Words of Torah from Rabbi Jennifer Singer

Learning to see beyond the physical

Part of the human condition is our lack of perfection. To be honest, this is a relief – it means that doing our best is enough, even when we fall short of the optimum. The Torah reinforces this by telling us detailed stories about the lives of our ancestors, who were anything but perfect. If the matriarchs and patriarchs could make mistakes, then clearly we can too.

The animals that our forebears sacrificed are another matter entirely. The Torah is explicit; in most instances, they must be perfect with absolutely no blemishes. And it’s not just animals that have to be physically perfect. So do the Kohanim, the priests, who perform the sacrifices. The Bible says:

“No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified [to perform most of the Temple service].”  To make sure we understand exactly what this means, the Bible is unambiguous: “He… who has any blemish; a blind man, or lame, or he who has a flat nose, or anything superfluous, or a man who is broken footed, or broken handed, or crook backed, or a dwarf, or who has a blemish in his eye, or scurvy, or scabbed, or has his stones broken…”  (Vayikra 21:17-22)

This list of defects is seemingly exhaustive. But, as I always taught my children, what someone doesn’t tell you can be even more revealing than what they do say. And there is a glaring omission when it comes to the Torah’s list of forbidden imperfections. It neglects to say anything about character.

Physical imperfections? Taboo. Mental, psychological, character issues?  Not considered. Which I find unsettling, because we know instinctively that a person is characterized by his or her, well, character. Certainly more so than by physical attributes, although popular culture would tell us otherwise.

What are we to make of this?

The Kohanim were public figures, role models. The Torah held them to higher standards than everyone else, repeatedly stressing that they were holy and were to be treated as such. And perhaps by stressing the outward trappings of holiness, the Torah hoped to ensure inward holiness as well.

The exclusion of those who are disabled or disfigured has troubled us for millennia. From the rabbis of the Talmud to religious leaders of today, we have understood those prohibitions to be a function of a particular time and place, and no longer relevant. We have chosen character over physical characteristics.

For my own part, I am relieved that the Torah’s standards of physical perfection are no longer enforced. Especially now, as I am about to enter into my sixth decade, I am ever more aware of my physical limitations. And even as I chafe at the litany of so-called defects in this Torah portion, I find comfort in knowing that our tradition has matured, and learned to see beyond the merely physical.

Our tradition has matured — it has grown and changed, as we have grown and changed. And that’s (part of) what Renewal is all about: Judaism is perennially renewing itself. The Voice continues to sound from Sinai, and what we hear that Voice saying to us now may be different from what our ancestors heard — and that’s not a sign that we’re wrong, or that what they understood in their time was wrong for that time, but that as we grow and mature as the human race, we become better able to hear and enact a vision of holiness that is ever more inclusive.

Our Judaism has become more and more inclusive, to the point where deaf rabbis lead congregations, where young people of varying abilities stand on the bimah and are recognized as valuable members of the community, and where even a woman – gasp! – can be a religious leader.

We have come to understand that it is possible to rise above physical limitations, and we have learned to treasure those who have done so. May we continue to welcome everyone to participate fully in Jewish communal life, knowing that holiness comes from within.


Rabbi Jennifer Singer, spiritual leader of Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, serves on the ALEPH Board.