Parashat Emor

Inclusivity and Access

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

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In the Talmud, Rabbi Eleazar reflects on the effects of the destruction of the Second Temple. He asserts that "prayer is more efficacious than sacrifice…for from the day on which the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed…but though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of weeping are not closed."

Rabbi Eleazar claims that while the traditional vehicle for prayer--sacrifice--is no longer available to us, we have evolved an alternate mechanism for relating directly to God--he uses the term "weeping" to capture this personal form of entreaty.

The destruction of the Temple signified the end of a particular era of Jewish observance. In the period that followed and up to the modern day, the symbolically sealed doors of the Temple remain in distant focus. They serve to heighten our other spiritual senses, and draw attention to other ways to achieve closeness with God. Indeed, the gates of tears--of individual spirits and heartfelt feelings--cannot be shut. Prayer is an indestructible communication system, self-sustaining, and available to everyone equally.

Increasing Inclusivity

Moreover, with the minimization of tribal differences among Jews, we are all given permission to express our individual qualities as spiritual beings created in the image of the Divine. In our world of increasing inclusivity, more people are able to truly honor the commandment to "Honor God with whatever excellence God has bestowed upon you." We continue to wrestle with the Levitical exclusion of those with "defects" in order to give life to a Judaism that is maximally accessible and respectful to all.

This transformation from exclusivity to inclusivity speaks to our individual relationships with God, but it also offers a model for how we should approach the project of maximizing access to resources and rights for all people.

In the developing world, schools are frequently far from home, dangerous to travel to, and expensive to attend. In many parts of the world, sex education and contraceptives are unavailable, denying people the tools they need to understand and respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Inequality still exists in our world. For many people, vital resources are inaccessible. We could all do more to address these inequalities by, for example, providing funds to those who might fall outside our usual universe of obligation.

The loss of the Temple forced the rabbis to re-examine human-Divine relationships. This process has led to new understandings of inclusivity. Rabbi Eleazar suggested a more democratic, grassroots approach to prayer. As the rabbis struggled with these issues of inclusivity and access through the lens of their time and experience, let us continue in their tradition and apply their learning to the challenges of our own time. And let us aspire to make the resources that we so often take for granted available to all people everywhere.

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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.