Author’s note: Many have written about this topic with deep understanding from personal experience. While the ideas here for the most part cite Hazal and rishonim/parshanim, there are a whole range of important contemporary responses that inform my understanding, from “Parashat Emor: On Reading Leviticus 21 and the Problematics of Embodied Leadership” by Rabbi Lauren Tuchman on the text as a challenge, to Nick Dupree z”l, “Leviticus and Disability: My Take” on why this parashah didn’t trouble him.
In Vayikra 21:16-24, God restricts descendants of Aaron with physical “blemishes” (mum) from priestly service in the Temple, listing specific disabilities and bodily appearances in the priestly disqualifications:
The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect 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. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the LORD have sanctified them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and his sons and to all the Israelites. Vayikra 21:16-24, NJPS Translation
How are these the words of God, the God who chastises the prophet Shmuel for mistaking the future king of the Jewish people based on physical bodily traits, reminding Shmuel that God “sees into the heart?” What does this mean for God’s relationship with those of us with disabilities?
Rav Benny Lau and Rabbi Alex Kaye argue that God’s disqualification of priests with various disabilities is a concession to ancient and persisting human anti-disability prejudices that we have the social power – and religious obligation – to overcome. They point out that Halakhah codifies a similar social dependency in disqualifying priests with certain disabilities from delivering the priestly blessing in synagogue: Rav Huna holds that a certain eye condition disqualifies, yet Rav Huna himself allowed community members with the disqualifying condition to perform the blessing because they are familiar to the community. In other words, R. Lau argues, when the community socially overcomes its prejudices, ritual role qualifications follow suit.
But the passage from Vayikra begins with “God spoke to Moshe” and concludes with a God-centered justification for the disqualification. What indications do we have from Humash or Hazal that human prejudices led to these disqualifications as well?
Here, we build on the idea that these disqualifications are concessions to anti-disability prejudices inasmuch as the entire Mishkan project is, according to biblical commentator Sforno, “a concession to the need for concrete representation so disastrously manifested in [the Golden Calf] episode.”
I argue that we find evidence for the Divine concession read in the transfer of avodah roles from the first-borns to the Leviim. Taking narrative claims of Hazal at face value, we infer that in God’s initial plan, those tasked with the avodah (Temple service) included people with disabilities. Yet, the plan fails in reaction to societal shortcomings–intolerance for “imperfect” bodies and a bodiless God culminating in the sin of the Golden Calf. To add literary support for this read, we highlight God’s and humans’ relationships with Moshe and his disability. Finally, we show how the disability disqualification-as-concession read advances Sforno’s interpretation of the Mishkan and addresses some open narrative questions about the sin of the Golden Calf.
If this read succeeds, the implication is that God values a world where people with disabilities can serve as priests, and that the possibility of such a world hinges on our work to overcome the social prejudices to which the priestly disqualifications were a concession.
The Original Priests in the Original Plan
Disqualifying priests based on disability was not part of God’s original plan. After all, avodah existed prior to the roll-out of these disqualifications. Based on the Halakhah reported in the Mishnah and an inference from a midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah, we will argue that, from Yetziat Mitzrayim until the construction of the Mishkan, people with disabilities performed the korbanot (sacrifices).
The Mishnah (Zevahim 14:4) teaches that the firstborn males of all tribes, not exclusively Levites, performed the priestly service:
Until the Tabernacle was established, private altars were permitted and the sacrificial service was performed by the firstborn. And from the time that the Tabernacle was established, private altars were prohibited and the sacrificial service was performed by the priests…
Firstborn males had not just assumed the role in absence of a Divine ordination of priests; they were designated by God for special service. As God reminds Moshe in Bemidbar (3:13), God originally sanctified the firstborn of Bnei Yisrael in the process of killing the Egyptian firstborn, which Hazal understand to refer to the avodah:
For every first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the LORD’s.
