An essential part of the human condition is that we are not and never can be perfect. I find this comforting; it means that doing my best is enough, even when I fall short. The Torah confirms this, telling story after story about people who are anything but perfect.
And then, inexplicably, the Torah asks the impossible. It requires that everyone who performs the priestly sacrifices be physically perfect, saying that “no one at all who has a defect shall be qualified.”
And then it goes into a painstaking list of impermissible defects: “He… who has any blemish; a blind man, or lame, or he who has a flat nose, or anything superfluous, or a man who is broken footed, or broken handed, or crook backed, or a dwarf, or who has a blemish in his eye, or scurvy, or scabbed, or has his stones broken…” (Leviticus 21:17-22)
This list of defects is seemingly exhaustive. But, as I always taught my children, what someone doesn’t tell you can be more revealing than what they do say. And there is a glaring omission when it comes to the Torah’s list of forbidden imperfections. It neglects to say anything about character.
Physical imperfections? Taboo. Mental, psychological, character issues? Not considered. Which I find unsettling, because we know instinctively that a person is characterized by his or her, well, character. Certainly more so than by physical attributes, although popular culture would tell us otherwise.
What are we to make of this?
The Kohanim, the priestly class, were public figures, role models. The Torah held them to higher standards than everyone else, repeatedly stressing that they were holy and were to be treated as such. And perhaps by stressing the outward trappings of holiness, the Torah hoped to ensure inward holiness as well.
The exclusion of those who are disabled or disfigured has troubled us for millennia. From the rabbis of the Talmud to religious leaders of today, we have understood those prohibitions to be a function of a particular time and place, and no longer relevant. We have chosen character over physical characteristics.
For my part, I am relieved that the Torah’s standards of physical perfection are no longer enforced. As each birthday rolls by, I am ever more aware of my physical limitations, and I find comfort in knowing that our tradition has matured, and learned to see beyond the merely physical.
Judaism today has become more and more inclusive, to the point where deaf rabbis lead congregations, where young people of varying abilities stand on the bimah and are recognized as valuable members of the community, and where even a woman – gasp! – can be a religious leader.
We have come to understand that it is possible to rise above physical limitations, and we have learned to treasure those who have done so. May we continue to welcome everyone to participate fully in Jewish communal life, knowing that holiness comes from within.