Essay Emor
Why Discriminate Against Handicapped Kohanim?
Why Are Women Barred from Many Jewish Rituals? Why Are Crippled Priests Deprived from Serving in the Temple?

A Disturbing Mitzvah

Some of the commandments in the Torah dance off the pages in their sheer moral beauty. Some of them makes us uneasy. Our portion, Emor, includes one of the latter type: Priests with physical disability were barred from performing the service in the Holy Temple.

Leviticus 21: 17—22: Speak to Aaron, saying: Any man among your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect, shall not come near to offer up his God's food.

For any man who has a defect should not approach: A blind man or a lame one, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs; or a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or a commingling in his eye; dry lesions or weeping sores, or one with crushed testicles.

Any man among Aaron the kohen's offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up the Lord's fire offerings. There is a defect in him; he shall not draw near to offer up his God's food.

His God's food from the most holy and from the holy ones, he may eat.

Do we not find this disturbing?

The first document in history to protest discrimination against the disabled, the crippled, the sick and the infirm, was the Hebrew Bible. The Torah was the first to enshrine in its code the unwavering dignity of every human person. When Genesis declared that the human being was carved in the image of the Divine it made it clear that this includes each person, no matter of his or her physical state, prowess, color, race, or strength. In Jewish law, there is absolutely no distinction between murdering a perfectly healthy, strong human and a bed-ridden cripple. The dignity of life is non-negotiable, unwavering and beyond utilitarian purpose.

At the time, this notion was unheard of, even in progressive societies. Hellenist culture embraced infanticide, pedophilia, pederasty, the Spartan lifestyle, and the glorification of torture. None other than Aristotle himself argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing crippled children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: "There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed [i.e. thrown on the trash heap or left out in the woods to die]. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state."

It took until 1990 for the US to legislate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Today it is federally illegal to discriminate against a person because of disabilities. No public building can be built without comfortable access for the disabled. One may not put up a building with only stairs.

How then does the Torah – the first champion of the notion that physical prowess, handsome looks, and perfect shape, albeit wonderful blessings and gifts, are not barometers for dignity—legislate such a law? How can the Torah blatantly contradict itself, claiming that the most blemished of bodies and the most perfect of bodies are equal in the eyes of G-d, yet the crippled Kohen may not work in the Holy Temple? It seems like a smack in the face of everything Judaism teaches about compassion! It smacks more of Nietzsche and Darwin than Moses and Abraham. Judaism suddenly becomes about Survival of the Fittest?!

What’s more, even this law itself is riddled with contradiction. When it comes to partaking in the sacred food of the Sanctuary, something reserved only for the Priests due to their elevated state of holiness, all are included, even the disabled and crippled. “His G-d's food from the most holy and from the holy ones, he may eat.”[1] If they are holy enough to eat, a privilege excluding the holiest and most righteous Jew if he is not a kohen—why are they not holy enough to serve?[2]

Let me offer an insight by one of the great Halachik authorities and spiritual masters of his day, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866), the third Lubavitcher Rebbe.[3] Yet his insight requires a general introduction.[4]

The Story of Steve Jobs

The key to understand this enigma is this: The crippled Kohen was not excluded from serving in the Holy Temple. Rather, he was summoned and chosen to serve elsewhere.

Steve Jobs, founder and chairman of Apple, who revolutionized the computer and phone industry, never knew his parents. His father left his mother after she became pregnant before they ever got married. In early 1955, Steve’s biological mother, Joanne, traveled to San Francisco, where she was taken into the care of a kindly doctor who sheltered unwed mothers, delivered their babies, and quietly arranged closed adoptions. Steve was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs.

One day, as a seven year old, he was sitting on the lawn of his home, chatting about his adoption with a girl who lived across the street. “So does that mean your real parents didn’t want you?” the girl asked.

“Lightning bolts went off in my head,” related Jobs. “I remember running into the house, crying.” Jobs wanted to know if it was true that his biological parents cast him away.

Jobs related: “And my parents said, ‘No, you have to understand.’ They were very serious and looked me straight in the eye. They said, ‘We specifically picked you out.’ Both of my parents said that and repeated it slowly for me. And they put an emphasis on every word in that sentence.” Their response changed his life. He came to see himself not as an outcast by his biological parents, but as chosen by the parents who adopted him.

He could have viewed his life in two ways—as the child abandoned by his parents, or as the child chosen by another mom and dad. The way he would see his life would have determined the caliber of his life. Thank goodness, his parents said the right thing—and Steve Jobs changed the world (despite some serious shortcomings.)

The same holds true in our case as well.  

What’s Perfection in Judaism?

Here is where we must understand an important principle in Judaism. Perfection in Judaism is never attributed to a particular place, person or thing. There is no “perfect model” in Judaism. Perfection is doing what G-d wants you to do; being the way G-d wants you to be; living the life G-d wants you to live. Perfection means being in the place where G-d wants you to be.

