At our May 6th Saturday Morning Shabbat service, Rabbi Deena reflected on the difficult verses in Parashat Emor which ban people with certain physical disabilities from serving as priests. In the light of the disability rights movement, how can we do better? You can watch this drash on Mishkan’s YouTube channel (are you subscribed yet?) or listen on the Contact Chai podcast.
This is not an easy parsha to read in 2023. As Hunter’s d’var showed, the Torah does not change, but we can, and in weeks where we feel that gulf between the words of our sacred text and the ways values we hold dear, it is natural to feel uncomfortable, angry, rejected, resentful, or just perplexed. So I want to give a warning that I’m going to dive into issues of disability justice and ableism, both in our parsha and in our modern world. If that’s going to be hard for you to hear, I want to bless your autonomy to leave the room.
I also want to acknowledge that one of the things that I am known for at Mishkan is my love, perhaps some might call it obsession, with Peloton, and with exercise generally. I am a person with invisible disabilities, but I do not know what it is like to live in the world without full physical access to the spaces I want to inhabit. So today, I want to especially uplift the voices of people with disabilities. I hope, if anything, that you walk out of services today with a fire to learn more, and to learn it from those whose Torah we most need to hear.
To come right out and say it, the problem with Parashat Emor is it articulates different standards for people with “normative” bodies and people with different or disabled bodies, in ways that feel discriminatory and ableist. For those who haven’t heard the term, ableism is the complex set of social structures and cultural attitudes that privilege certain bodies or minds as normal and others as abnormal.
In this week’s parsha, ableism manifests as a prohibition on priests with a physical difference on participating in sacrificial worship.
Speak to Aaron and tell him, God says to Moshe:
אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהָֽיו׃
Anyone of your line, for all time, who has a defect may not ever offer the sacred offering of his God.
The Torah then specifically calls out what it perceives to be physical defects: a limb difference, blindness, a limp, even people with large moles or scars, scoliosis, dwarfism, or a broken limb.
Like much of the book of Leviticus, God doesn’t give an explicit reason for these laws, which leaves us to fill in the blank with our own prejudices or ideas. One option is that the Torah is discriminatory: we might think that the God of the Torah was prejudiced against people with disabilities, or the authors of the Torah were.
Or maybe it is because of their perceived ability to perform the sacrificial work in the ways it was prescribed. Someone with a limb difference or physical disability wouldn’t necessarily have been able to conduct the sacrifices and physical labor of the Temple. We might hear this reason and say, oh, that makes sense. God wants the work done in a specific way, and this person with disabilities isn’t able to do that. This isn’t discrimination or ableism, it’s just “the way things were.”
But even this supposed explanation should give us pause. Why should the Torah not just be written to be more inclusive? In other places, the Torah goes out of it’s way to be inclusive, and to elevate the morals of the people: inviting people to give what they able to the Mishkan, commanding farmers to leave parts of their fields for gleaners, dictating standards of care for the poor and the sick, and so much more. Heck, the Torah even tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and to see them as made in God’s image, just like us! Why not bring that ethos to Temple service?
Or, perhaps you might even ask yourself, if God is so powerful, why doesn’t God just eliminate these kinds of disabilities or perceived limitations?
Indeed, in the Book of Isaiah, the prophet imagines a possible redemptive future where no one has a disability. Chapter 35 reads:
Strengthen the hands that are slack;
Make firm the tottering knees!
Say to the anxious of heart,
“Be strong, fear not;
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then the limping shall leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the speechless shall shout aloud;
And a highway shall appear there,
Which shall be called the Sacred Way.
No traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
No ferocious beast shall set foot on it—
These shall not be found there.
But the redeemed shall walk it;
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
And come with shouting to Zion,
Crowned with joy everlasting.
They shall attain joy and gladness,
While sorrow and sighing flee.
This, it might seem, is a solution to the kind of exclusion we see in parashat Emor. No more ableism if everyone has the same abilities!
But as Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a disability justice advocate and a professor at Georgetown University writes, this is not a truly inclusive future. We don’t want a future where no one has a disability- that is an erasure of important identities and ways of knowing the world. Instead, she re-imagines Isaiah’s Messianic future as an inclusive one, where the road back to Zion is a ramp, accessible to her in her wheelchair, with guide rails for people who cannot see, signage for those who cannot hear, and more.
The messianic future is not one without disability. It is one where inclusion is innate.
This is what I wish I saw in the Torah: not the exclusion of entire categories of people based on their physical characteristics, and not even way to accommodate them within the existing system, but rather a system that was designed to honor each and every person, and give them a chance to live fully in the world.
The passage of the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, in 1990, requires employers, state and local governments, and businesses to provide equal access and opportunities for people with disabilities. Since the passage of this monumental law, buildings have built ramps and elevators, employers have granted leave for mental illness, public transportation has changed to include wheelchair lifts, and more.
But just like Isaiah’s vision does not portray an inclusive world, the passage of this law, nor its lawful implementation, has not actually built a world of justice and access for people with disabilities.
Some people who use accessibility aids like wheelchairs, hearing devices and sight aids relate to the language of disability and appreciate its recognition of the ways they might struggle. But for others, even using language of inclusion or even disability implies something lacking about their way of living in the world, as if the goal should be for them to be able to live like people in what we consider normative bodies.
