The Disabled, the Kohanim, and Us
By Rav Uri C. Cohen
Form over Substance:
The earth is populated by shallow and ignorant people. That’s why form will always be more important than substance. You can waste your time complaining about how that should not be the case in a perfect world, or you can snap out of it and follow my advice.
– Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle (NY: HarperBusiness, 1996), p. 75
The struggle for accessibility for the disabled in Israel remains an uphill battle. True, the Equal Rights of People with Disabilities Law was enacted in 1998 (largely due to the efforts of Shaul Yahalom, a Religious Zionist member of Knesset). Nevertheless, many sections of the law have not yet been put into effect, and accessibility is off the radar of most Israelis. One third of Jerusalembuses, many Tel Aviv buses, and all intercity buses are inaccessible to the 18% of Israeli adults who have a disability. The majority of restaurants, hair and nail salons, coffee shops, and clothing stores have one or more barriers to accessibility.<1> Embarrassingly, more than sixty percent of synagogues inIsrael are not accessible either.<2> Surely, the disabled should be able to get equal treatment.
With this in mind, one of the Biblical rules that might make us squirm is the exclusion of disabled kohanim from the avodah (Temple service). It’s spelled out pretty clearly:
God spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to Aaron as follows. Anyone among your descendants who has a blemish may not approach to present his God’s food offering. Thus, any blemished priest may not offer sacrifice. [This includes] anyone who is blind or lame, or who has a deformed nose or a misshapen limb. [Also included] is anyone who has a crippled leg, a crippled hand, who is a hunchback or a dwarf, who has a blemish in the eye, who has severe eczema or ringworm, or who has a hernia. Any descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish may not approach to present God’s fire offering. As long as he has a blemish, he may not approach to present his God’s food offering. [Still] he may eat the food offerings of his God, both from the holy of holies and from the holy. But he may not come to the cloth partition [in the sanctuary], and he may not approach the altar if he has a blemish. He shall thus not defile that which is holy to Me, since I am God [and] I sanctify it.<3>
How should we understand this exclusion? In recent years, the question has been tackled by several rabbis from Tzohar, a Religious Zionist rabbinical group that builds bridges between the Orthodox and general Israeli society.<4> Here are their main suggestions.
First, the exclusion does not exist in a vacuum. Just last week in Parashat Kedoshim, not much before the general command to “Love your neighbor,” we read the Torah’s specific prohibition to curse the deaf or trip the blind.<5> As Rabbi Daniel Deutsch points out, it is doubtful whether, 3500 years ago, any other nation or culture expressed such concern and sensitivity for the disabled.<6> Not allowing disabled kohanim to do the avodah is the exception, not the rule.
Second, when the Rambam lists the mumim (blemishes), he does so in Hilkhot Biat HaMikdash (the laws for entering the Temple) and not where we might expect them, in Hilkhot Klei HaMikdash VeHaOvdim Bo (the laws for items of the Temple and those who serve in it). This means the exclusion is about thecheftza (object) of the Beit HaMikdash, not the gavra (person) of the kohen – it’s not a personal rejection. Rabbi Yehudah Zoldan explains that the exclusion is very limited. After all, the Torah here explicitly allows a disabled kohen to “eat the food offerings of his God”<7>. Rabbi Deutsch adds that most Temple activities are still open to him: baking the lechem hapanim (showbread), compounding the ketoret (incense), dealing with the animals, and so on.<8>
Third, and most significantly, a case can be made that the exclusion of disabledkohanim from the avodah is contingent on society’s exclusion of the disabled (and the rule may be subject to adjustment by the Sanhedrin in the future if society ever changes). Let’s examine this possibility.
Rashi on Parashat Emor (Vayikra 21:18) comments that the exclusion in the Beit HaMikdash is related to the irate words of God presented by Malakhi:
You ask, “How have we shown contempt for your name?”
By offering defiled food on my altar.
But you ask, “How have we defiled you?”