Worshiping, or paying special tribute, to a “perfect model” is a subtle form of idol worship. That’s why Moses smashed the Tablets.[5] He understood that the Jewish people missed the point with Monotheism. They were accustomed to idolatry and hence attributed holiness to objects, to holy things, places and peoples. Moses smashed the holiest item in the world—the Tablets—to teach his people that there is only one barometer for perfection: what G-d wants and where He wants you to be. Nothing else.

Someone asked me, why are women treated in your synagogue as second class citizens and not given an Aliya to the Torah? Why don’t they wrap Tefilin or a Tallis (phylacteries or prayer shawl)? Why no Kippa? My answer to them: Since when do we worship an Aliya, or a Kippa, or Tefilin? Since when have these become important and desirable items? We worship G-d. A Talis or an Aliya as independent rituals mean absolutely nothing to us. It is about what G-d wants. What G-d wants me to do is holy. What G-d does not want me to do is unholy. Eating matzah on Pesach is a mitzvah; it is an act of holiness. Eating matzah a day after Passover is not holy in anyway. Blowing the rams horn on Rosh Hashanah—is the Divine will. Through it, you connect to G-d. Blowing the same shofar on Chanukah is meaningless. The shofar means nothing. It is what G-d wants from me at this time, at this place, in this situation—that is what counts in Judaism.

We do not attach Divine significance to ANYTHING, only to G-d Himself. If G-d wants it, awesome. If not—goodbye Charlie. We do not sanctify anything in-and-of-itself.

Eating pork for a Jew is grotesque. But if I need to feed my fellow Jew pork to save his life, then eating pork becomes a mitzvah! For right now, this is what G-d wants from me and him.

Going to synagogue on a regular Shabbat is a great mitzvah; but the same act during a pandemic can make me culpable in bloodshed. It becomes a repulsive act. We don’t worship rituals, habits, acts; we worship an imageless G-d.

Serving as a priest to do the work in the Holy Temple sounds awesome. But it is not. Its sole value is because G-d wants me to do it. The Holy Temple has no intrinsic holiness as a physical temple—it is G-d’s will in it that makes it sacred. We don’t attribute any special value to any Temple, no matter its beauty. The service in the Holy Temple is sacred only because G-d wants this service. The moment G-d tells me, this is not for you, then for me to do this is unholy, ineffective, and meaningless. Religion is not here to fit into pre-existing models of what we define as perfect and beautiful. That is idolatry. Judaism is about serving G-d, not my own sense of what looks good. If G-d wants me to have an Aliya that is wonderful; if not—the Aliya is worthless.

No Discrimination

So to ask the question, why are we discriminating against the crippled Kohen by telling him not to do the service in the Holy Temple is like asking why did you marry your wife and in the process discriminate against all other women? Or why did you marry your husband and discriminate against all other men? That is an insane accusation. Sorry, I am not discriminating against other women. They are not meant to be with me; I am not meant to be with them. My wife is not discriminating against other men; they are not meant to be with her. They have their own angels. Marriage is holy when it is with the right person. Serving in the Temple is holy when it is fulfilled by the right person.

Who decided that serving in the Temple is good, moral, holy, wonderful? Maybe it is meaningless and valueless? Maybe it is a waste of time and energy? The answer is because G-d wants it and attributes to it profound spiritual significance. Its entire significance is due to it being G-d’s will. And if G-d tells me this is not for me, then for me to do it would be utter nonsense.

There are kohanim who G-d wants to serve in the Holy Temple; there are others He wants not to serve in the Temple. Not because they are excluded, abandoned, and rejected, but because they are CHOSEN for another mission, for another journey, for another destiny, one that is chosen for their soul. We are glad Steve Jobs did not become a painter, Albert Einstein did not become a basketball player, and Mozart did not go into real estate. Not because painting, basketball or real estate are not great vocations, but because they were chosen for something else. You need to know who you are and who you are not, or more accurately—who G-d wants you to be and who He does not want you to be.

There was a time G-d dwelled in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and one went there to find G-d. But then G-d allowed it to be destroyed. Was G-d destroyed then too? Of course not. Now G-d is found elsewhere: In your own heart, in prayer, Torah study, in Mitzvos, good deeds, in love, in the mini-Temples in every city and community around the globe, which we call shuls, and today—during Corona—in every single home. G-d is present where He tells you He is present, not in the shrines you decide are the places that house Him. Similarly, for some priests the Holy Temple and its service is where they found G-d; for others that is precisely where they would never find Him. To tell them to do the service in the Temple would actually be discrimination—against their unique mission, their individual journey, which is to be found elsewhere.

