Adrian A. Durlester

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6 years ago I wrote a musing for parashat Emor which connected with a very personal space inside of me. I've been dealing lately with some subtle discriminations against others (and myself) that compel me to reiterate those thoughts from 5760, along with a few added comments from this year. So, with your indulgence:

Random Musing Before Shabbat
Emor  5766

Mum's the Word

(Redux 5760 with Additional Commentary for 5766)

Mum. That's the word. That's Mem, Shuruk, Mem Sofit - M- "oo" - m.

It means blemish or defect. It is used in this parasha and some later ones to refer to blemished animals which were unfit to be sacrificed. But here in this parasha, it is also used in a closely connected series of verses (17, 18, 21, 23) to refer to a physical blemish or defect of a human being, i.e. blindness, lameness, broken or odd length arms or legs, hunchbacks, people with growths in their eyes, people with boil scars, or scurvy, or crushed testicles. Any kohanim, any priest who has such a defect may not make the food offering, or go behind the curtain that separates the altar from the rest of the sanctuary.

If you've followed the text, you'll notice I left one defect out. In Hebrew, the word is "dak." The meaning of this word is uncertain, though it seems to mean thin, shrunk or withered-in reference to a human being. While the Sifra to Leviticus believes it is connected to a defect of the eye as referred to in the following words of the pasuk, the JPS translation is "dwarf."

Those of you who have met me know that I am only 4'-10" tall.

Although technically I am what is called "normal short" I am on the extreme end of that range. I don't have the determining characteristics to be considered a dwarf or midget. Nevertheless, my small size does have its problems. Believe me. Physical limitations. Even subtle discrimination-intentional and unintentional. Imagine, for a moment, what it feels like to always having to be looking upwards to talk to people, how it feels to always be surrounded by people taller than you. It's a problem that can be dealt with-but it IS a problem.

It troubles me to think that, were I a kohen, and, G''d willing, the Beit HaMikdash were rebuilt, I would probably be considered "mum" because I am "dak." In fact, it troubles me greatly that that our Torah labels human beings as defective at all. Why, if we are all b'tzelem Elokim, would G''d refuse the offering of any human, and especially any kohen?

In recent parashiot, those hotly debated passages regarding homosexuality have raised the usual stirred and emotional discussions. I'm not going to discuss those issues, but it does seem to me than an awful lot of discussion takes place about those passages, yet others who are discriminated against, or labeled "defective" by the Torah seem to get overlooked. (Ha-ha, I made a funny. The little short guy made a joke about getting "overlooked.")

Well, it's not funny. One who is gay or lesbian often cannot be identified without their own open self-identification of their sexual preference. But one with a "defect," whether it is a disease or condition or accident that put them in a wheel chair, or caused them to lose a limb, or a genetic factor that caused their body to be dwarfish or disfigured, or have a harelip, or develop rosacea, or even one like myself, who is simply extremely short--our "defects" are out in the open. No avoiding them. There is no "don't ask, don't tell" for us. We are discriminated against. And we even discriminate against each other.

(5766-It's sort of sad to sometimes see various special interest groups seek to gain for their own at the expense of others. There is, sadly, only so much to go around, and when one group gets more, someone else usually winds up getting less.)

(5766-I even wonder if we view people who look different from us as having defects? Surely the Nazis saw it that way. And how does this play into our concerns and attitudes about Latino immigrants, refugees in Darfur, etc.)

Now, please don't misunderstand. It's not a matter of "my defect's worse than yours..." I am not suggesting that gays and lesbians have it easy - for they certainly do not in our society, which discriminates against them, openly and secretly.

But in our rush to be inclusive, who are we leaving out? When I was in second grade, everyone in the class got a chance to put the American flag into it's holder. When my turn came, the teacher passed me by. So I marched right up to her, took the flag from her hands, pulled her chair out from behind her desk, moved it over to the blackboard, climbed up on it, and put the flag in its holder. I don't recall what, if any, repercussions there were from this incident, but I do vividly remember what I did, and how angry I was at being skipped over because of my "defect."

While I don't like to think of my height as a defect, it does present real problems. I can be the victim of discrimination, openly or secretly. There are some things I can't do, some tasks that require special effort, or tools or aids. The same is true, and more so, for those who have far more challenging and difficult issues to deal with than I do. (I will not say that I count my blessings every day that I don't have some other "defect" to deal with. That's an attitude that prima facie causes us to discriminate against others who are "less fortunate." What a negative way to think of the other. Not very Buberian at all. Other people, whatever their challenges, their distinguishing or limiting characteristics, are human beings, deserved to be treated as other "Thous.")

