Are we inclusive of those with physical disabilities?


I often ponder why the Torah, when we are told that all of us are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, would put restrictions on people and what they are allowed to do within the community. This week’s parashah, Emor, is one such time when the Torah tells who is acceptable and not acceptable to offer up the sacrifices in the Mishkan and later the Temple.

Emor specifically gives us the qualifications for who among the Kohanim is eligible to serve in his priestly capacity in the Temple. As such, we are given a list of who is ineligible to serve, “Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food . . . no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, a growth in his eye, a boil-scar, scurvy …” (Leviticus 21.18-20) Upon first read one’s reaction might be, “Why would God, who created us B’tzelem Elohim not allow those who have a distinct physical disability, but who could still (physically) perform the sacrificial rite? It seems almost as if God is discriminating against the Kohanim with physical disabilities. Yet we learn in Sefer HaChinuch that in fact those rules are given because it is we, who are guilty of discrimination. Sefer HaChinuch explains that when we look at other people, such as the priests, we are often quick to judge on appearance, that we prefer the person who is attractive as opposed to the person who is not of perfect form. Thus when a person would go to offer sacrifice to God, a time that was supposed to be filled with a sense of holiness and God’s presence, a person in the presence of disabled priest might be distracted, as instead of thinking about God and being in the presence of God, he would be thinking, “That priest is a dwarf.” or “Look, that priest is blind and that one a hunchback.” Thus the Torah seems to deal with a real truth about human nature — that we find it difficult to see the real person behind the disability.

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Perhaps the lesson of Emor is that we need to make a yearly check of our congregations and Jewish community to ensure that we are being as welcoming as possible to those Jews in our midst who have physical disabilities. Do our buildings meet the necessary requirements? Do we offer larger print material?

What of children who have varying disabilities? Do we in our congregations have a process for helping them and their families experience the full joy of Jewish living and life cycle events? Parashat Emor reminds us that we need to look beyond the physical image and to open our doors and our hearts to all Jews and ensure that everyone has the ability to experience the holiness that comes with being in the presence of God.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.