Parashah of the week: Emor

“No person of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall {be qualified to} offer food to his God”


Catherine Debrunner of Switzerland winning the Women's wheelchair race in the 2024 TCS London Marathon (Getty Images )

It is arguable that Emor is one of the weekly Torah portions which has least relevance in the modern world. Parashat Emor, particularly its first two chapters, is specifically aimed at the Cohanim and Levi’im, the priesthood, rather than the Israelite people as a whole.

Although the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE ended the raison d’etre of the priesthood — the administration of sacrifices — rabbinic Judaism advocated reminders of it and the Temple in synagogues: the ner tamid for the Temple menorah, the bells and other Torah regalia in place of those on the priests’ uniforms, the ceremony of pidyon haben, redeeming the first born from ritual service, and the order of aliyot, beginning with a Cohen and followed by a Levi.

From its inception Progressive Judasim did away with priestly privilege including prayers for the restoration of the Temple, seeking equality of all Jews in ritual matters, considering that a hereditary form of leadership was outdated, and affirming, in accord with Robert Travers Hertford (1860 -1950), that “with the synagogue there began a new type of worship in the history of humanity, the type of congregational worship without priest...”

Nevertheless, whether or not the priesthood has contemporary relevance, the verse, |No person of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall [be qualified to] offer food to his God” stands out.

The Torah does not tell us why a person with a physical disability is disqualified from leading public sacrificial worship. Perhaps it was thought that worshippers might be distracted —unable to see beyond the physical impairment — or it might be that the Temple system sought to convey some sense of perfection since animals with injury were excluded from sacrifice.

It is important to note that the Torah imputes no blame on the physically disabled, enabling them to receive their full dues within the Temple system.

There is, in my view, an important lesson that can be drawn from this immediately troubling verse.

Synagogues across the community have begun to make appropriate adaptations to ensure full access for all Jews, regardless of indeed their spiritual or mental need, never mind any physical one, and the community at which I now minister has welcomed a student rabbi who preaches, teaches, makes pastoral visits sometimes from her wheelchair.

Initially I confess there was a nervousness in the community but minor changes in practice but more importantly a dose of goodwill combined with a genuine desire to welcome all has enriched our community experience. Congregants have indeed begun to see that the wheelchair is an aspect of the person whose character, family, learning and music have brought delight to our shul.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive