The Bible Says What? Disability barred a person from the priesthood

The Bible Says What? Disability barred a person from the priesthood

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith looks at a controversial passage of the Torah and looks at a progressive response

Sephardi Torah scrolls
Sephardi Torah scrolls


According to The Equality Act 2010, a person must not be discriminated against because of a disability.   Reasonable adjustments must be made to enable you to participate on an equal basis with those who are not challenged by that disability.

Thus, our synagogue has level, ramp or lift access to all areas including the bimah, a loop system for those with hearing challenges and a webcam, which streams our services to give “at home” access.

So it always strikes a discordant note when we read from Torah in Leviticus 21 that a disabled person could not serve as a Cohen in the Mishkan, the desert Temple.

Furthermore, anyone who had a blemish, was blind, lame, facially disfigured, hunch-backed or a dwarf, or with a disabling skin condition was automatically barred.

The ban did not stop the person being a Cohen. They were still entitled to all the other privileges of being part of the priestly class, including being assigned their share of the meat and produce from the sacrifices which were offered, but the disabled person could not make the offerings themselves on the altar.

At this year’s Limmud Conference, where I taught a session on disability in Judaism, one participant told me her brother, decades ago, was forced to make his right hand dominant rather than his left, so he would not be excluded from performing the priestly blessing in synagogue.

Now that the synagogue has replaced the Temple, there is no reason why disability should limit access to any aspect of Judaism.

Our Mishnah tells us that a blind person can lead a seder, even though they cannot see the seder plate with its symbols that must be pointed out.

We should continue to put investment and effort into ensuring Jewish practice and learning is truly accessible to all in the community.

υ  Mark Goldsmith is rabbi at Alyth Synagogue

read more: