One of the greatest blemishes on Biblical tradition is how it treats the so-called "blemish" of those who might be called into spiritual service. This week's Torah portion (Emor) shines this challenge directly in our eyes, dares us to flinch and calls us to make a repair.
In ancient days, a "blemish" (Hebrew, mum) disqualified a priest from serving (Lev. 21:17). Also on this spiritual no-fly list was anyone "blind" or "lame," or having a body part "maimed" or "too long" (Lev. 21:18); or anyone with a broken limb (Lev.21:19), or scoliosis or dwarfism (Lev. 21:20). Ancient spiritual service was shut to anyone that moderns might call physically "disabled" or "differently abled." This sacred tradition, which regarded everyone to reflect the divine image (b'tzelem Elohim) (Gen. 1:27), also held some people – by dint of birth condition, illness or accident – too ugly or maimed to channel divinity for others.
If this idea offends – and it should – consider that it took the U.S. until 1990 to enact the Americans with Disabilities Act. For thousands of years, society legitimately discriminated against persons whose innate ability or appearance significantly varied from the popular image of normative. Even today a fully inclusive society remains a distant hope, but we've come a long way from ancient days.
In pre-scientific days when the physical was held to manifest the metaphysical, perhaps a "blemished" priest was imagined to taint a spiritual offering. Later our ancestors wrestled this idea – maybe they sensed that Torah's words concealed a deeper truth – but still they tried to justify it. Some took a psychological approach: perceptible deformities would distract the public from the "holy" business at hand. (For those of us quick to reject this idea, look at Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. the "Elephant Man" of the 19th century, and see if you're distracted.) Others confessed confusion: medieval rabbis shrugged their shoulders and wrote that "This matter requires further study" – a signal that the Torah they knew no longer made sense.
What didn't make sense then makes no sense now, but the more important questions are ones that Torah only implies but doesn't ask outright. Why would God allow a "blemish"? Why does God allow disability and illness, sometimes profound and catastrophic? And why do we imagine that spiritual service requires perfection? Is any human perfect?
If our ancient ancestors were unready for those theological wrestle, today we needn't shirk from that challenge. Perhaps this challenge is exactly the modern meaning of the "blemish" that once disqualified. Maybe we learn that our pediatric image of God is just that – an image, no more fully accurate a rendition of reality than any physical "blemish" that distracts from the truth that all of us, however we appear, are made in the divine image. Maybe we learn that at the level of appearance, there is no perfection to be found – so we shouldn't try. Maybe we learn that in matters of the heart, all of us have a "blemish" and therefore none of us alone can fulfill the ancient priest's role of linking humanity with divinity. Lacking a perfect priest without blemish, maybe today that role falls to all of us together, blemishes and all.
R' David Evan Markus