by Nancy Coren
May 1, 2021
Let’s begin by reading a section from parasha Emor together: Leviticus chapter 21 verses 16-24).
This part of Emor, is one that I find at odds with our present-day sensitivities about individuals who have physical challenges. We no longer use the word, “imperfections” when speaking about individuals with varying abilities. While we discuss the varying abilities that individuals have or the varying challenges that individuals face today the use of the word disability is not considered to be in good taste.
How is it that the Torah can speak about kohanim who have “defects” as being disqualified to offer the sacrifices to G-d yet able to partake of the benefits of those sacrifices? It has been suggested that perhaps this disqualification is not about ablism. Ablism means blocking individuals who have physical challenges from doing activities which they are capable of doing, of stifling their potential. The Torah does not say that a Kohen who has a defect is no longer a Kohen, nor does it say that a Kohen who has a defect is unable to partake in the benefits due to all kohanim. Perhaps as Nick Dupree, a Medicare disability advocate wrote, “Maybe a disabled Kohen couldn’t drag a large bull up the ramp to the sacrificial altar,” and that is why the regulation was written.
In general, if you look at the Torah’s treatment of individuals who face physical challenges you will see that it is generally affirming. Just last week, we read, in parasha Kedoshim, “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.” … “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” Each of these statements in what is known as the holiness code points to an attitude of showing that individuals with physical challenges are not to be treated in ways that would be harmful to them. In this day and age, the word “inclusion” would be the operative word of those Torah teachings.
If you look for key figures in the Torah, who faced physical challenges, you can find many. Isaac was blind at the end of his life, Leah had weak eyes, Moses was slow of speech. Yet Isaac still gave the blessing to his sons, Leah still was blessed with many children, and Moses became the greatest prophet of Israel.
Inclusion and respect are indeed core values in Judaism. Let me share two midrashim that speak about these values. The first tells about Moses who went to receive the law on Mt. Sinai. G-d kept him on the mountain for 40 days, explaining the entire Torah to him. According to the midrash, each night Moses forgot what he had learned, so G-d retaught him each day modifying the way in which the lessons were taught. Finally, on the 40th day, G-d gave the Torah to Moses as a gift. Why did G-d not give the Torah as a gift on the first day? “To encourage the teachers of slow learners!”
A Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote, “Think with me for a moment about what this midrash means. Moses had the best teacher that there could ever be – God Himself. And yet, God had to teach him, and then re-teach him over and over and over again until he grasped the full meaning of the Torah. And God had to modify the way in which He taught. And if God did so, then surely so must we. We human teachers have to be patient, and more than patient if necessary, when we teach those who are learning disabled.
What a powerful midrash this is! It speaks, not only to teachers but to parents and siblings and nurses and doctors and caretakers and all those who deal with those facing physical and emotional challenges. It teaches those who teach and those who feed and dress and care for the differently abled that your efforts sometimes require enormous patience, but if God could do it, then so can you.”
The second midrash tells about the Mashiach who is sitting amongst the poor and diseased individuals in the gates of Rome. The midrash asks how you can tell which individual is the Messiah? All the individuals, except the Messiah, are taking off all of their bandages at one time and then replacing them all. The Messiah is the one who is taking off his bandages one at a time and replacing each one after it has been removed. He is doing this in case he is called so there should be no delay in his arrival. What is important about this midrash, is that the Messiah not only lives amongst those with physical impairments, he has a physical impairment as well. Rabbi Judith Abrams commented on this midrash in the following way: “This vision of the messiah is almost the exact opposite of the image of the kohen that we saw in today’s Torah reading. The kohen cannot serve if he is ritually impure – the messiah is ritually impure by his own choice, by choosing to live among the lepers at the gates of Rome. The kohen cannot serve if he is physically handicapped – the messiah is chosen because he is physically handicapped. The kohen puts the lepers outside of the gates of the community while he enters the sanctuary. The messiah chooses to stay outside the gates with the lepers instead of entering the sanctuary. And yet it is he, and not the kohen, who will bring the final redemption!”
Perhaps you’ve heard about congregations that make a point of setting aside time for Jewish Disabilities and Inclusion Month. It kind of reminds me of what I learned as an elementary school teacher about the least effective way to bring about inclusion…. you set aside a special month that focuses on a subset of the entire school population. Instead inclusion should mean focusing on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses at all times and having accommodations in place for the total participation by all who desire to enter your doors. I became particularly aware of this here in Israel when we had elections and my polling place was inside a middle school. The voting booth was on the 2nd floor of a building with no elevator. A woman somewhat older than I said very loudly to the poll workers, “ So maybe next year you’ll put the booth on the third floor and then for sure I won’t be able to vote!” When I asked my brother about this situation he commented that in Israel, one need only let the voting commission know that you are physically challenged and you can be reassigned to a special building that will accommodate your needs. I see this as totally unacceptable! It might be granting equal rights, but it is not inclusive.
It behooves us to recognize that human beings come into this world with all kinds of abilities, both physical and intellectual. It should always be within our mindset that G-d created all of humankind and each of us is to be valued. We can feel uneasy with this week’s Torah portion, and that’s okay. What we need to ask ourselves, however, is what are we doing to make sure that the spaces and places we inhabit provide for the needs of all who enter?