By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible. When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you? – says the Lord Almighty.<9>
Malakhi is calling attention to the temptation to offer what we would consider low-quality animals. This applies to tzedakah (charity) as well – if we truly cared about the poor, we would donate clothes or food that we might want to receive, not castoffs. Marge Simpson illustrates this idea in a candid prayer:
Dear Lord, if you spare this town from becoming a smoking hole in the ground, I’ll try to be a better Christian. I don’t know what I can do. Mm. Oh, the next time there’s a canned food drive, I’ll give the poor something they’d actually like, instead of old lima beans and pumpkin mix.<10>
The Torah wants to ensure that the Beit HaMikdash and its avodah are treated with respect. According to the Rambam, this explains both the emphasis on beautiful bigdei kehunah (clothes for the kohanim) as well as the exclusion of disabled kohanim:
Also in order to exalt the Temple, the rank of its servants was exalted, the priests and Levites were singled out, and the priests wore the most splendid, finest, and most beautiful garments: “Holy garments … for splendor and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). And it was commanded that someone who has a blemish should not be employed in the divine service; not only one who is afflicted with an infirmity, but also those afflicted with deformities are disqualified from being priests, as is explained in the regulations of legal science dealing with this commandment. For to the multitude, an individual is not rendered great by his true form, but by the perfection of his limbs and the beauty of his clothes; and what is aimed at is that the Temple and its servants should be regarded as great by all.<11>
Rabbi Deutsch compares the situation to the famous changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. If the throngs of tourists saw that one of the soldiers was limping, missing a limb, or otherwise physically imperfect, would they shrug it off? No, their awe of the palace would become just as imperfect. If such a soldier were transferred to serve the Queen in a less public position, would that show insensitivity to the disabled? No, it would show sensitivity to the image of royalty.<12>
One of the Mussar masters, Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch of Telz, applies this idea to our subject in a frank observation reminiscent of the Scott Adams quote above:
The disqualification of a kohen with a mum isn’t because the blessed Creator doesn’t want him, God forbid. Rather, it is because of the weakness of people, who do not feel the same respect for someone with a mum as for someone who’s healthy in every body part. . . . We learn from this that the Torah’s rules aren’t based on an abstract truth; rather, it’s a living Torah. It doesn’t command us to ignore human emotions, even when in truth they are not correct.<13>
While the exclusion of disabled kohanim from offering korbanot is Biblical, the rabbinic parallel is the exclusion of disabled kohanim from doing birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing, also known as duchening). Here, though, there’s an interesting exception which we might be able to apply to the Biblical case as well. As formulated in the Shulchan Arukh, the rule is that a kohen who has a glaring problem with his face or hands is not allowed to do birkat kohanim, because people will stare at him; however, if he is a local resident and everyone is used to him, he is allowed.<14>
In a fascinating article entitled “Acceptance and Love of Someone Different as an Expression of Faith in God,” Rabbi Shai Piron directs our attention to this rule. He comments:
The categorization of the difference is determined by the observer, the one thinking about it. It is inappropriate if, during birkat kohanim, people are busy talking about the disabled person who went up to bless them. The problem is not with the disabled person but with the community – those who, when they see someone disabled, do not see the person but only his blemishes. . . . [The permission for a disabled local resident to duchenindicates that] the categorization of a person as excluded from birkat kohanim does not depend on an objective problem but on how society relates to him. . . . The question is who you see – do you see a person before you, or someone disabled before you? If you see “a kohen,” a regular person, then you can be blessed by him and he can bless you. But if most of your energy is directed at the disability and you are unable to see his human side, then you cannot be blessed by him and he cannot bless you.<15>
An honest look in the mirror shows that we still have a long way to go. Only after we can be proud of our own achievements in relating to the disabled can we expect halakhah to follow suit. We need to make sure the disabled are on our radar, see them as people, and respond to them with inclusion and accessibility. They may still be disabled, but all of us will be enabled.
- Ariella Barker, “Social Justice for People with Disabilities,” The Jerusalem Post,9/26/2011, p. 14. http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=239463
- Melanie Lidman, “Survey: Most Synagogues Inaccessible to the Disabled,” The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 12, 2010. http://www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=187797
- Vayikra21:16-23. Translation from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah (Maznaim, 1981). http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=3&CHAPTER=21
- Besides the four articles cited below by Tzohar rabbis, another is: Rabbi Baruch Efrati, “Bein Halakhah Pratit LeHalakhah Mamlakhtit,” HaShabbat (Tzohar)#245, Emor (15 Iyar 5769), p. 2. http://www.kipa.co.il/jew/pash/65/32817.html
- Rabbi Daniel Deutsch, “Nekhim HaChutzah?!” HaShabbat (Tzohar)#294, Emor (17 Iyar 5770), p. 4. http://upload.kipa.co.il/media-upload/tzohar2/tzohar29722-562010.PDF
- Rabbi Yehudah Zoldan, “Mussar Acher,” HaShabbat (Tzohar)#294, Emor (17 Iyar 5770), p. 6. http://upload.kipa.co.il/media-upload/tzohar2/tzohar29722-562010.PDF
- Rabbi Deutsch, op. cit.
- Malakhi1:6-8. Translation from the New International Version (NIV).http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=malachi%201&version=NIV
- The Simpsons, Episode 8F04 (“Homer Defined”). Written by Howard Gewirtz. First aired 17 Oct 1991.
- Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide of the Perplexed) III:45, translated by Shlomo Pines (Chicago UPress, 1963), p. 579. Compare Sefer HaChinukh#275.
- Rabbi Deutsch, op. cit.
- Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch (1894-1955), Peninei Da’at al HaTorah(Wycliffe, 5756), vol. 2, pp. 45-47.
- Rabbi Yosef Karo, Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim128:30. This rule, which is based on the Mishnah and Gemara (Megillah24b), is based on the assumption that the community can see the kohanim’s faces and hands. However, where the kohanim customarily cover their faces and hands during birkat kohanim, the Shulchan Arukh says that the rule does not apply (128:31).
- Rabbi Shai Piron, “Kabbalat VeAhavat HeCharig KeBitui LeEmunah BaShem.”http://www.ypt.co.il/show.asp?id=19872For a similar approach, see Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau, “Derekh HaKadosh Barukh Hu BeKelim Shevurim,” HaShabbat (Tzohar)#294, Emor (17 Iyar 5770), p. 4. http://upload.kipa.co.il/media-upload/tzohar2/tzohar29722-562010.PDF