This week’s Torah portion, Emor, sheds light on what it takes to be a leader. Priests serving in the Temple are restricted as to whom they can marry, which of their dead they can bury and how they must maintain their ritual purity. One disturbing expectation imposed on leadership is for physical perfection — or at least the absence of what the Torah considers a moom (blemish or defect). “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall approach [the altar] to offer the sacrifice….” (Leviticus 21:21).
Women were excluded from priestly service, but so were men who had a variety of conditions, including blindness, uneven limbs, broken limbs, dwarfism or crushed testes. It is troubling that our Torah portion regards these as “blemishes” incompatible with the sacred act of bringing a sacrifice.
Yet, in general, the sacrificial system promotes the holiness of individuals who are differently abled or ill. Priests are scrupulous to maintain their ritual purity in order to be available to help those who require purification — whether from a physical blemish-like skin disease or from the spiritual blemish of sin. Each individual, having been created in the image of God, is holy. Therefore, priests willingly become impure in the process — and for the sake — of helping people return to purity.
Many commentaries emphasize the leadership lessons of moom. Leaders are held to higher (sometimes even “perfect”) standards. The more sacred and important the task, the more rigorous we must be in monitoring the blemishes in ourselves and our leaders. An individual who is ineligible for a key aspect of service and leadership may make other important contributions. (Priests who could not offer sacrifices would inspect firewood for the altar.) These are valid and inspiring points, but advocates for priests with disabilities — in ancient times and today — are not satisfied with those answers alone.
While a “blemished” priest could not offer a sacrifice, he could participate in eating a sacrifice (Leviticus 21:22). The priest who was physically “imperfect” partook of the food reserved for priests — receiving the same benefit as his able-bodied brothers. This was not just a matter of inclusion or social welfare. From a mystical perspective, the law communicates that a physical moom is not in any way to be interpreted as a spiritual moom.
Eating the sacrifice was considered a way of raising the “life energy” in the food to a state of holiness. On one level, penitents bringing their sacrifices were feeding the priests. But on a deeper level, the priests, by eating, were helping the penitents to atone. Only a holy and worthy priest could eat/transform a sacrifice, and priests with physical “defects” and “imperfections” were counted among the holy and worthy.
Therefore, be careful about the label “moom.” Outward appearances can be deceiving, and an assessment of someone else’s spiritual condition, based on what you can perceive, is shaky, at best. Equally, we need to be cautious and humble about our assessments of any moom in biblical law.
Both the spiritual vitality of the physically disabled and the not-always-obvious lessons of the Bible are attested to in a famous Talmudic story (Sanhedrin 98a). The subject is a man whose status seems pitifully low — he is a leper, bandaging his sores, sitting with the other lepers and beggars at the entrance to Jerusalem. Actually, he is the Messiah. Elijah, who will herald the Messiah, directs Rabbi Joshua ben Levi to him by this sign: Other lepers untie all their bandages at once and then reapply the dressings to their wounds, but the one awaiting his role as Messiah unbinds and rebinds one wound at a time. If the world is suddenly ready for him, there will be no delay; the moom of his lame feet will not impede him. Rabbi Joshua approaches the chosen leper and asks, “When will you come, sir?” and the Messiah answers, “Today.” When the Messiah fails to come that day, the rabbi thinks that he has spoken falsely. But the Messiah explains, quoting Psalms 95:7, “This is what I said to you: ‘Today … if you will hear His voice.’” The Messiah could and would come today, if only we would truly listen to God.
There is no simple answer for why a priest with a moom cannot approach the altar. This law can be distorted to support prejudice and suspicion. Or, it can engender reflection about our own perfection and defects. What gives anyone the right, the chutzpah, the obligation, the clarity, to lead people and serve God? And what gives anyone permission not to — or at least permission to offer a different kind of service? These are questions worth exploring, but we may have to wait and ask Elijah — or the Messiah himself — for the final answers.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Tarzana (makom.org); editor of the “Lifecycles” books series (Jewish Lights); and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her teachings, along with other spiritual resources, can be found at rabbidebra.com.