God, however, subsequently replaced the firstborns with the Leviim:
I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine. (Bemidbar 3:12)
However, according to some commentators, the demotion of the firstborn is only temporary. Ohr Ha-Hayyim writes on this chapter (3:45):
…although our Sages said (Yalkut Shimoni 364), in the future, the temple service will return to the firstborn…
More expansively, Ba’al Ha-Turim writes that all of Bnei Yisrael were originally supposed to have the status of high priests; while they ultimately did not merit such status, they will be granted high priest status in the future:
Had Israel merited, they would have all been high priests; in the future, it will return to them, as it says, “You will be called priests of God.” (Ba’al Ha-Turim on Shemot 19:16)
Mishnah Zevahim dates the firstborn-to-Leviim role transfer to the construction of the Mishkan, but does not provide a reason. In commenting on the above verse, Rashi clarifies that the swap was not part of God’s original plan, but instead a result of the firstborns forfeiting the role via sin:
For originally the service (the priestly functions) was performed by the firstborn, but when they (the Israelites and among them their firstborn too) sinned by worshiping the Golden Calf they became disqualified, and the Levites who had not worshiped the idol were chosen in their stead. (Rashi on Bemidbar 3:12)
In Rashi’s view, God’s original plan–for avodah led by firstborns–was foiled by Bnei Yisrael’s sin with the Golden Calf. According to Rashi’s timeline, instructions for the Mishkan altogether follow the sin of the Golden Calf. Rashi thus locates the shift from private altars and firstborn-led avodah to the Mishkan and Leviim-led avodah at the sin of the Golden Calf.
How do we know firstborns with disabilities were not similarly barred from serving?
Bemidbar Rabbah (7:1), in a midrash explicating verses around Matan Torah to infer that God temporarily removed disabilities during revelation, takes as given that virtually all of Bnei Yisrael were disabled. The midrash reasons that the experience of slave labor broke their limbs and impaired their vision, such that all of Bnei Yisrael were either born with disabilities or acquired disability:
At the time when the Israelites went out of Egypt, the great majority of them had physical defects. Why? Because they had toiled with pitch and bricks and went up to the top of the building. For someone who was a builder, on account of going up to the tops of the domes either a stone would fall and break his arm or a beam or pitch would go into his eyes and he would be blinded.
However, as Rashi notes (on the basis of Midrash Rabbah and Midrash Tanhuma), the Egyptians spared one tribe from slave labor: the tribe of Levi. (Rashi on Shemot 5:4).
Unless the role transfer went from exclusively firstborn Leviim to Leviim–certainly not the implication of Mishnah Zevahim or Rashi on the role transfer–then people with disabilities likely led the avodah given the prevalence of disability among non-Levite first-borns.
Then, following the sin of the Golden Calf, discrimination by disability is introduced in two forms. God transfers the priestly role from a group of people, a majority of whom have disability–the first-borns–to a group with a much lower rate of disability–the tribe of Levi. God then further introduces explicit disability disqualifications to the sons of Aaron.
While the issues are obviously not identical, a baraita that parallels the Mishnah on the firstborn-to-Kohanim shift also notes that prior to the construction of the Mishkan, animals were not excluded by their bodies either, beyond their kosher status:
As it is taught in a baraita: Until the Tabernacle was established, private altars were permitted, the sacrificial service was performed by the firstborn, and all animals were fit to be sacrificed: A domesticated animal, an undomesticated animal, or a bird; males and females; unblemished and blemished animals. All animal sacrifices were brought from animals and birds that were kosher, but not from non-kosher species. (Zevahim 115b)
Between the first-borns-with-disability to Leviim-without-disability role transfer, and the new unblemished animal requirement, it appears that a new body-based “standard” is imposed on avodah following the sin of the Golden Calf, at the introduction of the Mishkan. This new standard is no ideal – the first-borns were part of the original plan but lost the role through the sin of the Golden Calf, per Rashi, and will receive it once again in messianic times, per Ohr Ha-Hayyim. Instead, we argue, it is a concession, a reaction to a societal failing.
But why would the sin of the Golden Calf lead to a concession to anti-disability discrimination? Where do we see Bnei Yisrael expressing anti-disability prejudice? Isn’t the Golden Calf about Bnei Yisrael replacing either Moshe or God?
To answer these questions, we first recall that Moshe himself has a disability, and then explore the connection between Moshe’s disability and the sin of the Golden Calf.
Moshe describes himself to God as “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (NJPS translation) at the burning bush. Rashi understands “slow of speech” as a stutter.
Moshe invokes his disability in demurring on his new leadership appointment, even after God reveals miraculous signs to him. God replies by reminding Moshe that as Creator, God is fully aware of–in fact, responsible for–human bodies and abilities.
And the LORD said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? (Shemot 4:11, NJPS Translation)
God could have offered to “cure” Moshe if God agreed with him that his speech disability is a barrier to effective leadership, a possibility Ibn Ezra raises and clarifies that it is not the path God takes:
Behold, God did not now [as our verse may be taken to imply] promise Moses that He would remove the slowness of his tongue. He only promised to teach him what to speak.
