Last week in Parashat Kedoshim we read one of the most enlightened passages in the Torah. In verse 14 the Torah commands us not to curse the deaf, nor to trip the blind, but to fear the Lord your God. This verse is embedded within a glorious section about social solidarity, including concern for the elderly, the poor, the vulnerable worker. It climaxes with the centerpiece of the Torah, but love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. These verses are all important, but the command not to take advantage of people with physical disabilities is perhaps most notable and noble:
ויקרא פרק יט, יד
(יד) לֹא תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה’:
Savor that verse, because unfortunately, it is not all that Leviticus has to say about disability, as we heard today when we read the portion. Parashat Emor opens with regulations about the priesthood, their marriage partners and mandate to maintain ritual purity. Fair enough, but then in chapter 21 there is an extensive passage about physical blemishes that disqualify the priests from serving at the Temple altar. Let’s read this painful passage together:
ויקרא פרק כא, טז-כג
(טז) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (יז) דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אִישׁ מִזַּרְעֲךָ לְדֹרֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרַב לְהַקְרִיב לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו: (יח) כִּי כָל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרָב אִישׁ עִוֵּר אוֹ פִסֵּחַ אוֹ חָרֻם אוֹ שָׂרוּעַ: (יט) אוֹ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל אוֹ שֶׁבֶר יָד: (כ) אוֹ גִבֵּן אוֹ דַק אוֹ תְּבַלֻּל בְּעֵינוֹ אוֹ גָרָב אוֹ יַלֶּפֶת אוֹ מְרוֹחַ אָשֶׁךְ: (כא) כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב אֶת אִשֵּׁי ה’ מוּם בּוֹ אֵת לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב: (כב) לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו מִקָּדְשֵׁי הַקֳּדָשִׁים וּמִן הַקֳּדָשִׁים יֹאכֵל: (כג) אַךְ אֶל הַפָּרֹכֶת לֹא יָבֹא וְאֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא יִגַּשׁ כִּי מוּם בּוֹ וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֶת מִקְדָּשַׁי כִּי אֲנִי ה’ מְקַדְּשָׁם:
If you look closely at the passage, you’ll notice some interesting features. First, there are 12 blemishes listed. This is hardly an exhaustive list of things that can go wrong with our bodies, so either there is something very special about these conditions, or the list could be paradigmatic—just examples of the endless litany of injury and disease. Indeed, the rabbis counted 142 disqualifying blemishes in Mishnah Bekhorot, Chapter 7 (מומים אלו), including the deaf and the mute. So much for our progressive attitude.
On the other hand, the Torah is quite deliberate about this list of 12. It has a fine literary structure, as Jacob Milgrom shows (Anchor Bible Commentary to Leviticus), and 12 cannot have been an accident. Milgrom doesn’t say this, but it seems obvious to me that since the priests represent the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 disqualifying blemishes remind them and us of their essential mission. There are twelve gemstones on the breastplate of the high priest, and the names of the tribes are likewise engraved on the broaches of his ephod. The list may be pointing to this role in representing the people of Israel. Blemished priests remained priests—they were still qualified to bless the people, to eat their tithes and sacrificial portions, and they were bound by the priestly restrictions on marriage partners and ritual purity. Nevertheless, when it came to the highest honor for a priest, serving at the altar, bodily blemishes disqualified them.
While we are understandably disturbed by this exclusive approach to disability, we need to remember the ancient context and the fact that other ancient societies likewise disqualified injured priests from sacrificial service. Milgrom provides a survey. Seneca describes priests with defects as an ill omen. Numerous fragments found at Qumran show that the sect there had a list built on Leviticus 21. So too did various Mesopotamian texts and Hindu texts from India. Apparently, there was a global consensus that blemishes disqualified priests from sacred service. In fact, many of those lists are even more restrictive. Let’s look at the Leviticus list to see what is missing.
The blemishes on the list are all physical and visible (except perhaps the crushed testes; and that will be an important clue in a moment). Missing are any cognitive defects, and also any moral defects. Were these not considered to be blemishes, mumim? I don’t think so. Then why were they left off the list?
The answer requires us to turn ahead to chapter 22, where the discussion focuses on animals to be presented as sacrifices at the altar, and blemishes that would disqualify them from being acceptable offerings. Let’s have a look, focusing on verses 22-24:
ויקרא פרק כב, יח-כה
(יח) דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל בָּנָיו וְאֶל כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַגֵּר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יַקְרִיב קָרְבָּנוֹ לְכָל נִדְרֵיהֶם וּלְכָל נִדְבוֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יַקְרִיבוּ לַה’ לְעֹלָה: (יט) לִרְצֹנְכֶם תָּמִים זָכָר בַּבָּקָר בַּכְּשָׂבִים וּבָעִזִּים: (כ) כֹּל אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם לֹא תַקְרִיבוּ כִּי לֹא לְרָצוֹן יִהְיֶה לָכֶם: (כא) וְאִישׁ כִּי יַקְרִיב זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים לַה’ לְפַלֵּא נֶדֶר אוֹ לִנְדָבָה בַּבָּקָר אוֹ בַצֹּאן תָּמִים יִהְיֶה לְרָצוֹן כָּל מוּם לֹא יִהְיֶה בּוֹ: (כב) עַוֶּרֶת אוֹ שָׁבוּר אוֹ חָרוּץ אוֹ יַבֶּלֶת אוֹ גָרָב אוֹ יַלֶּפֶת לֹא תַקְרִיבוּ אֵלֶּה לַה’ וְאִשֶּׁה לֹא תִתְּנוּ מֵהֶם עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לַה’: (כג) וְשׁוֹר וָשֶׂה שָׂרוּעַ וְקָלוּט נְדָבָה תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ וּלְנֵדֶר לֹא יֵרָצֶה: (כד) וּמָעוּךְ וְכָתוּת וְנָתוּק וְכָרוּת לֹא תַקְרִיבוּ לַה’ וּבְאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ: (כה) וּמִיַּד בֶּן נֵכָר לֹא תַקְרִיבוּ אֶת לֶחֶם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכָּל אֵלֶּה כִּי מָשְׁחָתָם בָּהֶם מוּם בָּם לֹא יֵרָצוּ לָכֶם:
Don’t they look similar? Well, they’re not. They’re identical. 12 blemishes, same ones as for the priests. It’s not just the list, but also the vocabulary. Blemished priests are not to draw near, לא יקרב. Blemished animals are not to be brought near, להקריב. [Milgrom insists on a more specialized translation of yikrav—it means “authorized” to offer, but not relevant to us]. Draw near or bring near, sacrifice or be sacrificed. It is a minor difference in the grammar, though a significant one for both priests and sheep!
The similar verb reinforces the similarity of the lists. Why were priests and animals described in the same way? And if they were really the same, why not just list the defects once and apply them to both cohorts? In Bavli Bekhorot 43a, the Rabbis ask this question and suggest that although the blemishes were the same, the differing paths of priests and animals—one to slaughter, and the other to a life of mitzvot—required a double listing.
בבלי בכורות דף מג עמוד א
אדם מבהמה לא יליף – שכן היא עצמה קריבה לגבי מזבח, בהמה מאדם לא ילפא – שכן נתרבה במצות
Their answer is that you can’t learn from animals to humans because only animals are sacrificed on the altar. And you can’t learn from humans to animals, because humans have the mitzvot.
It is not surprising that the rabbinic analysis emphasizes difference, and in general we also appreciate the differences between people and animals. And yet let’s pause to consider the implications of the comparison that the Torah implicitly suggests. It is not that the Torah doesn’t view the priests as people. It does—their genealogy matters, their purity matters, their marital status and partner selection matter. But in this crucial text, the Torah seems to remind them that on a certain level, they are bodies at work on the altar. And from the perspective of God, who creates both people and animals, we are all rather similar. In fact, the one invisible defect for priests—crushed testes—is very much visible for the animals. This seems to imply that the animal list is primary, and that what is true for the sheep is also true for the priest.
This comparative perspective can take us in two directions, either demoting humanity from its position of privilege, or raising up animal life from its presumption of mere utility. I’m not suggesting that the Torah is erasing distinctions, but I do see a little hint, a reminder that we have more in common with animals than we often notice or admit.
