Torah demands whole and holy leaders

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is coordinator of community chaplaincy at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 


Parashat Emor opens with a list of laws and regulations that outline differences between the Temple Priests and the rest of the community: The priests must mourn differently, marry differently, treat their bodies differently and fiercely guard the ritual status needed to perform the Temple sacrifices. 

Among these laws is a disturbing section: God speaks to Moses and tells him, “Instruct Aaron, saying to him: Any man among your descendants in any generation in whom there is any blemish shall not come near to offer the bread of his God …” (Lev 21:17). 

The following verses list a range of physical disabilities that disqualify a priest from making offerings, and they offer very little by way of explanation. These verses are startling in and of themselves, and even more so in light of their context. 

In these verses, God is speaking to Moses, the same Moses who initially balks at the idea of becoming a leader, telling God that due to his speech disability, he did not feel able to lead. This is the same God who told Moses, “Who makes a mouth for a person, who creates someone deaf or mute, sighted or blind? Is it not I, God? So now, go, I will be with your mouth and show you what to say!” (Ex 4:11-12). 

God revealed to Moses the truth that his disability did not detract from his wholeness or holiness as a human being, that he was called to lead and represent Israel exactly as he was, and that he was to be provided with the accommodation he needed (an interpreter) to carry out that task. We have to wonder how it could be that now God presents Moses with exactly the opposite lesson.

Many interpretations of these verses have been offered, either attempting to defend prejudice against those with disabilities or else arguing that these verses are a concession to the harsh reality that prejudice against those with disabilities exists. These explanations do not satisfy. It is true that the Torah reflects and accounts for human nature. But the purpose of Torah is not to excuse our worst instincts. The purpose of Torah is to demand that we live up to the highest ethical demands. 

It is true that prejudice against those with disabilities exists in our society. Making concessions to these prejudices has devastating and sometimes deadly consequences. Throughout the United States and the world, this prejudice results in our communities losing out on the leadership and wisdom of many people. It causes human beings to be treated with disdain, hostility or paternalism. It means that many are denied access to housing, employment, decision-making and opportunity. This prejudice even affects life-and-death medical decisions. 

If our tradition demands that we create a just society and a livable world, these realities must change. In fact, they are already changing, thanks to decades of work by many disability rights groups. Change on this scale requires legislation, activism, education and coalition building. 

It also requires belief, the unwavering belief that every body is dignified, each person is whole, that people with disabilities belong in every place and in every leadership position. As readers and interpreters of Torah, we must choose to let the truth of Exodus be the truth that guides us.

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is coordinator of community chaplaincy at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.