It would be like forcing my child who is brilliant in math but also tone-deaf, to become a conductor and composer. That is discrimination! Discrimination against the belief that G-d made him the way G-d wants him to be. Music is awesome, but we do not worship anything, not even music. We worship G-d. And only G-d. And G-d is not defined in the terms and colors we choose, and we like. Some children must be musicians, while others have different callings.

We must be humble. To force your tone-deaf math prodigy to become a musician is cruel. Why? Because music is not the shape of his soul. Math is. Do we know the soul of the disabled Kohen? Are we sure that him doing the service in the Holy Temple is good for him? What if it is exactly the other way around? What if for him, serving in the Temple is toxic? The Torah is not being cruel; the Torah is being sensitive to his reality, to his soul’s color, and his Divine mission in life. When the Torah says don’t do something it is not only a commandment; it is also a description of reality—telling us that this is not healthy for our souls.

What’s the Mission?

Granted, serving in the Holy Temple is only good and valuable because G-d wants me there. If G-d does not want me there, it becomes meaningless and counter-productive. It may even be toxic for me. The disabled Kohen was not ejected from the Temple service, but was chosen for another mission. But what is that other mission that excludes him from Temple service?

It is here the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek offers a deeply moving insight.

The kohanim, all of them, were chosen by G-d as His spiritual ambassadors to the rest of the Jewish people. They bless us, they teach us, and they represent us in the service of the Holy Temple. They were chosen as the “link” between heaven and earth, helping the Jewish people find the place where heaven meets earth.

But there are two types of Jews—those who make it to the Temple and those who do not. We are not only talking in terms of geography, but also existentially. There are souls who manage to climb the mountain of holiness and become absorbed in the sacred glow of the Temple; but there are others who, for whatever reason, remain remote. They are unmoved, uninspired and detached. They may be spiritually underdeveloped or disabled. They may be full of doubt, pain, cynicism, and uncertainty. They are struggling with the abyss.

So G-d chose certain souls who are deeply sensitive to all forms of handicaps in life—because they themselves never developed a delusional veneer of perfection. These are the kohanim who are physically handicapped. Their souls are as perfect as can be, and due to their struggling bodies—they are the special people chosen as “shluchim,” as G-d’s ambassadors to bring light, hope and healing to souls who experience themselves as outcasts, far removed from the Holy Temple.

The Lunar Jew

Who is greater, the sun or the moon? The Talmud says[6] that initially the moon was created as a twin of the sun. G-d created “two great luminaries,” Genesis says. He made them each identical to the other. Then, G-d diminished the moon to a fraction of her original size, deprived her of the ability to generate her own light and reduced her to a pale reflector of sunlight. Only during the era of Moshiach will “the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun.”[7]

What is the meaning of this strange story? The moon in Kabbalah and Chassidic teachings represents the Divine energy, and the Divine souls, sent outside of the realm of holiness into the darker environments of life, to elevate the “fallen sparks.” These are the souls entrusted by the Creator to enter the abyss and lift up the downtrodden. In this journey, like the moon, the soul wanes, gets diminished, and is sometimes completely eclipsed, but it is the “moon” who ultimately reveals the oneness of G-d in all of existence, the one who brings back the lost child to his father, casting the lunar glow in the darkest of nights.

In a religion that decides that perfection is based on social convention, the handicapped Kohen is seen as mistreated—as he does not do the service in the Temple. But in a world where G-d's will defines perfection, not social dogma and status, the handicap Kohen sings a song that in many ways is so much deeper than doing the service in G-d's home. It is he who turns the blemishes of life into a home for G-d; it is he who reveals that even places and people seemingly forlorn, are really abodes for the Divine.

This type of Kohen cannot serve G-d inside the cocoon of holiness. He must always stay in-tuned with what is happening “outside,” in the remote places. He can’t get on a high from the work inside the walls of the Temple, which will sweep him up in ecstasy. He must be out there, in the jungle of life, in battered places and hearts, embracing broken souls, kindling shatters hearts, bringing the light into places of brokenness.

The soul that is blemished physically is a soul that enters into battle with the darkness of the world. Thus, when it comes to eating the holy offerings, they also eat the sacred food, because their souls are fully in-tact. When the moon will, at last, be sublimated and repaired they will be the ones to celebrate most, and receive the greatest reward, due to their sacrifice.

Where is G-d’s Perfection?

In Brooklyn, New York, Chush is a school that caters to learning disabled children. Some children remain in Chush for their entire school career, while others can be mainstreamed into conventional schools.

At a Chush fund-raising dinner, the father of a child delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended.

After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he cried out, “Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything G-d does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is G-d’s perfection?”

The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish, stilled by the piercing query.

”I believe,” the father answered, “that when G-d brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that he seeks is in the way people react to this child.”

He then told the following story about his son Shaya:

One afternoon Shaya and his father walked past a park where some boys Shaya knew were playing baseball.

