‘Disabilities’ and the Jewish Community

‘Disabilities’ and the Jewish Community


Our modern sensibilities are offended in this week’s Torah portion, Emor, when G-d reminds Aaron that anyone with a “defect” is not fit to make an offering to G-d.

Rabbi Harvey Winokur
Rabbi Harvey Winokur

Anyone is free to eat from the offering, He says, but people with certain conditions may not venture behind the curtain of the Tabernacle. A list of “defects” ensues, including the “blind, lame, [those with a] broken leg or arm, dwarfs, or those who have boils” (Leviticus 21:18-20).

Rabbi Amy C. Weiss in a Union of Reform Judaism D’var Torah pondered on this passage:

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“Why would G-d deny those who are different a place closest to the Holy of Holies? Are we not all created in G-d’s image?

“We must remember that the Torah is G-d’s word interpreted by human hands. The writers of the Torah were influenced by the sensibilities of their day. Were the spoken fears of our ancestors so different from our own unspoken fears?”

Only two chapters earlier in Leviticus – specifically, in Chapter 19 Verse 14 – comes the familiar admonition: “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.”

The conundrum I see here is that while we know we may not knowingly place a stumbling block before those with disabilities, we may inadvertently do just that by ignoring their needs. And although the traditional Responsa literature has little rabbinic discussion regarding the physically challenged, everyone is encouraged to be a part of the congregation and take part in everything that the synagogue has to offer.

Yet the Torah clearly prefers “wholeness.” We understand that the biblical precepts of kohanim and offerings without blemish were meant to ensure that only the best and most complete offerings were made to the Holy One. But the Torah also speaks about disabilities, reflecting a complex balance of values, priorities and perceptions.

In the here and now, the disabilities community has helped us become aware of our discomfort toward the physically and mentally challenged. We are beginning to struggle with our unspoken fears.

Opportunities to increase awareness, such as the annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month (February), remind us of the role of our congregations in including those who are challenged in some way. We know it is our responsibility to help one another by providing physical aids, such as railings to the bimah, accessible doorways and large print or Braille prayer books along with hearing devices, etc.

The real challenge, though, is to go beyond the ramp. How can we be truly inclusive to members of our community with disabilities? Can we offer them volunteer outlets? Are they offered opportunities to serve on our committees and boards?

It is interesting to note that Midrash Va-Yikra Rabbah makes explicit that no one is disbarred from offering a sacrifice, regardless of their disability or handicap. This reflects the idea that G-d cherishes those who wrestle with their handicaps and have to make a greater effort to live their lives.

On this point, Rabbi Abba bar Yudan said:

“Whatever blemish G-d declared invalid in the case of a beast was declared valid in the case of a person. Just as G-d declared invalid in the case of a beast ‘that was blind or broken,’ so G-d declared the same valid in the case of a person: ‘a broken and contrite heart, O G-d, you will not despise.’”

Truly, each of us balances personal weaknesses, inabilities and injuries while working to compensate for them so they don’t prevent us from living our lives to our fullest. Thus, in a very real sense, we are all handicapped, all of us persons with disabilities.

Emor challenges us to grapple compassionately, as individuals and as leaders in our synagogues, with our fear of the unknown as we integrate the physically and intellectually challenged into the community – just as the writers of the Torah struggled so many years ago.

Rabbi Harvey J. Winokur is the spiritual leader of Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell and a member of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.


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