God instead offers social support:
…I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say. (Shemot 4:12)
Far from considering Moshe a person to fix, God wants to partner with Moshe in crafting speeches that suit him well, according to Ibn Ezra. When this proposed divine partnership does not quell Moshe’s reticence, God still does not resort to discussing Moshe’s disability as something to “fix.” Instead, God suggests Moshe turn to support from family/community–specifically, his brother Aaron, since he is someone who speaks readily:
…and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him.
Aaron is to be the mouth–the foil to Moshe’s disability. Moshe is to be the elohim, a superior and officer, as translated by Rashi, Onkelos, and Rashbam.
Moshe’s Disability and the Golden Calf
Two aspects of Moshe’s disability foreshadow the conflict in the sin of the Golden Calf.
Firstly, the language of Moshe’s role in relationship with his spokesperson Aaron, namely being “elohim” to him.
When Bnei Yisrael approach Aaron about Moshe’s delay down from Har Sinai, they ask him for an elohim, leaving ambiguity whether this refers to a god or a mastermind such as in the context of Moshe’s role with Aaron:
“Come, make us a god [elohim] who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)
Here we have the person assigned to be the mouthpiece, the “peh,” approached about filling in an “elohim.” The people put their trust in the mouthpiece over the “elohim” behind him.
A second foreshadowing emerges from Hazal’s origin story for Moshe’s disability, which connects his disability and leadership ability with gold.
According to Shemot Rabbah 1:26, baby Moshe garnered much attention in Pharaoh’s palace and would occasionally grab Pharaoh’s crown off his head while Pharaoh would hold him, causing concern he might seek the throne. Yitro advises Pharoah to test baby Moshe with a bowl of gold and a bowl of coal; reaching for gold signifies throne-seeking and should be met with execution, while reaching for hot coal indicates harmlessness. Moshe begins to reach for the gold, but the angel Gabriel pushes his hand to the coal. Moshe then sticks the coal in his mouth, injuring his tongue.
Note the midrash’s description of Moshe attracting attention:
…And because [Moses] was so beautiful, everyone yearned to see him. One that would see him would not leave his presence.
Baby Moshe, initially perfect-bodied in the view of Egypt, suddenly becomes the anti-gold, the baby with a speech disability, devalued and non-threatening in the view of Egypt. This midrash combines all the elements of Moshe’s role in the Golden Calf: Egyptian obsession on looks, gold as power and Moshe as anti-gold –– burned when he reached for gold!–, and Moshe’s disability.
Expressing Body Prejudice through a Golden Calf
From Egypt to Mount Sinai, Bnei Yisrael are led by an incorporeal God and a messenger with a speech disability, and ritual sacrifices of all animals (including those with disabilities) are led by people with disabilities. Moreover, God promises that Bnei Yisrael will constitute “a kingdom of priests” (Shemot 19:6), where all the people are the equivalent of a Kohen Gadol, as interpreted by the Ba’al Ha-Turim. According to Sforno, God says prior to the sin of the Golden Calf,
You do not need to employ artificial means made from silver or gold to attract My benevolent providence, for I can come to you anywhere and bless you when you but mention My name in prayer. (Sforno on Shemot 20:21)
Yet the people fail to overcome their Egyptian biases toward gods and humans with particular bodily appearances. In succumbing to those biases and worshiping a Golden Calf, the people express their need for shiny bodies and objects in their worship.
When the most bodily constraint-defying event in the history of human experience–where fire is “heard” and thunder is “seen,” and an infinite God beyond time interacts with mortals–cannot shake the people of their desire for models of gold and silver, God concedes to the people’s protest.
The people’s failing to overcome their biases for bodily ability and appearance manifests not only in symbols of gold and silver, but in their anxieties around Moshe, the leader with a speech disability who was burned when he reached for gold.
The Golden Calf episode begins when the nation notices something about Moshe:
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Shemot 32:1)
Dr. Avivah Zorenberg points out that boshesh (“so long” in the translation above) is a rare word in Tanakh. It seems to connote anxiety about the body–in some contexts, delay that, shamefully, may indicate a body is injured or dead, in other contexts, shame & self-consciousness about flesh and bodily function, and in at least one context–both.In modified form, it appears to describe King Eglon’s courtiers waiting a long time for him to presumably emerge from the bathroom:
After he left, the courtiers returned. When they saw that the doors of the upper chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself in the cool chamber.” They waited a long time (ad bosh); and when he did not open the doors of the chamber, they took the key and opened them—and there their master was lying dead on the floor! (Shoftim 3:24-25)
In King Eglon’s case, the word captures both the discomfort of the courtiers waiting on the King taking a long time to relieve himself, and the foreshadowing of a dead body, as King Eglon had been felled by Ehud ben Gera, a man with, in the words of Tanakh, iter yad yemino, “an impeded right hand.”
