Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Emor- purity and seeing blemishes in others

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon here or read below.



When I was training to be a rabbi we had a course on biblical scholarship. Each week was devoted to a theme, with one week devoted to the study of women's commentaries on Torah. When introducing the topic to us, the teacher commented, ‘you’ll find some of these texts are surprisingly good’. 

When I pressed him on what he meant, he explained that the wave of publications of women's writing on Judaism in the 1980 and 90s produced much new material, and with it, different ways of looking at text. There was first person creative writing, poetry, emotional midrash that spoke to experiences that nobody had spoken from inside before, and most of it was, he commented, ‘drivel’. 

Well, it wasn’t. It’s beautiful, it’s just very different to what Jews have been doing for the past 2000+ years. I was reminded later by a friend of Audre Lorde’s essay ‘The Master's Tools’ where she stated the case that you cannot solve the problems of inequality using the tools used to create it. I could imagine how, for someone who considered themselves a master of those tools, how the free-thinking, free-spirited, subversive and radical Torah of these newer voices was confusing and perhaps even threatening. 

It didn’t register according to the image of ‘good’ or ‘rigourous’ in his mind, much of it doesn’t care for or engage in the tools of the rabbinic ‘masters’ of old. But it was deeply wise. 

I love these writers, my shelves are full of their books, and yet when I looked over at my sermons and teaching from the past few years, and despite what I have said above about the power of different voices, I realized that more than 80% of the commentators, writers, authors and thinkers that I have quoted in my sermons are male-identified voices. 

It is harder to put down the master's tools than I thought. 

(Especially perhaps as a newer rabbi, a rabbi who values our textual heritage and who believes Reform Jews should engage with our textual traditions.)

So this year I’ve set myself an omer challenge- perhaps it’ll go further- to ensure that the voices I read, and the voices I teach, reflect the diversity of the Jewish community, to notice where there is greater Torah to be found when we reach beyond the perspective of the usual suspects. 

There is a certain fragility in the attachment to a very particular way of approaching Jewish choices and Jewish learning, one that requires the security of Halachic reasoning, one that asks us only to speak if we think we can argue with its’ authority behind us.

I’ve been wondering for a while about this, and when I was reading this week’s Torah portion Emor which begins with the rules for the priestly class, it made me think about how we form images of who is able to be a leader and who is able to be a teacher. 

Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.

No one at all who has a - a blemish or defect- shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer יהוה’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.

These limitations would be, thankfully, illegal in the UK today. But they reflect the very beginnings of a purity culture in our approach to leadership. A culture that isn’t anything to do with who the person is in terms of their insights, character, or personal traits, but rather their characteristics at birth. Here it is not only gender that limits who can serve in this sacred role, but also physical ability. 

Mary Douglas writes of the priest in this chapter that ‘in other words, he must be perfect as a man’. In her writing she teaches of the equation between purity and safety, pollution and danger. Systems that tell people how things should be allow for a sense of security and stability, holiness even. Mixing, mess, things that don’t belong, represent danger. But danger to whom? Danger inherently, or danger to those who benefit from strict purity systems? 

I ask the question because I wonder whose dignity this text is really about. Is it really about protecting the dignity of the community, what does being too short or too tall, or having a broken arm or a physical blemish do to the community? Or is it about the status it then affords those who are able to fulfill these narrow criteria? 

I remind myself often when I read Leviticus that this text is from the P source- the biblical author who is concerned with matters concerning the priesthood and establishing its place in Israelite society. It’s hard, in my slightly more cynical moments, to not read this as a little bit like a biblical Regina George turning to a dining room full of high school students and declaring- ‘you can’t sit with us’. 

It’s an image of perfection that doesn’t feel out of place as part of a handbook for an elite society club- only beautiful people welcome- or for any other social structure that affords those who meet the narrowest physical ideas social power, and is almost merciless in its treatment of those who don’t meet those standards. 

At the end of the portion, as Josh has taught us, we see another episode of this purity culture. This time, the son of a mixed marriage is not able to dwell in the encampment, and so he lashes out at those who invoke God’s name as rationale for this discrimination. He blasphemes because he believes the harm to have been done to him in God’s name. 

The Kli Yakar, a 17th century commentator on the Torah, invokes one of my favorite Talmudic passages in response to this moment.

כּל הַפּוֹסֵל פָּסוּל- kol haposel pasul- anyone who disqualifies another is disqualified - and the rabbis further add בְּמוּמוֹ פּוֹסֵל on account of or from inside his own blemish. In other words when you seek to disqualify another based on some aspect of them, it actually reflects a blemish or defect within you and not them. It’s classic projection theory given a 3rd century vocabulary.

When someone says something or someone doesn’t fit- perhaps their scholarship is not traditional or rigorous enough, or they aren’t the right gender, or they are disabled, or they don’t look the way that you think someone doing that thing ought to look or speak- what does it speak about? What does it tell us? 

In the mind of the authors of the Torah portion, it seems to tell us something about someone’s fitness to serve as a priest, but in the eyes of us as readers perhaps we can understand בְּמוּמוֹ פּוֹסֵל b’mumo posel to tell us that it says more about their ability to relinquish a narrow ideal of perfection, or their fear of difference and diversity, than it does about a person’s ability to serve in that role. 

Audre Lorde writes that our task is: “is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” 

The master's tools are well made, they have built some beautiful things, but there aren’t enough tools in that box to meet the needs of everyone in our world. The past few weeks of learning have been a great reminder of why these writers were seen as threatening, and why they were rubbished, because they are different, they are powerful, they are resonant, and they speak Torah in a different voice.  

Pirke Avot teaches “who is wise- the one who learns from all”. May that be our aspiration, to push the horizons of wisdom seeking to meet the demands of our world, and to notice when a desire to exclude the voices of others comes from the narrow self interest of some, at the expense of the dignity of all. 

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782