Cane-Users Need Not Apply

Civilization, writ large, has a complicated history when it comes to dealing with neurodiversity, disability, poverty, and any number of other perceived differences.

Photo of an ancient cobblestone road

Ancient cobblestone road: stumbling blocks?

Indiana hasn’t always been at the forefront of advancement in these areas: it was the first U.S. state to enact a eugenics law calling for the forced sterilization of certain persons, on the notion that poverty, criminality, and other perceived defects were a result of genetics. On the other hand, in 1921 the Indiana Supreme Court struck the 1907 law, even as in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court would say such laws were permissible under the federal Constitution, in part on the conclusion that “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 207 (1927).

Jewish culture is no exception to such problems. This week’s Torah portion, parshat Emor, gives us a not-too-subtle reminder of that.

We’re still neck-deep in legal material; it will stay that way through the rest of Leviticus. As I observed last week, that material, viewed in its completeness, doesn’t tell a nice, clean, inspiring story–and it isn’t about our modern sense of ethics. Perhaps to remind us of that, parshat Emor begins with a catalog of the qualifications and disqualifications for service as a priest in the tabernacle (and, by extension, the Temple). Beginning at Leviticus 21:16, we read (the translation is, as usual, my own, with a big shout-out to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon for words that don’t get used very often!):

Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, “Speak to Aaron, saying, ‘A man from your offspring, in any generation, who has any type of defect: he cannot come near to bring bread to his god. Indeed, no man who has a defect may come near: no man who is blind, or lame, or who has a facial mutilation, or has limbs of unequal length; nor a man who has a broken leg or broken hand, or is a hump-back or is withered or has a defect in his eye or is scabrous or has a skin eruption or has a crushed testicle. Any man from the seed of Aaron who has a defect in him may not approach to offer Yahweh’s fire. One with a defect in him may not approach to bring near his god’s bread. His god’s bread from the holy of holies, and from those set aside as holy, he may eat. But he may not come to the curtain [before the tabernacle] or approach the altar, for there is a defect in him–and he shall not profane my most holy of things, for I, Yahweh, make them holy.'”

Lev. 21:16-23.

(“Defect,” as I have translated it, is the Hebrew word mum, which usually gets translated as “blemish.” I think that translation steps too softly around the problem.)

For a little perspective: two chapters before, in Leviticus 19:14, we read the commandment that one not put a stumbling block before the blind. Here, we learn that this charity goes only so far: one may not place a stumbling block, but such persons are categorically excluded from full membership in Israelite society’s elite positions.

Is this why we can’t have nice things?

Again, we face the complicated legacy of biblical law. This set of distinctions has had a marked effect on Judaism, too: some physical conditions were considered to be disqualifying when it came to being able to comply with halakhah (particularly with reference to those who had less-acute eyesight), and thus exemptions were created. But exemptions in halakhah–despite insistence to the contrary from some interpreters–are an indication of lesser status in the rabbinic construction of Jewish society: the traditional exemption of women from many commandments is an example of this, as that exemption developed over time to work explicit exclusion of women from prominent public roes.

For as many laws in the Torah that indicate a need to be “better” about individuals often harmed by their societies, we often find other laws that work to make it clear that what seems to be charity might better be understood as pity.

So don’t cite lifnei iver (the commandment against setting up stumbling blocks for the blind) without taking notice that it’s about pity, not inclusion. A broken limb was enough to exclude a priest from full status and service; the least that could be done was to permit him to take the same table scraps the other priests received.

This tradition of exemption is a tradition of exclusion. It reflects a set of views of difference–difference in gender, ability, thought, and perhaps 100 other categories–that has carried through into secular culture in ways that are often subtle, but sometimes are not.

As I noted last week, Humanistic Judaism requires that we make our own moral decisions and engage critically with our past. It doesn’t make the past kosher.

Because in the past, someone who walked with a cane need not have applied.