Do our outer flaws make us less holy

Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Ezekiel 44:15-31

A deaf man once told me the story of his visit many years ago to a shteibel, a storefront synagogue in New York City. He sat with the small congregation, waiting for the service to begin. At last he began to wonder what was taking so long. “We’re waiting for a minyan,” someone explained to him. He looked around the room, he counted the people, and it dawned on him that they were not including him in the minyan. The man got up, left the room and abandoned organized Jewish life for the next 20 years.

Such incidents would be quite rare today, even in the Orthodox community. Still, the roots of this poignant story are in this week’s Torah portion, where we find a passage that would bring tears to the eyes of my deaf friend:

“No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire … No one who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no one 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 … ” (Leviticus 21:17-21).

The Torah lists 12 blemishes that disqualify priests from serving in the sanctuary, closely paralleling the 12 blemishes that disqualify animals for sacrifice. The rabbis expand this list significantly, enumerating in chapter 7 of Mishnah Bechorot blemishes that render priests “pasul” (unfit). The list includes deaf mutes, those who are bald or cross-eyed, have a misshapen head, missing teeth, big ears, bow legs, asthma, epilepsy or an extra finger or toe.

Our reaction to such words is visceral. With every syllable we feel the force of a blow that thrusts aside Jews with a physical defect or blemish and excludes them from the community.

We wince at the teaching of our tradition. We wince because we picture people we know and love who, through no fault of their own, live with a chronic illness, a disability or physical disfigurement. And we hear in the words of our holy text a contemptuous dismissal of their human dignity.

Some commentators accept to justify the Torah’s ruling. Me’Am Lo’ez, an 18th century work, argues that by offering a gift to a ruler via a blemished messenger we demonstrate contempt for the ruler — how much the more so when the gift is intended for God.

Others try to spiritualize the message by turning it into allegory. Blindness, says one, may refer to the moral shortsightedness of a person who accepts bribes. Another asserts: “a spiritual dwarf cannot offer the bread of God to his fellows.”

These efforts betray the commentators’ discomfort with the blatant prejudice expressed in Parshat Emor: the idea that holiness is bound up with wholeness or perfection of form.

The portion makes us angry; we want to turn away from its bigotry, its primitive superstition and fear of those who are different. But before we do, let’s ask ourselves some questions.

How many congregational clergy and temple presidents today are blind or deaf? How many are in a wheelchair? How many are significantly overweight? How often, in choosing temple leaders, do we take to heart the teaching in Pirkei Avot: “Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains”?

Perhaps the portion is not quite as primitive as we imagined. Perhaps we, in our persistent concern with physical appearance, are less enlightened than we’d like to think.

But just as we insist that there is value even in a blemished priest, so also there is something we can learn even from this blemished portion. Torah demands high standards for those who lead the community. We will not accept the Torah’s yardstick for determining fitness, but we can embrace the idea of high expectations for Jewish leaders. Yet too often today, we accord leadership to anyone who volunteers for the job, or anyone who makes “a significant gift” (which usually refers to money).

“Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?” asks Psalm 24. “Who may stand in God’s holy place?” Parshat Emor should provoke us to ask hard questions about our own criteria for worthiness. What kinds of people should be elevated to a place of honor? Which blemishes should disqualify one from Jewish leadership?

It takes courage to decide that some people are unfit to lead our synagogues and Jewish institutions, no matter how willing or generous they may be.

Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.