Emily Landau, a writer, disability activist and founder of Social Justice Media Services, writes, “My needs are not “special” just because they’re not met in ways identical to the needs of nondisabled people. I need a ramp; you need steps. Not special, just facts. I need a wheelchair; you walk. Not special, just facts. Moreover, the needs of non-disabled people certainly aren’t all met in the same ways. Just like every other living, breathing human being on this planet, I am a person who has needs that must be fulfilled in ways appropriate to my abilities.”
Inclusion is not a question of how we can grant access to spaces where some have previously been excluded. It’s a question of how we can imagine building a world on the basis of meeting people’s needs, whatever they are.
A ramp is a necessary first step, but we should not think that we have built an inclusive world or an inclusive community because we have found ways to let in people who might otherwise have been kept out.
Watts Belser writes, “Disability rights activists emphasize that many of the difficulties associated with having a disability arise because our communities aren’t built for people with disabilities. Architecture, for instance, can act as a powerful form of exclusion. Stairs and tight spaces turn a wheelchair into a real liability. When communities are built with access in mind, wheels and walkers become just another way of moving through the world. Building design is a tangible, concrete example of how the built environment can limit the dignity and full participation of people with disabilities. But access barriers aren’t just physical. Social attitudes and negative perceptions of disability also exclude and marginalize people with disabilities. Making room for people with disabilities means going beyond the ramp. It calls us to transform the ways we understand and embrace disability and difference.”
Yes, I’m disappointed that the Torah doesn’t have ways to accommodate priests with disabilities. But I’m also disappointed with myself for thinking that what the Torah needs is accommodations, and not an entirely new paradigm.
And, because May is mental health awareness month, I want to also specifically name that not all disabilities are visible on our external bodies. Anything from a heart condition, emphysema, anxiety, depression, processing disorders and autism can be considered a disability by the ADA, and can make it challenging for people to feel welcomed and valued in all spaces. People with mental illnesses may need different kinds of support and welcome to succeed in society, and I hope we can remember that inclusion also looks like helping folks have emotional and psychological access and safety in community.
With internal needs just like visible ones, the language of diseases and conditions pushes us to medicalize lived experiences. For some people, this is helpful in naming and understanding their lived experience, but for others it can be flattening, a way of pathologizing the way they experience the world. So in this month of increased awareness, I want to remind us that we need both adequate treatment for those who find their differences a source of suffering, and greater inclusion so that we don’t expect others to change in order to conform.
Just a few weeks ago, in the very middle of the Torah, we read some of our traditions’ most inspiring words: “kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh ani Adonai”, you are holy because I am holy. This ethos is one we see in the beginning of the Torah and at the end: All humans are made in the image of God, and all humans have the capacity to access Torah — it is not too far or too difficult that some of us need others to go get it for us.
Yes, the verses in this parsha let me down. Put simply: We are losing good and vital Torah when we exclude categories of people, and we are losing good and vital Torah when we try to fit the myriad diversity of the human experience into one category of normative inclusion. But these verses are not the only ones we have, and we do not inherit a tradition that demands wholesale acceptance. So we take this week to see the hurt this text has caused, and then we harness our anger and frustration and disappointment and we look around us and ask, “How can we do better?”
As I noted earlier, the Hebrew excludes anyone “asher yihiyeh bo mum”, which, when translated as literally as possible, means “who has on them a blemish.” The word moom is hard to translate, and I hate the idea of referring to differences between bodies as blemishes- so I will just refer to the word in the Hebrew, as a moom. But lest you think I’m whitewashing, just a few verses later, the Torah sums up this section by saying, “אֶת־אִשֵּׁי יְהֹוָה מוּם בּוֹ אֵת לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב׃” — the servants of God who have a blemish within them may not come to sacrifice the food of Adonai. The difference is subtle: asher mum bo, who has a moom on them, and asher bo moom, who has a mum WITHIN them. But the difference is not necessarily insignificant. A moom is not just an external, visible difference, what might have been translated as a defect or blemish. It means something perhaps deeper.
The Kli Yakar, a late 16th century Polish rabbi and commentator who often defends the rights and experiences of the oppressed, notes that it seems like this part of the Torah is only concerned with external appearances, and asks nothing of the spirit of the priests, though their role is to be spiritual intercessors for the people to God. He claims that these priests who are excluded because of their disability have souls that are unblemished, perfect, which is why they are still allowed to eat sacrificial meat even if they are barred from Temple service. He then takes it a step further, noting notes that the Torah bars anyone of the priestly line who is, to quote, “asher bo moom”, who has on him a blemish (again, we can and should take issue with this word when it is applied to disability). But the Kli Yakar then says that those asher bo moom, who have an external difference of appearance, are fundamentally different from those asher moom bo, who are internally blemished. These are the people we should be concerned about, in our post-Temple world, these people who think themselves perfect because of how they look and who don’t care what kind of person they are.
According to Lisa Friedman, a national expert on Jewish inclusive education, “Inclusion is a mindset. Inclusion is a way of thinking. It is how we behave and treat one another. It is a philosophy that embraces the idea that everyone has something of value to contribute and that everyone has a right to belong. When we commit ourselves to making our programs accessible — not just in the physical sense, but by ensuring that each person’s participation is truly meaningful — then we can call ourselves inclusive. Then we can pat ourselves on the back and celebrate our success. But we are not there yet.”