“The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who is blind, or lame, or who has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes.”
— Leviticus 21:16-20
These verses, which stipulate the regulations for the priests who preside over the rituals of the Tabernacle, suggest that priests whose bodies do not conform to the ideal are to be barred from offering sacrifices.
Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, why would You, who created us with endless physical diversity, discriminate against your very own creations?
Maimonides reasons that this instruction is not so much about God’s perception, but about the limited capacity of human beings to appreciate those who are different in body. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam asserts: “Most people do not estimate a person by his true form, but by his limbs and his clothing, and the Temple was to be held in great reverence by all.” (3:45) In other words, in formulating restrictions for the priesthood, the Holy One was concerned about the stigma that other human beings would place on priests with disabilities. God feared that human intolerance for difference would undermine the sanctity of the Mishkan.
As we strive to create holy communities, we have the responsibility to examine the stigma and shame that lurk beneath the surface of our Jewish texts, our communities and institutions. How do we relate to ourselves and to others when bodies, appearances, mental health, and family structures diverge from social norms? It is our responsibility not only to witness, but also to celebrate the holiness of the variety of human ability and experience in Jewish community. In this way, we can create a world of dignity, accessibility, and possibility for all. — Annie Lewis
As another example reinforcing Rabbi Annie Lewis’s point, the social norm of having children (a biblical commandment) causes a severe strain on those experiencing infertility. While the negativity and stigma surrounding infertility are diminishing in mainstream Judaism, the disappointment and helplessness that many experience can feel like cruel punishment. The physical and emotional losses settle in like death. Infertility is deeply disempowering, and it can isolate one from community and God.Historically, infertility, the inability for a couple to conceive children, has also been interpreted as a flaw — with consequences (for men) ranging from being barred from the Sanhedrin (Sanhedrin 36b) to isolation from heaven (God) (Pesachim 113b) to being accounted as dead. (Nedarim 64b)
The experience of infertility tests the boundaries between control and lack of control, as well as the narrow bridge between what is private and what parades as communal (everyone knows we don’t have children…). Social norms fail when they lead people to overlook intentions, circumstances, and the individual ability to be in control of one’s own body. Our responsibility is to ensure that the norm of parenthood does not create barriers. A worthy social norm we can develop is awareness of infertility and support for people who want children. — Idit Solomon
According to both ancient and modern sources, my family isn’t complete. The Torah implores Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply,” and ubiquitous images in the media depict the perfect family as a mother, a father, two children, and a dog.
Our daughter, Sara, was born a year after my husband and I gave birth to a stillborn son. After multiple miscarriages, I conceived Sara. She is an “only” child — often uttered with more than a tinge of judgment: “How many children do you have? Only one?”— a whispered emphasis on “only” and “one,” as if it were a contagious disease. The message is clear: Having one child is a consolation prize; the real winners in life have at least two children.
Rabbi Annie Lewis recommends that we “examine the stigma and shame that lurk beneath the surface of our Jewish texts, our communities and institutions.” Too often, though, stigma and shame aren’t lurking; they’re screaming. Most of us strive to be accepting of our own differences and those of others. But recently, I’ve come to believe that the goal shouldn’t be acceptance; we should see “difference” as holy. I’m still working on that challenge. — Debbie Findling
Rabbi Annie Lewis suggests that the eligibility limitations for the priesthood did not stem from a belief that disabled men were incapable of fulfilling the sacred responsibilities; rather, the directive protected priests with “divergent” bodies from undue and potentially painful stigmatization. Lewis’ perspective summons the following question: Did the restrictions indeed serve to protect the priests, or did they instead protect the Israelites from having to facilitate and engage in uncomfortable conversations at crowded and raucous pilgrimage festivals? In this regard, the biblical mandate curbed explorations of perceptions as to whether those who exude an image of perfection can better execute a job than those who are aesthetically unpleasing.
It would be too easy to dismiss the priesthood and Temple as anachronistic and, therefore, the biblical ordinance as irrelevant. Our newsfeeds and the channels we surf are saturated with images of the archetypical leader as youthful, romantically attached, parentally inclined, and physically fit — as desired and desirable. Are we, too, delimiting potential conversations about who can serve and lead? Our commentator’s interpretation reminds us that by mindfully selecting leaders who appear different from the aesthetic ideal, we cultivate opportunities to challenge our assumptions about the links between visual impressions and true ability.— Shira D. Epsteinemail print