Leviticus and Disability: My Take

Posted by – May 7, 2009

Patrick A from PunkTorah asked me to comment on parsha Emor, and here’s what I came up with.

Everyone please turn to Leviticus 21, kthx. In this week’s parsha, Emor, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) tells us about some of the laws regulating kohanim (Temple priests).

After the admonition for kohanim to not have contact with corpses, parsha (portion) Emor goes on to list the various deformities and disabilities that would disqualify a kohen from performing his Temple duties. They include: blindness, mobility impairment, sunken nose, unibrow, broken or twisted limb, one limb disproportionate to the other, sores, and, of course, crushed testicles. If the Temple was excluding disabled priests, does that mean Judaism is discriminatory and ablist?

Josh over at parshablog says one possibility is that this is a concession to the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time. DovBear suggests that this is just one of several “rules and requirements and presumptions that no longer fit anyone’s idea of morality” in Torah.

I don’t fully agree with either of these opinions. I think there’s nothing we can’t learn from, especially words of Torah (nothing is not relevant, and if you’re not able to find something to learn from in a chapter, you’re not looking hard enough).
What can we learn from this? Well, to me, ablism means blocking people with disabilities from doing things we can do, assuming we have nothing to contribute, and stifling our potential. It doesn’t mean I get an equal shot of playing shortstop for the Yankees. Maybe a disabled kohen can’t drag a bull up the ramp to the sacrificial altar. And we have to remember that Torah was recorded during a time where G-d was smiting people as an example that even minor infractions should not be committed with the Temple service. This was a lot more important than a Yankee game, and if you were reckless in the Temple, G-d would be reckless with us (i.e. smiting). In Torah, every tribe and every person has a role they’re born for, and that’s one lesson we can take away. And in this life of confusion, chaos and darkness, one who finds their purpose, their meaning, is fortunate indeed.

I’m not offended by the stringent requirements for Temple services. Disabled kohanim were only barred from leading Temple rituals. They were never stripped of their title, and were still allowed to eat from the holiest of sacrifices (they got all the benefits of their role). Some were even allowed to perform the priestly blessing (source).

the birkat kohanim (priests blessing)

This is how the birkat kohanim (priests’ blessing) was/is done traditionally, a kohanim-only group benediction, blessing the congregation with both hands, horizontally, to resemble the Hebrew letter “Shin.” Leonard Nimoy made the “Vulcan salute” identical to this, except one-handed. For more on this, Nimoy’s inspiration for the Vulcan salute, see this article on judaism.about.com.

And unlike illegitimate kohanim, disabled kohanim continued to keep all the benefits, and all the priestly laws. To suggest a physical defect is a spiritual defect (as this commenter did) is ablist and false.

The fact that disabled kohanim stay kohanim, and can’t be expelled, is fascinating to me, and I think we should learn from it.

Also in Leviticus, those with skin disease never have to pay for their affliction (free health care). The Torah makes sure that anyone in need is looked after and cared for. Kohanim were responsible for properly caring for and overseeing infection control for the community.

People with disabilities are never excluded or discriminated against in the Torah. Isaac‘s blindness certainly never diminished his authority as a Patriarch and leader.

In this 1638 oil painting by Govert Flinck, a blind and aged Isaac blesses Jacob to be the next leader of Israel

In this 1638 oil painting by Govert Flinck, a blind and aged Isaac blesses Jacob to be the next leader of Israel

I see Torah as proposing a semi-Utopian system, where everyone matters, everyone has a role, everyone has a portion, not the cruel dystopia many paint it as.


Here is the PunkTorah commentary on this blog. And check out the video:

And to see all the PunkTorah videos, go to the PunkTorah YouTube Channel.

  • I absolutely love this article. I especially love your attitude.

    We need more people who think the way you do!

    In truth, I think image actually plays a part in priestly service. The Torah wishes that people not have the opportunity to (wrongfully) mock or poke fun at those performing the services. The Torah knows that people are not perfect and the priestly service was too delicate to mess with.

    This fits in with your idea that the disformed priests were still priests in every OTHER way.

    You make all the right points and I think most importantly, we need to recognize that the ultimate Jewish experience is oneness with GD and inner peace, performing services in the temple do not help or hinder one's pursuit of those goals. Service in the temple is not related to how well one makes good moral choices and that is what constitutes growth.

    I recently wrote a similar idea (in a different context) here —> http://bit.ly/QIIJj

    Wonderful article.


  • Jessica Belasco

    hey Nick,

    I'm going to be the difficult one and argue with you here 🙂

    I think you're being a bit apologetic. First, stripping the kohanim of their ability to perform sacrifices was really stripping them of the major thing that they did — during the time of the Temple, most worship was via sacrifice. The Talmudic debate you cited does show that *some* kohanim were allowed to perform the priestly blessing, but it also shows that many (if not most) were not.

    Also, many of the “deformities” that are listed (ie. disfigured face) wouldn't actually disqualify a priest from physically performing a sacrifice, so I don't really think there's much of a practical justification for them. I see these restrictions as based in concerns about purity — you can tell from the fact that they come right after the laws about kohanim having contact with dead bodies. Clearly physical deformities were seen as impurities, just like genital discharges, contact with the dead, etc. The interesting question to me is whether we can really equate the ancient Israelite idea of taharah and tumah with MORAL purity as we think of it today. I think you could argue both sides of that. What do you think?

    Sorry for jumping in and disagreeing here, when I never comment usually. I do always enjoy reading what you write, and I think this is a really interesting analysis, even if I'm a bit more cynical than you 🙂

  • I'm gonna back my man NIck here.

    The main purpose of the Kohanim was NOT to perform the services. Each family only did this job for 2 weeks per year.

    The rest and bulk of their time was spent studying and teaching.

    The Chinuch writes that the idea behind Maaser Sheini and Bikkurim was to force a family member to take the produce to Jerusalem and eat it all while there. This could take a long time, the produce was support them for a year while they studied Torah with the Kohanim in Jerusalem. This was their primary purpose.

    The service was like a job, teaching Torah was their life.