In this week’s Torah portion Emor Moses announces to Aaron’s descendants the Eternal’s commandments with regard to carrying out priestly duties. These instructions include among others the following words:
“The [Eternal] 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 has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or 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. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the [Eternal’s] offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God’” (Leviticus 21:16-21.)
These words reflect the reality of Biblical times, when disabled people were viewed as impure and unworthy of making sacrificial offerings in the Tent of Meeting. This stance presumably stemmed from the belief that the bodies of the priests making sacrificial offerings should be without blemish – just as the animals they were offering. This being said, disabled priests were not excluded from the priestly cast. On the contrary, they were still eligible for other benefits associated with the priestly service:
“He [the disabled priest] may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the [Eternal] have sanctified them” (Leviticus 21:22-23.)
Therefore, while disabled priests were excluded from active service in the Tent of Meeting, they were still allowed to eat the food offerings, which were the main source of sustenance of the priestly cast. The above mentioned passages from Leviticus had determined the role played subsequently by disabled priests in the Jerusalem Temple, where they were also not allowed to offer sacrifices. In addition, the Mishna in tractate Megillah states that priests with a visible disability are not allowed to bless the pilgrims visiting the Temple. This prohibition was justified by the claim that such a disability might attract the attention of the crowd while the priest blesses the pilgrims. The authors of the Mishna were afraid that people bringing offerings might focus on the unusual appearance of the priest rather than on the ceremony itself. However, disabled priests were still allowed to perform auxiliary tasks not directly related to making sacrificial offerings. Tractate Yoma 54a of the Babylonian Talmud describes disabled priests performing such tasks in a story about two such priests working in the Temple and being responsible for handling the wood used for making burnt offerings.
Discussions found in Talmudic sources can teach us quite a lot about the way in which disabled people used to be treated. The justification provided in tractate Megillah for prohibiting disabled priests from blessing the crowds is based on the assumption that disabled people should not hold prominent positions within the society – since by doing so they might draw unnecessary attention to themselves. However, as tractate Yoma states, they could still hold auxiliary, not overly exposed positions. Such sources confirm the discrimination of disabled people – of those who did not fit the idealized image of priests as the perfect representatives of the people of Israel.
Unfortunately, even today we still come across excluding views when it comes to the role of disabled people within our society. Disabled persons are often left to manage on their own as they are not granted financial support which would enable them to lead a dignified life. In addition, disabled people actively fighting for their rights are being accused of making excessive claims and attention seeking. I am convinced that such treatment of those struggling with disabilities contradicts the spirit of the passage from Leviticus quoted above which ensures they enjoy economic security and equal access to social benefits. We should reflect on the words of the Torah regarding disabled people especially now, at a time when some Polish politicians claim that we cannot afford to finance a support system for the disabled and their families.
As modern progressive Jews we believe that prayers – a contemporary equivalent of making sacrificial offerings – offered by each person are equally valuable, insofar as we’ve all been created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of the Eternal. Therefore I encourage you to pay attention to the problems faced by disabled people and also to support measures aimed at improving their position within our society. I am convinced that only a society which allows such people to actively participate in its life can be deemed a “community without blemish”. Shabbat Shalom!
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka