Vayikra Twenty-One: Kohanim and Disabilities

This chapter opens up with a list of rules specific to the kohanim. The kohanim are not allowed to come into contact with the dead, because this defiles them, with the only exceptions being their parents, children, brothers, and virgin sisters. However, they cannot defile themselves for their wives though, which to me seems very sad for the wives. In addition to interacting with the dead, shaving their heads or beards, or cutting their flesh, is also forbidden to the kohanim. Instead of doing these things, which are all considered defilements, “They shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their God’s Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food offering of their God, so they shall be holy (Leviticus 21:6).” I’m not clear on what the direct connection between these basic actions and being holy is, but it’s obviously important enough to be able to make or break the ability of a kohen to perform his rituals.

In addition, a kohen can’t marry a prostitute or a divorced woman. If his daughter commits adultery, she shall be burned in fire. Specific to the kohen gadol, the high priest, he additionally can’t tear his garments (in mourning), or touch any dead bodies, even those of his close relatives. He can only marry a virgin, and cannot leave the Temple.

All of these things are fine. Restrictive, maybe, but not objectionable. However, the next part becomes more difficult for me to swallow. “Speak to Aaron, saying: Any man among your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect, shall not come near to offer up his God’s food. For any man who has a defect should not approach: A blind man or a lame one, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs; or a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or a commingling in his eye, dry lesions or weeping sores, or one with crushed testicles (Leviticus 21:17-20).” These verses are really upsetting. Coming from a culture that strives to not discriminate against people with disabilities, or to limit people because of their physical attributes, to hear God saying that anyone who is less than perfect is not fit to serve Him is directly contradictory to these values. In the ancient Near East, maybe there was the belief that the physical was the manifestation of the internal, meaning that a person who was impure on the outside was also impure on the inside. But today, how could this apply? Our leaders, including our spiritual leaders, come from all walks of life, and aren’t limited by any of these things. Does this mean that we’ve evolved past the restrictions of Torah in this case? Or are we simply not going based on the kohanim model, and therefore we’ve been able to modify to meet our current circumstances?


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