Our Torah portion, Emor, besides a number of other ritual rulings, details several restrictions pertaining to priestly conduct and eligibility. The priestly office demands total commitment, limiting the priest’s relations with his spouse and family (Lev. 21:15). Officiating as a priest thus constricts their possibilities of basic human interaction. Furthermore, just as the Torah mandates physical perfection for all sacrifices, it also requires that the priest be a healthy and complete physical specimen, unblemished by any deformity (vv. 16-24. And see 22:17-24.) Ironically, this very insistence on physical perfection also, in a way, diminishes our sense of the priest’s humanity, for, after all, isn’t imperfection an essential quality of being human? Yet, our tradition goes to great lengths to exclude physical distinctiveness from the priests. The priest must be physically perfect – almost inhumanly so.
We are caught in a tension between contradictory instincts. Part of us feels the great value in acceptance, appreciation and even awe for human beings who overcome great physical disabilities in order to make meaningful and transformative contributions to the world. More and more, we strive not to judge people by their physical attributes that may be “different from the norm.” On the other hand, though, we have instincts that crave and value physical wholeness and beauty and that take great satisfaction and delight in beholding their manifestations. This tension is rooted in our deepest selves. It has also taken on very clear social and cultural forms in the contemporary West. Thankfully, our society has gradually instituted greater legal guarantees to create for all people, not matter how they may be physically configured, equal access to all of life’s opportunities and responsibilities. At the same time, enormous interest and resources go into promoting, celebrating and monitoring the celebrity icons of health and beauty in our society. Despite the legitimate claim that the instinct for inclusion is nobler and more moral than the instinct that privileges the aesthetic, this tension persists. And, indeed, against the moral argument, the Torah seems to give priority to physical perfection in the sacred realm of Temple ritual.
It must be noted, however, that a more complex set of messages developed later in our tradition. With the cessation of the Temple rituals the priestly role drastically diminished. Spiritual leadership passed on to the rabbinic class, which was open to anyone, no matter what their physical attributes or limitations. Moreover, even in the small sphere still reserved for the priest, there was a relaxation of the Torah’s demand for perfect priestly bodies. To this day the priest is called upon to bless the people Israel (Num. 6:2-27). Rabbinic law decreed that the requirement for the priest’s physical wholeness and aesthetic regularity should apply to this ritual, also, but with a crucial difference. The community can overrule these requirements! If the community is not upset or put off by a particular “defect”, if it is accepting of these “blemishes,” then they are not blemishes at all and the priest can ascend the bimah to bless the people. (See Maimonides, Laws of Priestly Blessing 15:1-2 and Shulhan `Arukh, Orah Hayyim 128:30)
Why should this be so? Is this simply the result of the ongoing process of democratization and desacralization of Judaism? Or is it possible to distinguish between Temple standards and synagogue standards? One might suggest that the community can set standards with regard to the Priestly Blessing because that is a ritual specifically directed at them. The community is empowered to decide from whom it will accept blessings. But the strict requirement for physical perfection would apply in the Temple because there the ritual entails an attempt to draw close to God, the Perfect One. (See `Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Orah Hayyim 128:44) But such a distinction seems artificial. Surely our ritual acts include both concerns, seeking to create a bridge between humans and the Divine.
Thus, we are left with the question of why God seems to demand superficial wholeness rather than authentic spiritual and moral grandeur. We may wonder whether, perhaps, the Biblical Sanctuary was really meant to be Israel’s primary center for pure aesthetic experience. And this leaves us to wonder about the interplay between the moral and aesthetic realms.
The Torah is our source of blessing. If we wish to affirm with the Psalmist that “God’s Torah is perfect, restoring the soul” (Ps. 19:8), we may wonder whether the Torah’s perfection is blemished by the demand for priestly physical perfection, and then we may wonder whether it is a blemish we wish to reject or to accept.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein