Are Our Bodies Metaphors for Our Souls? Physical Blemishes as Halakhic Disqualifiers

Just about every Yom HaAtzmaut I give in some context a version of a sichah titled “The Necessity and Impossibility of Religious Zionism”.  The fundamental issue is the meaningfulness of Jewish history.  Professor David Berger argued powerfully in Tradition that the alternative to religious Zionism is that Jewish political history is meaningless – that whether we are in exile or the Land has no religious significance – and that cannot be; the Satmar Rebbe argued that accepting religious Zionism meant that Jewish religious history is meaningless – that whether we keep Shabbat or believe in Torah has no redemptive significance – and that cannot be.  Both are correct. 

One way of dealing with this paradox is to acknowledge that reality is ineluctably messy, and never fully conforms to the neat conceptual categories beloved of Briskers and geometers.  There are no perfect triangles, or shtarot.  This messiness can be easily accounted for on philosophic or kabbalistic grounds, and that done, we can talk about better and worse fits with abstact ideals, rather than holding out for the perfect, or about partial fits with multiple ideal constructions.

I think that we have a version of the same problem when we try to come to terms with the relationship between body and spirit in our evaluations of human beings.  It is untuitively compelling that there must be some such relationship – if the body does not reflect the soul, why did G-d bother giving us unique appearances?  Claiming that He did so only as a test – to see whether we could see beyond appearances, and realize that true beauty is unrelated to skin tone – is the equivalent of claiming that He buried dinosaur bones to test our faith in Biblical chronology, or that the State of Israel is an apparition of the Dark Side.  Claiming that the body accurately reflects the soul is untrue to both tradition and lived experience.

Perhaps the clearest recognition of this paradox is found in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Wilde’s antihero retains his unsullied beauty even as he descends deeper and deeper into debauchery, but only because he has a painted avatar that absorbs the effects of his wrongdoing.  Every sin etches a new line or wrinkle or discoloration on the painting, and when the painting is destroyed, all those effects revert to Dorian’s actual face, where they should have rested in the first place.  But not all innocent-looking evildoers have such paintings in their attics, and the temptation to allegorize Wilde is strong.

This week’s parshah raises a version of the same problem when it forbids kohanim with a variety of physical blemishes from performing sacrificial rituals in the Temple.  Why should this be so?  Surely unattractive or disabled men have the same religious drives and capacities as Mr. Universe candidates! 

The 2014 Summer Beit Midrash will discuss why these disqualifications are not extended formally to birkat kohanim, and how contemporary decisors and thinkers have addressed the moral challenge of the value of inclusion in contemporary birkat kohanim and classical and future Tempel ritual.  But this week I want to note only that the discomfort is not new, and to show one narrow example of how the range of  possible responses depends on how far one is willing to give up the idea that the physical is a model of the spiritual.

Ramban (12th century) notes that G-d tells Mosheh to teach the laws of blemishes to Aharon – usually it is to Aharon and sons – and that the laws apply to “any man of the descendants of Aharon”, apparently excluding Aharon himself.  Why?    Ramban answers that Aharon was so perfect a human being that there was no possibility that he would develop physical blemishes.  He then discovers a halakhic midrash that derives from these verses that even Aharon would be disqualified by such blemishes, but argues that this was included only because the Law never relies on miracles – the pshat remains that Aharon could never have developed such a blemish.  Other commentators note a midrash in which all blemishes were healed at Sinai, only to return after the Golden Calf.  Perhaps the overall approach is that one impact of sin is a disconnect between the physical and spiritual, so that in our world not only are there blemishes, the blemishes can appear random.  The problem of why good people are blemished is not different than why bad things happen to good people.

Meshekh Chokhmah (late 19th century), however , offers a radically different approach.  He suggests that sacrifices can be invalidated by a kohen’s lack of true belief, which is humanly indeterminable – but is it fair that A’s attempt at atonement should fail because of Cohen B’s lack of belief, which A had no way of discovering?  Now G-d could point out those who lack belief, but it would be beneath His dignity to function as an informer.  Instead, He creates physical blemishes randomly in human beings – even among the perfectly righteous – and makes such blemishes disqualifying.  Then He also makes sure that unbelieving kohanim develop such disqualifying blemishes.  Thus the sacrificial rules are fair to the sacrifices, as all nonbelieving kohanim are disqualified, but no particular kohen is spotlighted as a nonbeliever.

There is certainly a Rube Goldberg element to this solution, and I do not endorse it as sufficient or compelling.  What interests me about it nonetheless is its dogged insistence that the physical must at least sometimes be meaningful, even G-d deliberately prevents us from knowing when it is meaningful.  Physical reality is like a stopped clock, perfectly accurate twice a day, but when?  I have my doubts as to whether that form of accuracy is enough for those who need the correspondence, or a sufficient incentive for those who see the correspondence as generating grave moral difficulties. 

Perhaps the only solution is to abandon any notion of correspondence, even one that is theoretical and not humanly discoverable – to come up with a doctrine parallel to absolute hester panim.  This may also be necessary with regard to history for those, like me, who insist that our religious Zionism be nonMessianic.  But we should recognize that this is a great price to pay, and keep searching for a viable alternative.

Shabbat shalom


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