The bodies we are (Radical Torah repost)
May 08, 2009
Here's the d'var Torah I wrote in 2007 for this week's portion, originally published at Radical Torah.
The Lord spoke further to Moses: 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 who has a defect, Torah tells us in parashat Emor, may offer the korbanot, the offerings which draw us near to our Source. No one who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no one with a broken limb, neither a hunchback nor a dwarf, no one with a growth occluding his eye, no one with a scar. No one who has suffered from scurvy or had his testes crushed. Such a one may eat the the bread set-apart to God, the holy and the most-holy -- but he may not draw near to God.
These verses make up a kind of list-poem, an incantation of physical maladies, bookended with the refrain reminding us that anyone who has a defect of any kind must not play a role in making offerings to God. This is forbidden, and would profane the holiest place.
It's tempting to read these verses allegorically. No one who is blinded to the difficult realities of suffering, one might say -- no one who is unwilling to walk a mile in the shoes of another -- no one who twists her being into imbalance may be permitted to make offerings to God. No one who understands himself to be irredeemably broken. No one hunched by anxiety and fear, no one shrunken of spirit, no one whose vision is impeded by the unwillingness to see. None of these people may act as priests on our behalf, because they do not allow themselves to be whole.
That's certainly one way to read this passage. It's one I even like. But it doesn't feel like enough.
I think of the generations who have read and cherished this text, and I imagine how many of them were halt or lame, how many had spines twisted or lungs sickly, and I wonder what reading this passage meant for them, how it damaged their sense of who they might be. I remember the cruelty of eleven-year-old girls, confronted with a classmate who had a foreshortened limb, and how their barbs sting even now, so many years after their insults were lofted in the chalky classroom air.
In the days of the sacrificial system, we were obsessed with perfection. In this week's portion too we read that in order to be acceptable, an animal must be "without blemish; there must be no defect in it. Anything blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a wen, boil-scar, or scurvy -- such shall you not offer to Adonai." Sound familiar? Torah has the same expectations of our offerings as it does of those who offer them. God wants only whole beasts, unblemished, the finest in our flocks and herds.
Maybe this teaching is meant to remind us not to give God something second-best, something we don't really prize. Maybe we are meant to remark upon the importance of perfection: a perfect God demands perfect offerings, offered up by perfect hands.
But reading this now, all I can think about is just how imperfect we are. Each of us has wounds that matter because they connect with our individual stories; in the aggregate what matters is that we are all broken. Whether or not our aches are visible to the naked eye, I doubt any of us would live up to Torah's regulations here -- even those who ostensibly fit the bill, being of the appropriate gender and descended from the appropriate lineage to match what's described in this week's text.
This week's portion draws strict boundaries around acceptable bodies. Only one kind of body is permitted to play the Temple's most valuable roles; other bodies are pushed outside the bounds of acceptable service. I think of how women still have that experience today, how folk who are trans and genderqueer have that experience, how bodies too small or too large or shaped "wrong" have that experience. And I wonder how the world might be different if we all understood ourselves as called to offer our talents, our prayers, our longing before God -- no matter what kind of bodies we are.
This text is problematic precisely because it privileges a kind of perfection in which ordinary people can't partake. A single burn scar, one leg barely longer than the other -- these are the kinds of imperfections to which we are all heir. Who among us has a body altogether free from blemish, symmetrical in every regard? And who among us has escaped all emotional or psychological damage on this front -- has reached adulthood without ever once disparaging her or his body for the ways in which it fails to live up to our age's supposed ideal?
This week's Torah portion is rife with damaged and damaging understandings of what it means to have a body, and how our bodies can keep us from drawing near to God. I much prefer the Hasidic paradigm of avodah be-gashmiut, serving God through our embodiment -- even if our embodiment is imperfect, sometimes painful, sometimes asymmetrical, not able to live up to our prettiest imaginings of who or what we should be.
May we all find ourselves empowered to draw near to God -- to lay down the offerings of our physical fears and insecurities on the altars of our hearts, and to know that those offerings are accepted and acceptable, especially when they are too small or too big, too crooked or unnaturally straight, deviating from the so-called norm in all of the ways that make us who we are.