My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Richard Levy (z”l) was an incredible shaliach tzibur, service leader. You could hear his devotion and heart in each prayer. He felt the prayers and, through his intonation and his words, he helped others feel them too. In Judaism we don’t need rabbis to serve as intermediaries between us and God, but it certainly didn’t hurt to have Rabbi Levy leading the conversation. Our sacred service was richer because of his leadership.
But if Rabbi Levy had been a Kohen, a priest, during the time when the Temple in Jerusalem stood, the community would not have benefited from his skill. You see, Rabbi Levy had a hunchback, which is one of the 12 physical defects that disqualifies a Kohen from sacred service. A Kohen would also be disqualified if he had a broken arm or leg, a limb that was too short or too long, a limp, a boil scar, blindness, scurvy and more. Should a Kohen with one of these physical defects even approach the altar, he would desecrate this holy space.
I have long been frustrated that our sacred text would suggest that people with disabilities or even certain skin blemishes defile sacred space. I could understand limitations due to the extremely physical nature of priestly service — Kohanim needed to be physically capable of slaughtering livestock, lifting them, butchering them, etc. But there’s a difference between saying that a person needs to have certain abilities to fulfill the work and saying that certain disabilities profane sacred space.
Rabbi Judith Abrams (z”l) offers a helpful interpretation in her book “Judaism and Disability.” She likens both the priestly vestments and the body to protective gear. All Kohanim followed specific procedures to rid their bodies of the ritual impurities of daily living and wore special garments before they could perform the sacrificial service. The purified body served to prevent ordinariness from entering holy space and protected the Kohen himself from dangerous exposure to holiness. From Rabbi Abram’s perspective, a physically whole body allowed for complete purification whereas a body with any of these 12 defects would not. Thus a Kohen with one of these disabilities could never be ritually pure enough, which would allow ritual impurity to contaminate the sacred space. This could put him and others in mortal danger: The incredible power of holiness could be extremely destructive if not approached properly, as we saw in Parshat Sh’mini with Nadav and Avihu.
Rabbi Abrams’ interpretation makes sense. Kohanim with these physical blemishes and disabilities were prevented from entering the sacred space but were allowed to eat of the sacrificial meat that was designated only for Kohanim. Although they were not allowed to serve alongside their peers, they weren’t ostracized or excluded from their families or from the community.
Nevertheless, I’m glad that we no longer live in a time when disabilities in our sacred space are feared as defiling or dangerous. Our community is richer because of the presence and contributions of people with disabilities. Likewise, we are blessed by the offerings of ritual and spiritual leadership of those who are able and moved to offer it. I certainly was blessed to learn and pray with Rabbi Levy, not to mention many other professionals and lay people with disabilities. May we honor and celebrate the gifts they have brought and continue to bring to our community. PJC
Rabbi Keren Gorban is the associate rabbi at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.