Chelm is a town known in European Jewish folklore as a community of holy fools. (Illustration/F. Halperin's "Khakme Khelm," Warsaw, 1926)
Chelm is a town known in European Jewish folklore as a community of holy fools. (Illustration/F. Halperin's "Khakme Khelm," Warsaw, 1926)

We cannot teach Torah by avoiding portions we don’t like

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 21:1–24:23

In the two years since the Rabbi of Chelm began “Village of Chelm Zoom Torah Study” once a week, the wise people of Chelm had learned to mute and unmute, remain calm in breakout rooms (some thought they had to escape) and, mostly, not to slurp soup on camera.

Again, the Torah portion is Emor. Many years before the pandemic, when the Rabbi of Chelm was asked to guest teach at a teen retreat for another congregation, it was Parashat Kedoshim, the portion before Emor. Lucky me, he had thought; the “Holiness Code” is much better than Emor, what with its sacred calendar and archaic rules about the animals to be offered in sacrifice and the purity of the officiants: All must be without physical blemish.

While leading the Shabbat morning service, he looked at the teens and asked, “Who here had Kedoshim and the Holiness Code (“Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind …”) as their b’nai mitzvah Torah portion?” Half the hands went up. That was odd. He took a guess and asked, “Who had Yitro, the Ten Commandments?” The other half raised their hands. Turns out the rabbi of this congregation had decided that there were only two Torah portions for a bat or bar mitzvah. All ethics, all the time. As if nothing else happened in the world.

If the teen retreat had been scheduled one week later, coinciding with Parashat Emor, the teens might have heard:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 

“Speak to Aaron, saying, ‘No man of your seed to their generations in whom there is a defect shall come forward to offer his God’s bread. For no man in whom there is a defect shall come forward, no blind man nor lame nor disfigured nor malformed, nor one with a cataract in his eye nor scab nor skin flake nor crushed testicle. No man from the seed of Aaron the priest in whom there us a defect shall draw near be to bring forward the fire offering of the Lord. There is a defect in him.(Leviticus 21:16-21)

We are embodied souls, and things happen to bodies. Ironically, the Rabbi of Chelm realized, teens know this well. They are constantly judged on their appearance.

We do not need to avoid difficult passages in the Torah. It is foolish, as the Rabbi of Chelm should know, to apply modern sensibilities to ancient texts. Over the centuries we have transcended the sensibilities of the ancient world, even of the Talmud, because of the Talmud, specifically Berakhot 9:5: “It is time to serve the Lord, go against your Torah.”

We increase Torah by wrestling with Torah.

Over time, even in Chelm, disability inclusion and ableism awareness are Torah. Judaism and disability begin in the Biblical narrative and continue past it.

This is beautifully described in Zohar, Bamidbar 152a:

Come and see: There is a garment that is visible to everyone. The simple people, when they see a person dressed beautifully do not observe any further, and they consider the garment as the body [of a man] and the body like his soul.

Similar to this is the Torah. It has a body, which is composed of the commandments of the Torah that are called the “body of the Torah.” This body is clothed with garments, which are stories of this world. The ignorant of the world look only at that dress, which is the story in the Torah, and are not aware of anything more. They do not look at what lies beneath that dress.

Those who know more do not look at the dress, but rather at the body beneath that dress. The wise, the sages, the servants of the loftiest King, those that stood at Mount Sinai, look only at the soul which is the essence of everything, the real Torah. 

Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams z”l, in her 1998 book “Judaism and Disability,” wrote: “Perhaps Daniel Boyarin puts it best. Though he speaks of attitudes towards sexuality, his words are easily extended to refer to disabilities and disabled persons: ‘My assumption is that we cannot change the actual past. We can only change the present and future; yet this involves changing our understanding of the past. Unless the past is experienced merely as a burden to be thrown off … then constructing a monolithically negative perception of the past and cultivating anger at it seem to be counterproductive and disempowering for change.”

We don’t teach Torah by canceling or avoiding portions we do not like. Rabbi David Hartman taught, “The living word of God can be mediated through the application of human reason.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].