Monday, April 28, 2014


Leviticus 21:1−24:23

By The Velveteen Rabbi; originally posted at Radical Torah

The bodies we are

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 who has a defect, Torah tells us in parashat Emor, may offer the korbanot, the offerings which draw us near to our Source. No one who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no one with a broken limb, neither a hunchback nor a dwarf, no one with a growth occluding his eye, no one with a scar. No one who has suffered from scurvy or had his testes crushed. Such a one may eat the the bread set-apart to God, the holy and the most-holy -- but he may not draw near to God.

These verses make up a kind of list-poem, an incantation of physical maladies, bookended with the refrain reminding us that anyone who has a defect of any kind must not play a role in making offerings to God. This is forbidden, and would profane the holiest place.

It's tempting to read these verses allegorically. No one who is blinded to the difficult realities of suffering, one might say -- no one who is unwilling to walk a mile in the shoes of another -- no one who twists her being into imbalance may be permitted to make offerings to God. No one who understands himself to be irredeemably broken. No one hunched by anxiety and fear, no one shrunken of spirit, no one whose vision is impeded by the unwillingness to see. None of these people may act as priests on our behalf, because they do not allow themselves to be whole.

That's certainly one way to read this passage. It's one I even like. But it doesn't feel like enough.

I think of the generations who have read and cherished this text, and I imagine how many of them were halt or lame, how many had spines twisted or lungs sickly, and I wonder what reading this passage meant for them, how it damaged their sense of who they might be. I remember the cruelty of eleven-year-old girls, confronted with a classmate who had a foreshortened limb, and how their barbs sting even now, so many years after their insults were lofted in the chalky classroom air.

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