The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm, or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. (Leviticus 21:16-21)The classical commentaries seek to understand each defect specified: Rashi thinks a boil-scar is scurvy. Nahmanides thinks the growth in the eye is a cataract. Gersonides goes so far as to say that any deviation from the norm is considered a defect even if it does not impair the individual’s ability to perform priestly functions. None thinks to ask a question that is obvious to modern sensibilities: Why does a priest need to be a perfect physical specimen of a human being?
Before we jump to condemn the Torah for its “ancient,” “primitive,” “outmoded” emphasis on human bodily perfection, we would do well to acknowledge that the ideal of physical perfection is as alive today as it was in ancient times. Each day we are bombarded with images of physical perfection on TV, in movies, in magazines, on billboards, all over the internet. Never mind that many of these are air-brushed images and hence a only virtual perfection. Every day throughout America people spend literally millions of dollars on products and even surgical procedures to improve their looks and hide their blemishes.
All this occurs simultaneously against the background of a growing realization that characterizing physical differences as “defects” is offensive. Moreover, the belief that there is, as Gersonides claims, a “norm” is often an illusion. Yet, Torah holds not only that there is a state of perfection for animals (Parshat Re’eh says they must be without mum, “defect”) failing which they cannot be offered on the altar, so too must the sons of Aaron who minister at the altar be without mum (“defect”). Torah’s dictate does not pertain beyond the altar: it applies only to animals sacrificed and humans who make the offerings. Physical perfection is not a Jewish ideal. Quite to the contrary: learning, wisdom, compassion, and a yearning for justice are Jewish ideals.
In fact, our Rabbis celebrated individuality and difference. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 tells us:
[Only one human being was created at first] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One blessed be God because a human being stamps many coins with one mold and they are all identical. But the Holy One blessed be God stamps us all from the same mold of the first man yet each of us is unique.Rambam (Moses Maimonides) in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Berackhot 10:12, drawing on B. Berakhot 58b) writes:
One who sees… people with disfigured faces or limbs recites the blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes people different.” One who sees a person who is blind or lame, or who is covered with sores and white pustules recites the blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who is a righteous judge.” But if they were born that way [i.e. with the disability], one says, “…who makes people different.”Rabbi (and some say R. Meir) taught us:
Do not look at the container but rather at what is in it. You can find a new flask with old wine and an old flask that does not hold even new wine. (Pirke Avot 4:27)We must learn to look within, to see the divine spark in each neshamah (soul). Then we will glimpse the face of God.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman