Parashat Emor

Inclusivity and Access

Reckoning with the exclusion of those with disabilities and illnesses from the Temple service.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

It has been said that a tenet of Judaism is the idea of human imperfection. While aspiring to the goal of perfection, with clear instructions in Jewish text and tradition on how to be a good person and do right by God and by others, there is nevertheless a general understanding that no human being actually measures up to that standard. Even in the Torah, there are many examples of heroes and heroines who display prominent, though forgivable, shortcomings.  

american jewish world serviceParashat Emor, which abounds with mitzvot more than almost any other parashah, contains many technical laws pertaining to how people are to worship. Laws concerning the Kohanim (priests) comprise nearly half of the parashah. Members of this divine priesthood, descendents of Aaron, possess numerous and weighty responsibilities. The Kohanim are given a set of rules to live by--whom they may marry, how they can grieve, etc. One of these laws seems inconsistent with Judaism's general comfort with imperfection:

"No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified [to perform most of the Temple service]."

Referring to physical ailments, disease, and disability, the selective disqualification of some Kohanim from most aspects of the Temple service is jarring. Without consideration of the origin of the defect or illness, these individuals are allowed only to participate in the eating of the sacrifices. They are forbidden from entering the area behind the curtain or near the altar. "He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I, God, have sanctified them."

I was stunned by the harshness of these words. How could someone's God-given blindness or spinal contusions defile the holy Temple? How can we reconcile this statute with Judaism's presumptive commitment to human dignity? And, for that matter, who among us was not created in the image of God?

Gates of Tears

In the millennia since the Temple and its sacrificial cult ceased to exist, the Jewish community has struggled with these questions of community, inclusion, and authority. Even while we mourn the loss of the Temples, we have taken up the challenge of creating a ritual framework that creates space for all who wish to participate in Jewish worship.

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Michelle Kay attends Columbia University's School of Nursing. She interned with the Education Department at AJWS. She graduated from the University of Maryland in 2003 with a degree in Jewish Studies.