The Hebrew word kadosh, as you no doubt know, means sacred, holy. In the initial chapter of this parashah, words based on the root kadash occur frequently – where Moses and Aaron are told about the priesthood, who can qualify to be a priest, a Cohen and what issues might prevent a person from being one.
First of all they have to be male. Then they must be a descendant of Aaron. This means that Moses himself was not in a position to become a priest, even though he spoke to G-d face to face.
The main issue here is about what is holy and what is not. There are several words that occur over and over again here. The word for holy appears in many variations. Then there are the words for not-holy, such as tameh and chalul.
The word tameh is often translated as impure. That actually may not do justice to its true meaning. Much has been written about this meaning of tameh, and the simplest interpretation may be to say not-holy. When we use the word impure, we imply something negative, something bad. But that is not the case here. It is as if we said the word up is good, and down is bad.
It is like a light switch – is there any moral value to it being up or down? The position of the light switch is up when we need the light on or down when we no longer need it. This is the kind of difference between kadosh and tameh. These words are very similar to the words tapu and noa in Maori.
There is another word that is used here and that is chalul, which has more of the meaning of a blemish, which means pierced, defiled. The paragraphs go to and fro between holy and not-holy, saying that the priest is supposed to be holy, sacred, and he can’t be holy or sacred if he goes near dead bodies, or marries a certain kind of woman, such as a woman who has been married before and is now single again – either because she is now a widow or because she is divorced.
So we learn that the Cohanim, the priests, are to form an elite with special rules of conduct that do not apply to ordinary people, to the rest of bnei Israel.
For us, inclusiveness is an important value. And much of what is in the Torah is about inclusiveness. Except that here we have the deliberate creation of a caste, whose work brings them closer to G-d than the rest of bnei Israel. It is not democratic, we would say it is not fair. There is no discussion about people’s moral behaviour or how good they are to deserve this honour. On the contrary, it is all an accident of birth, due to being a descendant of Aaron’s.
Things become really distasteful to us, with our 21st century Western world view, in verses 18, 19 and 20 – which list the blemishes which are unacceptable in a Cohen who is to practice the rituals around the sacrifices in the Temple on behalf of bnei Israel. There are many of them – a rash of any kind on one’s skin, or a wound that has not yet healed, anyone who has one arm longer than the other or limps, or has something wrong with his eyes… Verse 21 concludes these descriptions and adds No man of the seed of Aaron the priest that has a blemish shall come near to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire. He has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God.
This is very painful, particularly if you yourself or someone you love has such a blemish. This list is cruel. We are all imperfect, and some of these imperfections are visible ones. The Torah seems to reject people in a most public way.
This appears to be the same rule of perfection which applies to the animals brought to sacrifice. They must be perfect as well. Only the best will do. We don’t have difficulty with that: If you are going to offer something to G-d, it should be the best there is. We evaluate animals according to their bodies. Surely that should be different from the way we evaluate our fellow human beings. So how come the Torah puts the same kinds of demands on the priests as on the animals about to be slaughtered? Where is the injunction to be kind to others, to treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves? We suffer from being imperfect, most of us try to overcome our faults.
The classic explanation for this - which comes from the Chabad website www.chabad.org - and which they call the Classic Explanation – that explanation teaches that the Cohen represents the people to G‑d. However, he also represents G‑d to the people. In this second role, it is vital that he be “perfect,” without spiritual or physical imperfections. This explanation resonates with a world that considered physical deformities as blemishes, and felt that such people could not assume positions of leadership.
The Chassidic Rabbis also say that according to the Zohar, anyone with a disability is born with a higher soul, a more developed soul than a person who is born with a healthy body. What happens if you become disabled later in life, I don’t know. That is something to think about.
The reasoning that reaches this conclusion is intricate and complicated and has to do with the fact that G-d purposefully created an imperfect world. This is a one-sentence summary of a response by Rabbi Eli Popack to a question about this issue, on www.chabad.org.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says something else: he says that the ritual of sacrifice is about the soul, about prayer, being in touch with God. When someone goes up to perform the ritual, the people carrying out the ritual have to be in touch with their spirituality and not be distracted. How does disability distract us? Here is a quote from his drashah – he is talking about Job.
