Temple service is vital to the Torah’s conception of religious life; priests, sacrificial worship, and purity were at the front and center of daily living.
The Mishkan and Temple were monumental communal endeavors, embodying the pursuit of perfection in every aspect. Both structures boasted awe-inspiring aesthetics and intricate design, featuring the finest precious metals and gemstones. Each architectural feature was meticulously crafted, with each detail carefully honed to achieve unparalleled beauty and precision.
The priests were facilitators of the people’s religious experiences; their role was to assist the public with performing their rituals and maintaining the sanctity of sacred spaces and things. As such, they were expected to embody an idealized form of physical and spiritual purity.
The sacrifices in each sacred ritual were held to the highest standard of perfection, free from any injury or impairment. The offeror, offering, and priest each required careful monitoring to ensure perfect purity; even their thoughts and intentions had to be perfectly pristine.
The Torah discusses these at great length in substantial detail, utilizing the imagery and language of perfection to emphasize their importance. Perfection is ubiquitous in the Temple service; any contamination, deviation, or flaw in any part disqualified the whole. Everything had to be perfect.
On this backdrop of perfection, the Torah states that priests with disabilities are excluded from performing the Temple service:
דַּבֵּר אֶל־אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אִישׁ מִזַּרְעֲךָ לְדֹרֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרַב לְהַקְרִיב לֶחֶם אֱלֹקיו – Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring with a defect shall be qualified to make the offering to his God throughout the ages. (21:16)
Although such individuals were permitted all other rights and privileges of priesthood, including handling, receiving, and consuming the priestly gifts, they weren’t allowed to perform the Temple service. Even today, there can be a question of whether individuals with disabilities can participate in the priestly blessing or count towards the minimum number required for public prayers.
Modern society emphasizes the inclusion and value of all individuals. While some aspects of inclusion might be more controversial, the inclusion of individuals with disabilities is not. Today, it is an esteemed and popular activity for young adults to volunteer, visit, and care for individuals with special needs; the charities, camps, and organizations supporting them and their families are rightly celebrated, and volunteer spots are competitive and prestigious.
We proudly believe in inclusion, and the people who live and breathe it are some of our finest; the Torah’s emphasis on the Temple’s perfection and exclusion of priests with disabilities is a little uncomfortable. It puts a fundamental law in the Torah at odds with a mainstream sensibility that makes a lot of sense; the suggestion that something is bad or wrong with individuals with disabilities is highly offensive.
Why does the Torah exclude people with disabilities?
Sacrificial rituals are mechanisms for people to express their devotion, gratitude, and repentance to the Creator. As R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains, humans are moral agents responsible for their actions. By bringing a sacrifice, you utilize your ability to act and choose, demonstrating a willingness to stop doing bad things and rededicating your actions and choices towards good things. By offering a perfect animal, worshippers demonstrated their commitment to providing their highest and best possible selves.
In other words, the sacrifice is a selfless act that symbolizes the transformation and change in the human. The rituals are not magic formulas that must be performed perfectly to have an effect; they are symbolic representations that promote spiritual growth and self-improvement.
It is essential to recognize that cultural and historical context plays a vital role in our experience and perception of perfection.
The simple reality is that until only recently, discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and special needs have been commonplace; some societies went so far as to legally ban their presence in public spaces. The basis for this was that the physical state was often associated with or considered a reflection of spiritual condition, so physical deformities were sometimes perceived as a reflection of spiritual imperfections.
If a critical part of sacrificial rituals is about dissociating from flaws and imperfections, an injured animal or assistant might obstruct the introspection, self-reflection, and spiritual growth the rituals are intended to stir – not because they are intrinsically bad in any conceivable way, but simply because that’s how they are experienced.
In the same section of the Torah’s treatment of priests with disabilities, the Torah commands perfect sacrifices, and presents a basis; a requirement that the offering be something that people find acceptable and favorable – לִרְצֹנְכֶם / כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ מוּם לֹא תַקְרִיבוּ כִּי־לֹא לְרָצוֹן יִהְיֶה לָכֶם. This is not just reasonable logic; it introduces an element of subjectivity at the very outset of the discussion, that perfection is not an absolute standard.
What’s more, our sages teach that an individual with unusual facial features or skin pigmentations is not permitted to say the priestly blessing with his brothers. Yet, they allowed numerous exceptions when people are accustomed to the person or condition – reinforcing that what people do and do not find unsettling is subjective, not absolute.
The Torah’s exclusion of priests with disabilities isn’t a standalone judgment but a subjective mirror reflecting its audience’s cultural and historical context.
It’s not correct to conclude that all the Temple processes must be perfect because humans must be or seem perfect. Nobody is perfect, and nobody ever will be; there is no need to pretend.
But perfection in the context of the Temple is a symbol of aspirations, ideals, and the people we want to be, symbols can be perfect, and the instruments, symbols, and tools ought to be as perfect as possible.
The Torah’s law excluding priests with disabilities from performing the Temple service is not a statement on the worth or value of individuals with disabilities or the relative perfection of humans; it simply illustrates the symbolic nature of priestly services.
It’s crucial not to compromise on dreams and ideals; they are the rocket fuel for everything that matters, most especially the people we hope to become. Today, one of our shared ideals is creating more compassionate and inclusive communities that understand and embrace the experiences of individuals with disabilities and special needs. We probably have a deeper appreciation of the dignity and value of every individual than our ancestors might have. We recognize that individuals with disabilities or special needs are no less perfect than anyone else because nobody is perfect.
But the Torah’s emphasis on perfection never meant that we should expect ourselves or others to be perfect in every aspect of life. It simply reminds us that we should strive to uphold our highest ideals to the best of our abilities while still recognizing and embracing the inherent flaws and imperfections that make us human.