April 26-27, 2013
In this week’s portion, Emor, we continue learning about some of the laws specifically pertaining to the ancient priests. For example, we learn that they were not permitted to enter a cemetery (except for the burials of immediate family – and in the case of the High Priest, not even then) and were not permitted to marry divorcees. We also learn that the general population was meant to treat them as holy.
The priests were commanded to be holy. And yet, the general population was also instructed to treat them as holy. What gives? What need was there for the population to treat them as holy if they were already being holy? Shouldn’t the holiness speak for itself?
Sometimes, the way people look at us / treat us is the way we look at ourselves. When others denigrate us or put us down, we have a tendency to see ourselves through their eyes, often damaging our self-esteem. So too, the potential exists to do the opposite – to prop up those in particular positions by treating them well and with honor, so that they’ll be less likely to stray from their righteous paths. Thus, perhaps we were instructed to treat the priests as holy so that just in case they forgot they were meant to be holy or had an inclination to do something unholy, they’d have the community there supporting them and reminding them of their stature (and accompanying expectations).
However, we’re only human, and treating some as holier than others presents a number of potential problems. For example, there is the risk that those being treated as holy become so egocentric that they forget they’re imperfect human beings just like the rest of us. It is through this lens of egocentrism that we can begin to understand one of the more challenging parts of our tradition, found in this week’s portion.
While many of us today are taught that Judaism is a faith that is all about social justice, “repairing the world,” and watching out for the little guy, such as the stranger, the widow and the orphan, our tradition has some parts that aren’t quite as flattering. This week, we learn that if you were an ancient priest (coming from the lineage of Aaron), if you had some sort of physical “defect,” you were not permitted to make sacrificial offerings (which is the primary priest job responsibility). You were judged to have a “defect” if you were blind, lame, had a limb too short or too long, were a hunchback, a dwarf, and more. So too, the animals themselves being offered had to be “blemish free.” The implication is that in order to serve (or be offered up as a sacrifice to) the Divine, you must be physically perfect.
Where does this emphasis on “perfection” come from? From a practical perspective, I can maybe understand why having certain physical challenges would cause problems performing the duties assigned to the priests as outlined. For example, if a priest was missing both arms, it would be quite challenging to perform sacrificial slaughters with the precision demanded. However, wouldn’t we like to think that we’re a community and nation that values inclusion, and could find creative ways to include even those priests who have what many might have perceived as limitations? Perhaps it was due to ego and inflated sense of self due to receiving special treatment from the community that the priests came to equate holiness with physical perfection at that time.
It has been a long struggle, but contemporarily, in much of the Jewish world, our values strive to reflect inclusion and equality, as, for example, many synagogues now have some way for those with physical challenges to participate fully in services, often having a ramp in addition to stairs to ascend the bimah. So too, many have begun to embrace and explore the concept of universal design. However, there’s no question we’re still far off from anything resembling complete inclusion, as our community’s schools, camps and worship spaces all have significant room for improvement – both in terms of the physical accommodations they make, as well as the way they welcome and broadcast their love for all people, no matter what their differences may be or what form they may take.
Later in this portion, we learn that we are required to have “one standard for the stranger and the citizen alike” – a triumphant cry for equality, which we should be proud of. As the Temple has been destroyed and the daily duties of our priestly class along with it, we should recognize this as an opportunity for honest reflection on the problems that come along with setting aside some as “holier” than others. Our tradition teaches that not only the priests, but also all of us, as Israelites, are meant to be holy. We each contain a holy spark. And therefore, we should treat everyone, regardless of perceived status, class or disability as holy, just as we are.