Parshat Emor: Leviticus 21:16-24
by Nancy Coren
Painting by Elena Kotliarker, Musician of Olive Garden
There are times when I read a section of Torah that it leaves me with a sense of discomfort. For example, this morning, I felt that way when we read in Parshat Emor that any Kohen with a blemish could not serve G-d by making offerings on behalf of the community. Blemish was a term used to denote an individual who was blind, lame, or disfigured. When I see such a statement that makes me feel uncomfortable, I turn to see why such a statement might have been made in the first place.
First, it is should be noted that a “blemished” individual was not forbidden to offer a sacrifice. This might not seem like a justification for such a statement, but think about some societies in existence today, where “less than perfect” individuals do not even have the same opportunities to participate with the masses in everyday activities.
So, if the kohanim who were “blemished” were allowed to bring sacrifices to the Temple, but were not permitted to be the ones who placed them upon the altar for G-d on behalf of others, is there any discussion of why that was the case? As you can imagine, such a discussion has taken place.
In Mishnah Megillah 4:7 Rabbi Yehudah discusses kohanim who are to do the priestly blessing who have stained hands (stained by blue or red dye). He declares that they may not do so, “because the people will gaze at him.” That ruling was commented upon by the Shulchan Aruch that added that those with “conspicuous facial blemishes” were also disqualified for the same reason. Rambam also commented on the prohibition of having blemished kohanim performing the blessing of the community by saying, “Just as the kohanim should not gaze at the people to ensure that they do not become distracted, so the congregation should not gaze at the kohanim and become distracted.”
The commentary might lead one to believe that the problem with having a “blemished” Kohen acting on behalf of the community is not with the Kohen himself, but with the attitude of the community. Individuals might get so caught up with looking and staring at the individual that they forget the true purpose for their spiritual action of offering a sacrifice in the first place. Such distraction, as you know still happens today when individuals with varying degrees of handicaps enter a public space. It is only after some individuals get to know an individual who is differently abled that they can relate to them without staring.
In fact, later rabbis who commented on the disqualification of Kohanim mentioned in the Mishnah actually went on to say in Megillah 24b, that if the Kohen is known locally “then there is no impediment to his participating in the service.”
I know it might seem unusual to those of us now to think about individuals who might have been disqualified in the past from participating in leadership roles because of the community’s inability to not be caught up in focusing only on an individual’s physical differences. In this day and age we hopefully have become sensitized to not gazing upon an individual with curiosity if we notice that they are abled differently.
I firmly believe that the only blemish that should forbid one to lead as a “religious leader” of the community is not a physical blemish, but an attitudinal blemish….the blemish of arrogance.
I will end with a statement found in tractate Megillah 29a about just such a blemish!
Bar Kappara gave the following exposition: What is the meaning of the verse, “Why look ye askance, ye mountains of peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode?” (Psalm 68:17) A heavenly voice went forth and said to them: “Why do you look askance at Sinai? Ye are all full of blemishes as compared with Sinai. It is written here “with peaks” and it is written elsewhere “hunchbacked or a dwarf.” (Leviticus 21:20) R. Ashi observed: You can learn from this that if a man is arrogant, this is a blemish in him.
It is reassuring that even though today’s Torah portion gives a problematic passage with which to deal, that the Rabbis dealt with it in their commentaries on Torah in a way that can leave one with a feeling that it is not the “blemished individual” who has the problem, but the community that becomes distracted because it has a feeling of superiority over individuals who are differently abled.
Is it natural to be “distracted” when looking at individuals who are blind or have mobility issues?
How does such a distraction affect the one being stared at?
In what ways does staring at another individual impede one’s own ability to function normally?
Do you accept the sages explanation of why a “blemished” kohen cannot offer a sacrifice on behalf of the community? Why or why not?
On Originalism, Burning, and Gleaning
by Shellen Lubin
In this parsha, God gives Moses a series of laws that are specific to the priests; God then instructs Moses to tell the people about the holidays and festivals through the year, in addition to laws related to blasphemy and murder. God describes the restrictions related to priests’ sexuality and marriage. God then describes a variety of holidays, including Shabbat—the day of rest—Passover, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. God also outlines the omer period, asking the Israelites to bring food offerings to the priests for seven weeks.
Reading this parsha really pushes so many buttons for me, and, given everything we’ve been going through this last two weeks because of the release of the supreme court’s decision not just gutting but actually eliminating the Roe v Wade decision, and the rationale given for it (‘stare decisis’ be damned), makes me want to talk about the concept of Originalism itself.