Thus we can read a tinge of body anxiety in what induces the people to approach Aaron: is Moshe dead? Does Moshe lack the physical ability to return to them? So they turn to the person they perceived of lacking bodily limitations that Moshe had – his mouthpiece, Aaron. Even though God appoints Aaron the mouth and Moshe the elohim, the people ask Aaron about the elohim. If read super-literally, their request to Aaron is to “get up,” they ask for a leader who can “walk in front of them,” and regarding the man who “lifted” them out of Egypt – “we don’t know, what happened to him?” – a familiar refrain in our times for those challenging a person’s leadership based on their age and perceived “virility.”
Aaron does not rebuke the nation or even stand idly by; he collects gold and builds an altar before the calf. He uses gold for these rituals, and so he is destined to continue to perform rituals with gold materials via the Mishkan.
An advantage to this disability-centered interpretation of the sin of the Golden Calf is that it provides an answer to a major narrative question: was the nation trying to replace God or were they trying to replace Moshe? Who is the “elohim” the people speak of?
Our read weaves together the two theories of the Golden Calf episode: the people replacing God AND God’s public servant Moshe in their Egyptian society-encouraged preference for so-called “perfect” bodies. They replace an incorporeal God with a piece of gold of animal form. And, they replace Moshe who has a speech impediment, Moshe who was burned because of his preference for gold as an infant, with his perfect “mouth” Aaron who melds the Golden Calf. It is this idealized body bias–an idolatry of appearance–that drives both replacements.
According to Rashi and Sforno’s timeline, the Mishkan is a response to the sin of the Golden Calf. To Sforno, the Mishkan is a clear demotion from God’s original relationship with Bnei Yisrael:
God’s presence would dwell among them only by means of the Tabernacle. This was a step down from what He had promised them before the sin of the Calf, “In every place that I permit My Name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you (20:21).” (Sforno on Shemot 25:8)
God withdraws divine presence from amongst the people and, in defeat, endorses a shiny Mishkan run by priests without disability from a tribe [Levi] of bodies that did not undergo slave labor, who sacrifice only “unblemished” animals.
God responds to the people’s idealized body bias and idolatry of appearance by saying, “Okay, if you require a corporeal god to worship, treat Me like you would treat the greatest of kings: build me a palace, make me a throne of gold, and appoint royally dressed courtiers with the bodies you glorify.” This society-determined standard is how R. Lau understands Rashi’s invocation of Malakhi 1:8 in the beginning of the priestly disqualification passage, where the prophecy reports God rhetorically asking, ‘would your governor accept a blind animal for sacrifice?’
To summarize, in concession to the people’s evil social inclinations, God abandons the original Divine plan, adopting in its stead a plan corresponding to what the people were already doing:
- Instead of allowing the people to replace incorporeal God worship with Golden Calf worship, God withdraws from amongst the people and reorients the gold to a physical home for God service, the Mishkan.
- Instead of allowing the people to replace Moshe, God allows Moshe’s mouth–Aaron–the foil to Moshe’s disability–to serve in the ritual role that he already took on in the Golden Calf episode–leading among altars and gold. He receives this appointment not despite his central involvement with the Golden Calf, but because of it.
- God concedes to the people’s focus on superficiality in worship and replaces the firstborns (majority of whom have disability) with Leviim without disability, with the central roles given to Aaron (the foil to Moshe’s disability) and his sons.
God-Moshe-Aaron-Mishkan-Leviim is God’s compromise between God’s plan of God-Moshe-Firstborns and the people’s counterproposal of Golden Calf-Gold-Aaron. This synthesizes the “people replacing God” and “people replacing Moshe” threads of the Golden Calf story, and explains Aaron’s priestly appointment in light of his lead role in the sin of the Golden Calf.
In other words, in our read, disability disqualifications are neither a divine ideal nor an afterthought in the Mishkan. They are central to the role of the Mishkan as God’s concession to the people’s intolerance for people with disabilities and a god without a gold body. And while this read may not change the technical Halakhah of the avodah, as we work to hasten mashiah’s arrival, it can motivate us to build toward a messianic world in which the priestly role returns to what the firstborn represented, namely a people of body diversity.