For the past 10-15 years one of the hot fads in the humanities has been interest in the role and depiction of animals in human culture. Sometimes called post-humanism, critical animal studies has many implications, from how we understand ourselves, our enemies, and our relationship to the natural environment.
Like many trends in the humanities, this one began in the sciences, with Darwin himself stating that when it comes to mental faculties, there are no significant differences between people and higher primates. Yes, it was believed that only humans had the gift of language, a rich emotional life, social dynamics and the capacity to imagine what others in their group think. But these convictions have steadily eroded in recent decades in the face of counter-evidence. Peter Singer focused on animal suffering in his influential 1977 book Animal Liberation, but critics have shown that animals are far more capable than even he admitted. Martha Nussbaum focused on animal capabilities. Sociobiologists like Jane Goodall and Franz De Waal studied group conduct among other primates and comparing them to humans, sometimes quite favorably on the side of the chimps. Neurobiologists and cognitive ethologists have examined brain structures and how humans, like other primates and mammals, process information and respond to their environment. Many of the distinctions that we have claimed for ourselves, such as the ability to recognize our own reflection, to experience complex emotions like hope and disappointment, even to have a theory of mind—all seem to be found among animals. For example, ravens have been studied and found to notice when another raven has watched them hide food. When the other raven flies off, the first one will move the food to a new location, indicating that it was concerned with what the other raven was thinking.
In Jewish studies, Mira Wasserman recently wrote a wonderful book called Jews, Gentiles and Other Animals (2017), studying Bavli Avodah Zarah. She noticed that the tractate moves from discussion of Jews in relationship to gentiles, and then to animals, and then to inanimate objects. In her telling, the rabbis are expressing their version of the great chain of being, that all of existence is somehow linked.
Another example is by Beth Berkowitz, formerly of JTS, now of Barnard. Her book, Animals and Animality in the Babylonian Talmud (2018) surveys a number of topics in which animals are understood by the rabbis to have intellectual and moral powers. I have not finished the book, but she notices that in comparison to the Romans, who maintained a strict binary between humans and animals, with animals designated as mere property, Zoroastrian culture maintained a more fluid distinction, with some animals in the “noxious” category and others in the “beneficent” one. The rabbis seem to have responded to Persian law in their treatment of some animals as good and others as wicked. In this way the human/animal binary broke down, and the varieties of life could assume their parts on the moral continuum.
There is much more to learn and say on this subject, but I’d like to conclude where I began, with implications for disabilities. Leviticus 21, with its unapologetic exclusion of blemished priests from sacrificial service, is quite a let-down after Leviticus 19, which seemed to establish social solidarity, emphasizing protections for the vulnerable and poor. I can’t deny the difficulty of this week’s reading, but perhaps there is a way to redeem it. Our portion looks at the most exalted people in Israelite society—the priests—and compares them to domesticated animals. Both play an instrumental role at the altar, but compared to God, they are all mortal creatures. And yet their lives matter, exactly as they are. Critical animal studies continues the work of feminism and disability rights in expanding subjectivity beyond the domain of powerful men, and viewing all of life as inherently dignified and deserving of protection. The Torah is often already there, and even when it isn’t, it leaves hints of the possibility for a just and righteous society.
We have a strong proclivity to value the intellect so much that we imagine ourselves existing independent of our bodies. That is the premise of mind/body dualism, a gift of the Greeks, which has had enormous influence on Jewish thought. Yet this perspective is deeply flawed because it denies the role of our embodied selves, and therefore relieves us of responsibility for focusing on the physical needs of those around us. Indeed, it heightens hierarchy, with the gap between intellectual elites and everyone else steadily expanding. The most powerful among us harbor hi-tech fantasies of trans-humanism, of uploading their consciousness to new and more permanent platforms—I get the fantasy, but let’s get real. We are bodily creatures. Leviticus looks at our bodies as they are. Not every body can perform every task, but all are the product of a divine process, and all are beloved in the sight of God. This is a redemptive message of Emor that we can try to understand and express in our own community.