In this trip through parashat emor I want to look in one of the more difficult places.
The opening part of the parasha sets out rules concerning the priesthood. We are told that the right to serve God comes with certain conditions and in the context of setting out these conditions that we find the following verses.
‘The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to the Aaron and say: no man of your offspring, throughout the ages, who has a defect [lit. muum] 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 sunken nose (per Rashi) … who is a hunchback, or a dwarf … having a defect he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.’ (Lev -21)
I don’t claim that these verses, even after careful massage, can be seen as benign, but I do believe that we can find something redemptive in them.
I want to make use of two tools – Rabbinic interpretation and historical contextualisation.
The Shulchan Arukh (O.H. 128:30, based on T.B. Megilla 24b) responds to these verses in a perfectly straightforward manner – it prohibits the kohen with a muum from ‘lifting up their hands’ - taking part in the priestly blessing - since the community may be distracted by the mark. Then comes a moment of bravery, ‘but if the person is known in their town, and people are used to seeing them and know they have such a mark – they do lift up their hands.’ Then – in another moment that seems to owe nothing to pshat interpretation – rather than allow communal prejudice to judge whether a certain person is well enough known to meet the criteria set out above, the Shulchan Arukh states that if a person has been in a town for 30 days they are deemed to be a customary sight in the town. If we feel uncomfortable with the special needs of others after this time we must consider that we are the ones who lack holiness, we are not to blame our discomfort on anyone or thing else.
We also need to ensure that our discomfort with these verses is indeed warranted as a matter of pshat – context. In the very next verses we learn that even though those with muumim are unable to serve as Priests, they receive the very same payment for their non-service as active Priests. Those with a defect ‘may eat the food of God and of the holy’ (Lev ). These verses may well be a reaction against those Ancient societies who excluded certain groups from avodah – holy service or work – without providing a safety net – a welfare system.
Worth a pause to consider what other ancient societies made of those with disabilities.
On Radio Four this week there was a programme about a debate between Clive James and Gore Vidal. The debate was about whether Christianity contributed anything to the moral standards set forth by the Greek philosophers who were of course pagans. Gore Vidal waxed lyrical about how wonderfully moral the Greeks were. And Gore Vidal is a very intelligent person, but this is nonsense, certainly nonsense if you were disabled.
Aristotle: “Let there be a law that no crippled child should be reared!”
Plato: “This is the kind of medical provision you should legislate in your state. You should provide treatment for those of your citizens whose physical constitution is good. As for the others, it will be best to leave the unhealthy to die, and to put to death those whose psychological condition is incurably corrupt. This is the best thing to do, both for the individual sufferer and for society.”
Maybe in Ancient times the notion that one with a defect would be able to serve as a Priest was so unconscionable that it need not be stated, and that the hiddush - the radical newness and the importance of Torah - is that society owes support to such a person.
We are not given a benign Torah, but nor are we powerless in the face of the difficulties our tradition poses for us. As Israelites may we always find the energy and the will to wrestle boldly with those texts that cause pain and may we prevail.