Shaya asked, “Do you think they will let me play?”

Shaya’s father knew that his son was not at all athletic. He was under developed both cognitively and physically, and most boys would not want him on their team. But Shaya’s father understood that if his son was chosen to play it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging.

Shaya’s father approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shaya could play. The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said, “We are losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning.”

Shaya’s father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly. Shaya was told to put on a glove and go out to play short center field.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shaya’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shaya’s team scored again and now with two outs and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base, Shaya was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let Shaya bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shaya was given the bat.

Everyone knew that it was all but impossible because Shaya didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it. However as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shaya should at least be able to make contact.

The first pitch came in and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of Shaya’s teammates came up to Shaya and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly toward Shaya. As the pitch came in, Shaya and his teammate swung at the bat and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher.

The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game. Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman.

Everyone started yelling, “Shaya, run to first. Run to first.” Everybody from BOTH teams were screaming: Run to first! Never in his life had Shaya run to first. He scampered down the baseline wide-eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base, the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman who would tag out Shaya, who was still running. But the right fielder understood what the pitcher’s intentions were, so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head. Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second.” Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base, the opposing short stop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, “Run to third.” As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, “Shaya run home.”

Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit a “grand slam” and won the game for his team.

“That day,” said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “those 18 boys reached their level of G-d’s perfection.”[8]

The Lesson

Each of us is capable of that perfection. Each of us can do something to give dignity to a shattered heart, hope to a broken spirit, comfort to a challenged soul, love to an impoverished person. Each of us can open our hearts to those who are disabled, in every sense of the word—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

And each of us is, in some ways, is the “blemished Kohen.” We are all challenged in some ways. We all have our hardships and disabilities, emotionally, spiritually, socially, or physically. And we are all kohanim—ambassadors of G-d. We ought to see our own handicaps not as a punishment, but as a summons to be particularly sensitive to those who are lacking in life. If I were perfect, how can I shed a tear for the broken vessels? How could I empathize with them? All of us are summoned at times to descend into broken places to allow all of the Shayas of the world score their home run.

And when we do that, we encounter perfection—real perfection, G-d’s perfection.


[1] Leviticus 21:22

[2] We can appreciate that some physical disabilities marred them from performing specific functions. For example if a Kohen’s arm is broken it would be hard for him to do the service. But some of the blemishes do not limit his ability at all, for example, the one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs. See Rambam Hilchos Bias Mikdash chapters 6-8 for all of the laws of a “blemished Kohen” in detail and a list of what constitutes a blemish.

[3] Derech Mitzvosecha pp. 31-33.

[4] There is another very interesting interpretation offered by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch in his commentary on Emor—from a very different angle.

[5] This extraordinary idea is explained at length in Meshech Chachmah Parshas Ki Sisa.

[6] Chulin 60b

[7] Isaiah 30:27.

[8] The story was shared by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, a popular lecturer and author of the ArtScroll Maggid series of short stories. In a message to, Rabbi Krohn said, “Every single word in the story is accurate. I heard it from Shaya’s father himself – who is a close friend of mine.”

Class Summary:
Some of the commandments in the Torah dance off the pages in their sheer moral beauty. Some of them are difficult to grasp. Our portion, Emor, includes one of the latter type: Priests with physical disabilities were barred from performing their duties. Do we not find this deeply disturbing? The Torah was the first book to enshrine in its code the unwavering dignity of every human person. In Jewish law, there is absolutely no distinction between murdering a perfectly healthy, strong human and a bed-ridden cripple. The dignity of life is unwavering and beyond utilitarian purpose. How then does the Torah – the first champion of the notion that physical prowess, handsome looks, and perfect shape, albeit wonderful blessings and gifts—are not barometers for dignity—legislate such a law? How can the Torah contradict itself, claiming that the most blemished of bodies and the most perfect of bodies are equal in the eyes of G-d, yet the crippled Kohen may not work in the Holy Temple? It seems like a smack in the face of everything Judaism teaches about compassion and loving-kindness? Let me offer an insight by one of the great halachik authorities and spiritual masters of his day, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866). It required an introduction on an important principal in Judaism: What is perfection? Does Judaism have a perfect model? Someone asked me, why are women treated in your synagogue as second-class citizens and not given an Aliya? Why don’t they don tefilin or a tallit? Why no kippa? The story of how Steve Jobs was abandoned by his biological parents; the story of a cognitively challenged child in Brooklyn who scored a home run and it became the happiest day in his life; the story of a father who ran the marathon with his crippled son; the story of the man who revolutionized our treatments of the paraplegic—all illustrate the unique mission entrusted to the handicapped Kohen.
Over the last fifteen years, Rabbi Jacobson traveled to hundreds of communities, schools, and universities across the globe, educating and inspiring people of all backgrounds with the majestic depth of Torah and Judaism.