Seeing the Disabled as People
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Emor is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora.
While we now have more accessibility for the disabled than in previous decades, there is still a long way to go. If inclusion is so important, why does the Torah (Leviticus 21:16-23) exclude disabled kohanim from the avodah (Temple service)? While there are a number of answers, I’d like to focus on one: that the Torah’s exclusion reflects society’s exclusion of the disabled.
RAMBAM: PEOPLE ARE SUPERFICIAL
Rambam thinks that people’s superficiality is the reason for the exclusion of disabled kohanim, as well as for the emphasis on beautiful bigdei kehunah (clothes for the kohanim). He elaborates:
[I]n 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…. 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 (The Guide of the Perplexed III:45, translated by Shlomo Pines, p. 579).
While Rambam does not explicitly condemn people’s superficiality, his disapproval is implicit in his attributing it to “the multitude.” This superficiality did not start in the time of Rambam. Much earlier, in the time of Tanakh, God told Shmuel that “A person sees the appearance, while God sees into the heart.” Nor did it end in the time of Rambam. If anything, physical appearance plays a larger role now than it did before television and the internet. Could 300-pound William Taft get elected President today? Definitely not.
To return to the avodah, we can compare it to the centuries-old Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. If the throngs of tourists ever noticed that one of the soldiers was limping or otherwise physically imperfect, would they shrug it off? No, their awe of the palace would become imperfect too. If such a soldier were transferred to serve the Queen in a less public position, would it show insensitivity to the disabled? No, it would show sensitivity to the image of royalty.
THE EXCEPTION FOR BIRKAT KOHANIM
The exclusion of disabled kohanim from offering korbanot is Biblical, but there is a rabbinic parallel – the exclusion of disabled kohanim from doing birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing, the only part of the avodah that we still do). But this parallel has an interesting exception which might shed light on the Biblical case as well.
The Mishnah rules 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, the Gemara mentions an exception: if the kohen is a local resident and everyone is used to him, he is allowed. (The rule is based on the assumption that people can see the kohanim’s faces and hands. Where the kohanim cover their faces and hands during birkat kohanim, as we do, the Shulchan Arukh says that the rule does not apply.)
In a fascinating Hebrew article, Rabbi Shai Piron makes an interesting observation. It seems from the exception that excluding someone from birkat kohanim does not depend on something objective (the disability of the kohen) but on something subjective (the response of the community). Do you see a person, or someone disabled? If you see a person, then that person can bless you. But if you’re so distracted by the disability that you overlook the person, then he cannot bless you.
Once we change the way that we relate to the disabled, halakhah can reflect that change. But an honest look in the mirror shows that we still have a long way to go. We need to make sure the disabled are on our radar, see them as people, and respond to them with inclusion and accessibility. Then, to paraphrase birkat kohanim, God will enlighten us with His presence and bless us with peace.
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