As Elie Mystal says about the constitution, “This document was written without the consent of Black and Brown people in this country and without the consent of women in this country. If that is the starting point, the very least we can do is ignore what those slavers and colonists and misogynists thought and interpret the constitution in a way that makes sense for our modern world.”
Is he saying to ignore the constitution? No. Just the thoughts and feelings of the men who wrote it, particularly their feelings about people who they did not consider people, or worthy people, or the people who should be making laws for the land and decisions in the home or the marketplace. Perhaps he’s being even more of an originalist than they are, because he is trying to understand the concepts and ideals inherent in the Constitution, and ignoring the actual way those slave-owning wife-owning white men thought and felt about women and black and brown people.
I don’t necessarily think we should ignore the way they thought and felt, but I do believe we need to have a healthy skepticism about them. Not reactive cynicism, adolescent rejection wholehog, but healthy skepticism. And I know that’s what you keep me around for—yes, deeper meanings and implications, metaphorical resonances, the story and/or song and/or humor where a concept leads me, but, also, very much, healthy skepticism.
And so I try to have a deeper kind of Originalism, with both the Constitution and the Bible. It sounds something like: what was the principal, the concept, they were trying to get to? What was the subtext? And how might that have relevance with all we have learned since? I do not want to ignore the extraordinary writings, interpretations, midrash of thousands of years about the Bible, but I do want to have a healthy skepticism about the implications of what they say in a world that is very different from the one in which they lived.
Did God really mean not to press elevator buttons on the Sabbath? Elevators didn’t exist. Most of technology as we know it didn’t exist. God said “you must stop performing any work and proclaim it a Sabbath of rest.” Well, before you can decide what not doing work means, what resting means, you have to decide what is work to you. Work that you’re paid for—meaning no one can force someone else to work on the Sabbath? Or work that you love that fills your soul, whether it’s writing, or gardening, or dancing? Does it include watching tv or not? Watching TikToks on your phone or not? Reading a book or a newspaper or not? Dialing—or pushing a button—on your phone if it’s your one day to connect with your child far away, or claiming you can’t because pushing that button is against God’s word?
I notice that no one ever stopped a woman from cooking everyone’s dinner on the Sabbath. Oh, right, the Bible wasn’t written for women. In fact, there is a line in this parsha, “When a daughter degrades herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she degrades, and she must be burned in fire.” Because only her father matters. And harlotry can mean anything from sex for money to sex that someone disapproves of. But if it’s her father whom she degrades, why isn’t he burned in fire? Because she doesn’t matter. She must be done away with so that he, the only full person in this story who matters, is no longer degraded. So she burns.
Did God really say in words that a woman must be burned in fire? I can’t believe that. If there is a God who speaks in words, I cannot believe that those words came out of the God-mouth.
But then, in the same passage, in there with burning a woman for taking money for sex or just having sex, there is this: “After seven complete Sabbaths from the time of these offerings, counting fifty days, you shall bring a new offering to God. You shall bring bread, leavened and unleavened, and make offerings with unblemished animals as an expression of compliance to God. You shall leave the gleaning of your harvest for the poor man and the stranger.”
I read something like this and think what a brilliant way to construct a society.
Do you know what gleaning is? “Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.” As a practice, because of that line in the Bible, it became a legally enforced entitlement of the poor in a number of kingdoms. Wow. So the poor, including immigrants, get to take for themselves and their own families what is left of the product after that which is going to be sold is harvested. Great.
But then I wonder, did those poor, those immigrants, already labor 60 hours that week for the wealth of those who now let them glean the harvest for pittance, but they have to work hard even more hours to get it? That’s starting to sound a little more complicated.
Talk about complicated: Near the end of this parsha, God says, “If any person disrespects the Name of God and is a blasphemer, the person shall be taken outside the camp and the whole community shall stone that blasphemer. If a man murders any human being, he shall be put to death. One who strikes the life of an animal is to pay for it, life in place of life.” So we eat animals, but someone who kills an animal must themselves be killed? And if they blaspheme the name of God—which could be insulting or showing contempt for God’s name, but could just be not showing enough reverence—they, too, must be killed. Enough reverence for who? And whose God, which God? Holy Wars, here we come. It’s crazy. So if we accept that that’s crazy, doesn’t that call into question capital punishment as well? Sitting there right in between the blasphemers and the ones who kill animals, for whatever reason?
And, of course, don’t get me started on all the evidence that virtually no one in our world actually considers abortion murder except for the purpose of vilifying and subjugating women.
When I read a passage like this, these are the kinds of thought that get spurred, this is what I wonder. What do you wonder? What do you question? Where—in the Bible or the Constitution or a textbook or the news—do you want to look deeper to find a deeper understanding, a new kind of conceptual, subtextual Originalism?