In a series of blows, Job loses everything: his flocks, his herds, his children. Yet his faith remains intact. Satan then proposes subjecting Job to an even greater trial, covering his body with sores.5 The logic of this seems absurd. How can a skin disease be a greater trial of faith than losing your children?
It isn’t. But what the book is saying is that when your body is afflicted, it can be hard, even impossible, to focus on spirituality. This has nothing to do with ultimate truth, and everything to do with the human mind. As Maimonides said, you cannot give your mind to meditating on truth when you are hungry or thirsty, homeless or sick.
G‑d is beyond space and time, yet G‑d created space and time as well as the physical entities that occupy space and time. G‑d is therefore “concealed.” The Hebrew word for universe, olam, comes from the same Hebrew root as ne’elam, “hidden.”.What caused me to struggle most with this parashah is that it is dualistic: sacred and not sacred, the Cohen and the not Cohen, the acceptable woman and the unacceptable woman, the disabled Cohen and the Cohen who is without disability. Dualism matters because it creates an in-group and an out-group, it opposes inclusiveness, and mostly when you think about it, inclusiveness is what makes the world whole, whereas divisions tend to be harmful, though some division is practical and necessary. For instance, we all agree to divide the streams of traffic on the road, so that one side is for cars going in one direction and the other side is for the cars in the opposite direction. It reduces the chances of accidents.
Yet if G‑d was completely and permanently hidden from the physical world, it would be as if He were absent. From a human perspective, there would be no difference between an unknowable G‑d and a nonexistent G‑d.
Therefore G‑d established the holy as the point at which the Eternal enters time and the Infinite enters space. Holy time is Shabbat. Holy space was the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple.
G‑d’s eternity stands in the sharpest possible contrast to our mortality. All that lives will one day die.
Tum’ah [the fact of being tameh] should therefore not be thought of as “defilement,” as if there were something wrong or sinful about it. Tum’ah is about mortality. Death bespeaks mortality, but so too does birth. A skin disease like tzaraat makes us vividly aware of the body. So does an unusual physical attribute like a misshapen limb. There is nothing wrong about any of these things, but they focus our attention on the physical and are therefore incompatible with the holy space of the Tabernacle, dedicated to the presence of the non-physical, the Eternal Infinite that never dies or decays.
We all know we will one day die, but for the most part we feel part of life. the logic—if logic is the right word—of tum’ah has nothing to do with rationality, and everything to do with emotion Tum’ah means that which distracts from eternity and infinity by making us forcibly aware of mortality, of the fact that we are physical beings in a physical world.
What the Tabernacle represented in space, and Shabbat in time, was quite radical. It was not rare in the ancient world, nor in some religions today, to believe that here on earth everything is mortal. Only in heaven or the afterlife will we encounter immortality. Hence many religions in both East and West have been otherworldly. In Judaism holiness exists within this world, despite the fact that it is bounded by space and time. But holiness, like antimatter, must be carefully insulated. Hence the stringency of the laws of Shabbat on the one hand, the Temple and its priesthood on the other.
The holy is the point at which heaven and earth meet, where, by intense focus and a complete absence of earthly concerns, we open up space and time to the sensed presence of G‑d, who is beyond space and time. It is an intimation of eternity in the midst of life, allowing us at our holiest moments to feel part of something that does not die. The holy is the space within which we redeem our existence from mere contingency, and know that we are held within the “everlasting arms” of G‑d
Here is a quote from Rabbi Sacks’s drashah again:
These laws, together with many others in Leviticus and Numbers—especially the rite of the red heifer, used to cleanse those who had come into contact with the dead—are hard for us to understand nowadays. They already were in the days of the sages. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is famous for saying to his students, “It is not that death defiles, nor that the waters [of the red heifer] purify. Rather, G‑d says, ‘I have ordained a statute and issued a decree, and you have no permission to transgress it.’” The implication seems to be that the rules have no logic. They are simply divine commands.