If We’re All About Inclusion, Why Can’t a Kohein With a Disability Serve?
The Torah tells us:
The Lord said to Moses, "Say to Aaron: 'For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the offerings made to the Lord by fire. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. (Vayikra 21:16-21)
That seems wholly inconsistent with the message of inclusion. Are we perhaps deluding ourselves when we say that inclusion is a Torah value?
One way of evaluating this matter is to review the way that people with disabilities are treated throughout Tanach and in other Torah literature. A number of prominent Biblical figures had disabilities and it does not seem to have impaired their status as leader. Yitzchak became blind in his old age, as Yaakov did later, but they were still revered by their families as Patriarch; they were not “retired” because of their age or impairment. For that matter, Shimshon, a flawed leader, carried out his most famous deed and redeemed himself for his shortcomings after being blinded by the Philistines. Less famous, perhaps, is the prophet Achiya Hashiloni. The king Yeravam tried to trick the blind prophet, but he was unable because having G-d on his side more than compensated for his disability (Melachim I chapter 14).
According to the Talmud in Sotah 13a, Chushim, the son of Dan, was deaf. It was he who smote Eisav, who was impeding the funeral of Yaakov Avinu. According to the Talmud in Sotah 13a, the corpse of Yaakov smiled in approval at Chushim’s actions.
While certainly not a role model, Pharaoh-Neco was, to use a passé term, “lame,” but it didn’t stop him from conquering the kingdom of Judah and making it a vassal state in Melachim II chapter 23. Jonathan’s son Mephiboshes was also unable to walk and we see that, in a dispute before King David, his disability was a non-issue. It simply didn’t factor into things, neither to his advantage nor disadvantage.
The most prominent Biblical figure with a disability was no doubt Moshe himself. Consciously, we are all aware that Moshe had a speech impediment, but when we imagine or portray him, this is an aspect almost universally ignored. We simply don’t think of it in our conception of the man. It was prominent enough that Moshe feared he would not make a good messenger, but we never see anyone disregarding his word because of it. Moshe is (wrongly) disparaged elsewhere for a litany of things – his marriage, the lack of meat, his selection of Nesiim, and much more – but we never see anyone questioning his leadership abilities because of his speech impediment.
We see fairly consistently that disabilities, be they what they may, are a non-issue. If so, why should a kohein with a disability be disqualified from the avodah?
The answer can be found in the Rambam’s explanation for this mitzvah:
In order to raise the estimation of the Temple, those who ministered therein received great honor: the priests and Levites were therefore distinguished from the rest. It was commanded that the priests should be clothed properly with beautiful and good garments, "holy garments for glory and for beauty" (Exodus 28: 2). A priest who had a blemish was not allowed to officiate. Not only those who had a blemish were excluded from the service, but also - according to the Talmudic interpretation of this mitzvah - those who had an abnormal appearance. This is because the masses do not judge a person by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments, and the Temple needed to be held in great reverence by all. (Moreh Nevuchim 3:45)
The operative phrase is, “the masses do not judge a person by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments.” The true flaw, we see, lies not in the blind kohein, the deaf kohein or the kohein who can’t walk. Rather, the flaw lies in the masses, who are unable to judge the true value of a person, substance rather than surface. Moshe had a valid concern; there are people who would not pay attention to anyone but an eloquent speaker. God addressed Moshe’s concern by appointing Aharon his “meturgeman.” Similarly, there are those who would not give the Temple the proper awe if those officiating did not meet their standard of beauty and perfection. These people may be wrong, but the opinion – however misguided – was widespread enough that it needed to be accommodated in order for the Temple to be held in proper esteem.
Despite this accommodation due to a flaw of the masses, the mitzvos of the Torah and the examples of our forebears show a rich history of inclusion. In Tanach, a person’s disabilities are almost always incidental and they rarely impede one’s living a complete and meaningful life or one’s participation in the fullness of community, up to and including leadership.