Every week Jewish congregations read a section of the Torah (the five books of Moses) as part of the Sabbath service. It is traditional to study this reading and reflect on the messages it has for us. This week’s Torah reading is Emor (Lev. 21-24) gives rules for the behavior of the priests, including those disabilities that would keep a priest from performing the rituals of worship, and also lists the holidays (appointed times) and their appropriate offerings. In this commentary, I want to look at the former and more difficult part of the reading.
Why difficult? The enumeration of physical disabilities that make a priest unfit for the worship service is rather offensive to our modern sensibilities. Why should the blind or the lame not be allowed in the sanctuary? Are they less worthy before God? Are we not all created in God’s image? (Some time it would be interesting to consider what aspects of God are represented by these disabilities.)
Some years ago there was an article in the Conservative Movement’s magazine about creating accessibility to the bimah (the platform where the ark is and where those who officiate and take part in the service stand). The synagogue in the article realized there was a problem when a Bar Mitzvah boy’s father could not get onto the bimah in a dignified manner because he was in a wheelchair. The rabbi considered this to be placing a stumbling block before the blind, and the congregation responded by building a ramp to the bimah that fit with the architecture of the sanctuary, and that suddenly opened participation to a whole new group of congregants.
A growing number of Hebrew schools include some special education instruction, so that students with special needs can become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. My son, who has FAS and bipolar disorder, was welcomed by two different congregations in two different parts of the country. When he had his Bar Mitzvah, he did a shortened version of his haftarah, for which he read the Hebrew. He read the blessings partly in transliteration and partly in English. His d’var Torah was very short, and I added a bit of commentary to my address to him. It was a very moving ceremony to those who attended, and people still remember and comment on it.
The commentaries on this reading stress the idea of wholeness – that when blessing bread, a whole roll is preferred over a larger section of a loaf – in ritual. An unblemished ox is chosen over a stronger ox with some blemish, even if the blemish improves its strength. Physical wholeness represents spiritual wholeness. To approach the holy, ritual perfection is required to symbolize our approach to God’s perfection.
Perhaps. But I would argue for our modern inclusiveness. Wholeness is indeed to be valued, and we must be whole to approach the holy. But I believe it is the wholeness of the Jewish people that is required. Kol Yisrael – all of Israel. God requires us to be holy, as God is holy. Very few people can approach this state. The rest of us depend on each other to help us approach holiness. Our strength has always been in our sense of community with all Jews. Everyone has something to offer towards this endeavor. Our path to holiness is made easier the more inclusive we can be.