Parashat Emor has more verses than any other. It somehow seems apt that a parasha that is so full should also be so troubling to the modern learner.
This parasha deals with the Temple, the priests (Kohanim) who serve in it, and the sacrifices to be brought to it and to them. We learn about purity rules for priests, who they can and cannot marry, when they can approach a dead body, and who might not become a priest. We are told about animal sacrifices, what state of animal is acceptable to bring and when to bring it. Within that context we are reminded about Shabbat and all the festivals.The parasha ends with the story of a blasphemer, his horrendous punishment and a reminder about retribution.
There is much about this parasha to make the fair-minded reader uncomfortable. There is a strong focus on what are called blemishes and imperfections. A priest may not marry a woman ‘defiled by harlotry’ (Ch21 v7). The priesthood is inherited, passed down from father to son, yet if the son of a priest has an imperfection he cannot serve in the temple. These imperfections are named extensively in Chapter 21as all manner of disability that today, though TV and the job market may suggest otherwise, need disqualify no one from anything.
No animal with any blemish can be accepted as a sacrifice either. It is as though the Torah, like the worst advertising agency, is telling us that there is only one type of body and only one type of past that are acceptable and ‘perfect’. What is it about these priests that they must reject life’s difficulties?
Yet within this parasha is also endless compassion and benevolence, yearning for a fair and kind society.
We mustn’t sacrifice a baby animal with, or in front of, its mother. Rambam and Ramban argue as to the reason for this. They both understand that there is something inherently cruel about removing a baby from its mother that must be avoided. Rambam suggests that this prohibition exists so the animals won’t suffer more than they need to. But for Ramban it is so humans remember that they must always act with mercy. The halacha permits us to eat meat, but as we kill the animal we must remain as thoughtful and humane as possible.
The parasha tells us to leave the produce at the edges of our fields on the ground so that the poor and the stranger may collect the leftovers. In all our actions we must remain moral. We must always remember that our wealth and success come from nowhere but above. The priesthood might be hereditary but all gifts come from a source beyond our own meagre efforts.
Priests, and only priests, are given permission here to reject those with ‘blemishes’. In life these differences are often what make us so much more interesting, insightful and inconvenient to others.
Only Kohanim may cut themselves off and concentrate on nothing but divine engagement. The rest of us are held to much higher standards of humanity. We must live with blemishes. It is for us to ensure that the sacrifices of those physically, politically or financially different from us are acknowledged. We must embrace and welcome that which we imagine to be ‘imperfect’.
Dina Pinner is co-founding director of Kayama Moms, support and advocacy group for Jewish single mothers by choice. She lives in Jerusalem and is also a teacher and a poet.