No life is disposable: Parshat Emor, Ableism and Ageism

“Speak to Aaron and say: None of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect (mum) 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 21:17–23)

This text from Parshat Emor is cringe-worthy. I find it hard to read. I find it harder to contend with. It seems to indicate a spiritual attitude towards human beings and spiritual leadership that I find problematic- the belief that a person must be perfect and “whole” in order to be the highest servant of God. While the text does not use the words “better than” or “worse than”, we intuit from the hierarchy of the overall system that having a disability or one of these ‘unqualified’ conditions is seen as less than in biblical society.

In wrestling with problematic texts, we often find solace in the rabbinic tradition, who often share our struggles. Not in this case. Rashi, Maimonides and other famous medieval commentators spend most of their commentary trying to translate and suss out who fits in each category; “What is this growth in one eye”? “Are these permanent conditions or temporary”? Disappointingly, they don’t question the overall assumptions of the text.

Later commentaries often add insult to injury by trying to “justify” the text. For example, many claim by that these physical conditions were really outward signs of problematic behavior, sinfulness. By trying to soften the disqualifications to be about “kavannah” — intention, these commentators inadvertently echo the anti-disability party lines that there is something “existentially or spiritually wrong” with a person with a disability or physical challenge.

As progressive Jews and critical readers of text, we do need to dress up or seek only to justify what is problematic in the torah from the start, rather to wrestle with the texts. We accept that our ancient ancestors did not share all our modern progressive values. This is more than OK- we are part of an evolving religious civilization and in our own day and age we get to decide what we lift up, what we condemn and determine how we want to create holy communities that are continuations from the past and differentiated from the past.

As critical readers of the text, it is also important to look back and recognize the complexity of the torah and the fact that our scripture is not monolithic; rather it is a complication of very different viewpoints.

The text cited above is not the only word on disability in Judaism. When Jacob wrestled with a God/an angel of God, his hip was placed out of its socket and he never walked the same again. After an experience of true wrestling and holiness, Jacob was changed forever — but this did not disqualify him in any way from service. In fact it seems that his outward physical disability seems a sign of his holy encounter, perhaps something that might inspire envy of those who see it and know where he has been.

The torah’s central character and the closest thing we have to a spiritual hero, Moses, himself had some kind of speech impediment and needed the assistance of his brother Aaron. Moses, of course, is never judged as “less than” or thought to have internal defects because he is different.Pamela Schuller, a Jewish comedian and disability advocate who herself has Turrets Syndrome talks about God’s sending of Aaron to help Moses as the world’s first disability accommodation. Here, the Torah has a very different view of disability than Leviticus: acceptance and support.

We see that there are at least two views in the torah about those with physical differences. One view that at least by its action reflects a devaluing of those individuals with differences — a casting aside. And another view that readily accepts, even honors, those individuals with differences.

While we like to believe that times have changed since our ancient texts were written, we find this dichotomy of views to be very consistent with our world today.

And much to our misfortune and dismay, the view that sees people with disabilities or those with physical differences as less than is a dominant voice and force at the moment.

Right now, in the time of COVID-19, the disabled and those with pre-existing conditions are among the most vulnerable in our society right now. And the policies of this administration and the practices of those who demand that we open the economy fast and furiously and that it is OK to “sacrifice” a few for the sake of the economy — these are merely reflections and refractions of this belief, rooted in the Leviticus mindset, that the more “whole” people matter than those who are not.

While our torah passage does not mention them here, I want to also add in the conversation another group: our society’s elders. In the Torah, age does not disqualify priests from service but it does for Levites, who can only serve between the age of 30 and 50.

Unfortunately, like in the torah, elders are too often cast aside and devalued. This past week, Rabbi Dayle Friedman published a very important article about ageism and COVID-19. Rabbi Friedman highlights the way that nursing homes and care centers, known to be places where spread would be rampant, had been consistently denied the supplies and resources they need to protect their elderly populations. Rabbi Friedman writes: “The neglect of helpless elders and the suggestion that the lives of older adults are dispensable have laid bare the toxic scourge of ageism–stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of a person’s age.”

Those who discard, devalue and diminish the value of our society’s elders have a lot in common with that voice in our torah which denies equal rights to the Priests due to disability and the Levites due to age.

Fortunately, there is another perspective. It is the story of Jacob and Moses. Today, it is the voice of the lawmakers who are fighting to keep things closed, or to open with extreme caution. It is the perspective that sees wholeness in every person, regardless of their age, body type, pre-existing conditions. It is the voice of progressive religious communities that center themselves on the value of “b’tzelem elohim” — the idea that every person is created in the image of God.

Especially because ours is not the dominant voice, it is important that we articulate loud and clear that we should care for the old and vulnerable just as much if not more than everyone else. Beyond words, we need to act in accordance with these values, cultivating a patience during this Pandemic that we may never knew we had in order to do our part to keep ourselves and everyone else safe. We need to sacrifice some of our own comfort for those who are more vulnerable.

Power structures change. Societal values shift. God willing, and with a lot of political will and effort, one day the voice that accepts and values difference and regards all human life as holy will be the one that is dominant, the one with both spiritual and political power.

Bimheira- uv’yamenu- May it come speedily and in our days!

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