(5766-I'll be honest. There are times I have the most shameful thoughts-wishing that I had a "defined handicap" so that I was entitled to the protections and assistances afforded to other through legislation like the American with Disabilities Act. Those are shameful thoughts, and I always feel guilty for even thinking them, knowing that my challenges are minor inconveniences by comparison. Yet I wouldn't be human if there weren't times when, after having to climb up on shelves at the grocery, or waiting forever at a counter because I wasn't noticed, and so on, that I was frustrated enough to wish there were laws to help me out. I've little doubt that waiting around in the elevator as an elementary-school-age child for someone tall enough to push the button for the tenth floor where my family lived impacted the formation of my psyche! Still, I am glad I have my Judaism to remind me to not kvetch, and be grateful for all that I have, but not grateful enough to the point where I demean the worth of those with challenges greater than my own.)

I think that all of us want but these simple things: to be treated fairly, not be discriminated against, and to have a place in society where our challenges are not challenges at all.

You know, it troubles me a bit perhaps, that there are synagogues that actively work to be a place where gays and lesbians are not discriminated against, yet, at the same time, there are many more synagogues with only the most minimal handicap accessibility (usually, the bare minimum the code requires, our congregational boards often being good stewards of money, but poor stewards of G''d's mitzvot.) It's not a matter of doing one or the other. It's a matter of doing it all. Inclusivity cannot be selectively inclusive.

(5766-I never mentioned this before, but, back in the days when I was working for North Dakota State University, although it took a few years to actually make it happen, they were quite accommodating when I asked if I could replace the furniture in my office with furniture that was better adapted for my height. And it made a difference when it was finally installed. I will always be proud to have worked for an employer that cared enough about that to address the ergonomics for me.)

I am saddened that it appears G''d instructed us to exclude the defective from certain priestly services. I hope that there is a better or alternate understanding of the plain meaning of the text here, and I pray that it can be found.

(5766-I'm still looking. Haven't found it yet. Given my penchant for the task of "redeeming seemingly irredeemable" pieces of our sacred texts, I'm surprised I haven't devoted more effort to that! Oh, one can easily create an apologetic. Judaism is good at that. "Women aren't second class. They're already closer to G''d so they don't need to do all those mitzvot!" Even my two favorite crispy critters, Nadav and Avihu-there's an apologetic way of looking at their getting zotzed by G''d that basically says that through their deaths they were brought closer to G''d-perhaps G''d was rewarding and not punishing them. That's one I just don't buy, no matter how many times sages, scholars and others try to sell it to me. So let's see-an apologetic for why the "mum" among us couldn't perform certain priestly functions. Perhaps, as in the apologetic for women, the defect made the person more perfect, and thus the other priests needed to perform these special functions. Nah. Doesn't work. At least not for me. Of course, it could be read as a lesson for all of us, and especially those of us who have a "defect." The lesson? That our "defects" really do impose limitations, and we might not be able to do everything that we really would like to do in spite of (or perhaps in spite for) our defects. Nah, that one fails for me as well, even though I sense a grain of truth in it. There is a great apocryphal story in the theater world of a blind college student who insisted that he be allowed to take a course in theatrical lighting design, and that accommodations be made so that he could design lighting for a show. Sounds crazy, on the one hand. A bit over the top. On the other hand, it's not impossible. And I've known a few people who were blind with the most incredible ability to "vision" who could probably come up with a far more artistic lighting design for a show than any sighted lighting designer could.)

(5766-The same apocryphal story is also told in a "deaf student wanting to become an audio designer" version. If you really think about it, it might not seem such a far-fetched idea. After all, with lots of stepstools, gripping tools, ladders, I can pretty much overcome my height deficit. Then again, I can't ever overcome what I physically look like to other people. Sometimes, that's the worst part. In my early days of managing theaters, I had a regular patron in a wheelchair who came to shows. They once gave me a lecture that really changed my attitude. "You can't really know how I feel" she told me. "And I can also tell you that I have mixed feelings. I hate it when it's obvious I'm in a wheelchair and people rush up to be helpful." "On the other hand," she said, "sometimes I really do need and want the help."

I took her words to heart. I began requiring my ushers and other staff to spend some time in a wheelchair as part of their training, to see what it was like trying to get around, to see how they reacted when people noticed them and were helpful. I had them see what it was like to be blind and come to our venue. I made them try and understand and listen to a show through a hearing-assist device. We worked in every way to make everyone feel equally welcome and comfortable. We tried to assist those who needed assistance without making them feel helpless. It was all worth it.

So, for all the mumim and mumot everywhere, the iveyr, the piseyach, gibeyn, and dak, my prayer that their troubles and afflictions will be heard, and that our synagogues and homes and schools and institutions will strive as much to include them as it has strived to include others.

(5766-and may we also strive to assist where and as much as assistance is needed, and no more, so that we don't demean anyone's sense of self-pride or self-worth.)

(5766-and may someone reading this come up with a way to redeem this irredeemable text that discriminates against priests with bodily defects.)

Shabbat Shalom,


©2000 and 2006 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some Previous Musings on the Same Parasha

Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort

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