Part of the human condition is our lack of perfection. This means that doing our best is enough, even when we fall short. The Torah reinforces this by telling us detailed stories about the lives of our ancestors, who were anything but perfect. If the matriarchs and patriarchs could make mistakes, then clearly we can too.
The animals that the temple priests sacrificed were another matter entirely. The Torah is explicit that they had to be perfect, with no blemishes. And it’s not just animals that had to be physically perfect. So too the kohanim, the priests who performed the sacrifices. The Bible says: “No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified [to perform the Temple service].”
The list of physical defects is seemingly exhaustive. But, as I always taught my children, what someone doesn’t tell you can be even 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. Character issues? Not considered. Which I find unsettling, because we know instinctively that a person is distinguished by his or her character. Certainly more so than by physical attributes, although popular culture would tell us otherwise.
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.
Our Judaism has become increasingly 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 a woman 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.
Postscript: I chose the photo below to accompany this essay because my friend and colleague Mindy Simmons, of blessed memory, was one of the holiest people I’ve known. She quite literally shone from within. It was my honor to call her my friend.
Barbara Shagrin said:
Very lovely post and extremely touching comment and picture of Mindy. It’s moved me deeply.