What is too often an afterthought is accessibility in Jewish communal life, whether in our mikdash me’at, religious institutions, schools, workplaces, or homes: while accommodation is thankfully often celebrated, the burden is initially placed on the people with disabilities. As we work to overcome the social prejudices and theological wrongs that held Bnei Yisrael back from God’s original plan for a kingdom of priests, we can note the potential in the institutional flexibility with which our community adapted itself to some realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, while heeding the ways we continue–despite that flexibility–to fail to center the physical, communal, and spiritual needs of members of our community with disabilities. We must work to reimagine and reconfigure our spaces, programs, and daily lives to be inclusive l’khathilah to people of all abilities, to be inviting of people of all bodies and, in turn, worthy of the presence of our God-without-a-body.
Thank you to Rabbi Atara Cohen, Rabbi Akiva Weisinger, Aron Wander, Ayelet Pinnolis, Emmanuel Cantor, Elliot Salinger, and Ricki Heicklen for their valuable feedback.
6 Paraphrased by Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Schocken, 2011), 319-320.
7 I recognize that there is a range of self-descriptions, and an important debate in the broader disability community, between identity-first and people-first language, and that these preferences may vary by person and community. In this essay I adopted the “default to people-first” guideline from the National Center on Disability and Journalism.
9 The second half of the midrash–about God removing disabilities so that the nation can receive the Torah–may challenge the dignity of people with disabilities in its plainest reading. While I have several alternative reads, they are not necessary for my argument to succeed, since I can rely on the claim of the midrash about disability in leaving Egypt without entailing the second half of the midrash. The second half – God’s removal of disabilities – is proposed as a midrashic solution to a textual contradiction that only exists if most of Bnei Yisrael had disabilities, which is presented as common sense about the historical experience of slavery. Regardless, introducing the story of removing disability at Har Sinai is not a problem for our argument because there were ritual sacrifices performed prior to Matan Torah, and the timing of the return of the “blemishes” in the midrash – a consequence of the sin of the golden calf–underscores our linking of the golden calf to the nation’s relationship with disabilities discussed later in this piece.Translation by Rabbi Aviva Richman presented in the source sheet to her class “The Perfect Body Take 1: An Unattainable Ideal”
10 The source below (see note 11) translates this as “all of their numerousness.” I have modified it to the more conservative translation, “great majority.” Thank you to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for leads to examine this phrase further.
11 Translation by Rabbi Aviva Richman presented in the source sheet to her class “The Perfect Body Take 1: An Unattainable Ideal”
13 For other examples of Divine commands as concessions to human failings, see Kiddushin 21b on Eshet Yefat To’ar (permitted wartime rape of the captive woman), Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ discussion of the permission to eat meat in “Tsav (5767) – Violence and the Sacred,” and as a narrative motif in Tanach in Zvi Grumet, “The Ideal and the Real,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 34, no. 3 (2000): 27-39.
14 Shemot 4:10 and Rashi ad loc.
17 Bemidbar Rabbah 7:1 analogizes people with disabilities to pieces of silver with external dross, and with their disability removed as polished silver.
20 On the miracle of revelation, see Wyschogrod, Michael. “REVELATION AND THE ORTHODOX INTELLECTUALS: A Reply to Rabbi Danziger.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 9, no. 1/2 (1967): 147-154
21 Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Schocken, 2011), 400.
22 In Deborah’s song mocking Sisera’s mother’s worry about Sisera’s chariot’s delayed return from what was an assumed victory in battle, Judges 5:28
23 In the Chumash, the root is only present inGenesis 2:25, referring to Adam and Chava’s lack of awareness about sexuality and nakedness.
24 Judges 3:15. Commonly translated as left-handed.
27 Beyond representing non-disability, perhaps Levites did not worship the Golden Calf in the first place because they already had so many bodies among them that were viewed as conforming to the general population’s ideal bodily image–and so perhaps they didn’t need an external image to worship, or they knew from their own experience that those “ideal” bodies aren’t worth worshiping.
28 Rashi on Vayikra 21:18. Note that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l criticized R. Lau’s read of this Rashi as implying that Rashi is in the business of providing “reasons for the mitzvah” instead of answering a vocabulary question. See https://ravtzair.blogspot.com/2012/05/blog-post_20.html.