Parshat Emor: People with Disabilities in the Holy Temple

Parashat Emor: People with Disabilities in the Holy Temple

Rabbi Rafi Ostroff teaches Talmud at the Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in Memory of Anna Ehrman

The first part of this week’s parasha concerns the laws of kehuna, priesthood. Arguably, this may be the main parasha to discuss the laws of the sanctity of the priest and the priestly service in the Holy Temple. It contains 21 positive and negative commandments tied to the laws of the priest, or the high priest, and among those commandments, we find one that forbids priests “with blemishes” from serving in the Holy Temple (see Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandment No. 60).

Moreover, Maimonides mentions elsewhere another commandment that forbids blemished priests from even entering the Holy Temple, regardless of whether they perform any Temple services (see ibid., Negative Commandment No. 69).

Sefer Hachinuch states (in Commandment 267) that the root of these commandments is the following:

To elevate the honor and glory [of the Temple]; therefore, it isn’t proper for someone with a blemish to come there, for it is the place of perfection, and it is unjust for someone lacking something to stand there. And I have already written many times, above, of the benefit we derive from glorifying the Holy Temple and making it more splendid.

Nahmanides disagrees with Maimonides. He argues that this prohibition is one that they had derived, and that it isn’t directly prohibited by the Torah.

Suffice it to say that this commandment can pose a problem in the modern world, where people with disabilities are given respect. In fact, the more enlightened and progressive a society is, the more equality and accessibility it accords to people who are differently abled. Fortunately, our society no longer seeks to keep those with special physical or mental needs hidden from sight; on the contrary: efforts are made to find a place for all people in our society, and we do all we can to make everyone feel equal.

Yet at the same time, we pray for the reconstruction of the Holy Temple and for restoring the glory of ancient times. Would we also seek to exclude people with disabilities from Temple service and bar them from entering?  This is a quandary that our hearts will find hard to resolve.

Perhaps the newer halachic response will come from the rulings written throughout the generations, which exhibit a different stance toward people with special needs. The Ramah, in his Responsa (Chapter 98), ruled that a sick and incontinent individual may enter a synagogue and pray, based on the principle of “the dignity of Hashem’s creations”. Seemingly, a simpler halachic approach would have been to prohibit such a person from entering a synagogue, based on the principle of the sanctity of the synagogue, yet the Ramah, due to his humanitarian sensitivity, allowed such individuals to enter synagogues.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was once asked whether a person who is blind should be allowed to enter a synagogue with a seeing eye dog (Responsa, Igrot Moshe, Ohr Chaim, Part 1, chapter 45). Despite Rabbi Feinstein’s initial reluctance to allow a dog owner to enter a synagogue and pray with the dog at his or her side, he stated the following:

There is no greater time of distress than this one, for if we do not allow him [to enter], he will refrain from praying in a synagogue, hearing the Torah reading and hearing the Megillah all his life, and there are also times when anguish is at its greatest, such as the High Holy Days and the like, when many congregate [to pray]. This is therefore a great indication that we must allow blind people whose dogs lead them and remain at their sides at all times, to enter the synagogue and pray, to hear the Torah reading, and so forth. However, the blind individual should sit near the entrance, to avoid confusing the public.

 It would have been much simpler for Rabbi Feinstein to prohibit the entry of seeing eye dogs into synagogues in deference to the dignity of the synagogue and the dignity of the congregation, but by sympathizing with the plight of a fellow Jew who would otherwise never be able to pray in a synagogue, Rabbi Feinstein sanctioned it. These halachic rulings made it possible for us to peer into the future regarding our attitude towards people with disabilities, but I believe that one more consideration comes into play.

 During World War II, the Nazis didn’t just murder the Jews. They also murdered all of the disabled, regardless of whether they were German or from nations the Nazis had subjugated. The world has never been the same since 1945. The crimes of the Nazis compel us to adopt a different attitude, even if past generations hadn’t been too concerned about people with disabilities. If others chose to make people with disabilities their enemies, we are commanded to choose them as we would our soulmate. As Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis, we must take a different view, treat people with special needs differently, and fix all of the Nazi perversions. Therefore, we have a heavier responsibility, and must concern ourselves with their health and wellbeing to an even greater extent than our forefathers did.

In light of this, the world after the coming of the Mashiach and the construction of the Holy Temple may be more complete and rectified than what we had previously thought. Every individual would have a place in the House of Hashem, as echoed in the words of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 56, verse 3):

Let not the foreigner say, Who has attached himself to Hashem, “Hashem will keep me apart from His people”; And let not the eunuch say, “I am a withered tree.” For thus said Hashem: “As for the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire And hold fast to My covenant— I will give them, in My House And within My walls, a monument and a name, better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.

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