Seventy Faces of Torah jessica-kate-meyer

A House of Prayer for All

Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer
Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

A friend of mine once described the pain he experiences each year when this week’s Torah portion rolls around. Ever since a spinal injury left him hemiplegic, he hears the verses Leviticus 21:16-23 as alienating and “othering,” and degrading his connection to the Divine and community:

God spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to Aaron and say: ‘A man from your seed (for all time) who has a blemish, will not come forward to offer the bread of God. For any man who possesses a blemish cannot come close, no blind man nor lame nor disfigured nor malformed, nor a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm, nor a hunchback nor a midget nor one with a cataract in his eye nor scab nor skin flake nor crushed testicle. Any man who has a blemish from the seed of Aaron the Priest will not approach to offer the fire of God. He has a defect; he will not approach to bring forward an offering…He will not come toward the curtain, and he will not approach the altar, for he has a defect; and he will not desecrate my sacred spaces, for I am God who sanctifies them.’”

Five times, this passage—addressing men of the priestly line—draws a boundary between symmetrical, able-bodied men, those who are “fit” to enter holy space, and men with physical blemishes, who are unfit to approach, for fear of “profaning” sacred space. The rabbis ask: Why five times? Wouldn’t one injunction suffice? One midrashic tradition says that the repetition corresponds to the five areas of the mishkan, or tabernacle, that are off-limits to priests with disabilities. Another posits that the five injunctions point to a hidden list of defects that is actually five times longer than the one we read in Leviticus 21! Both traditions serve to reinforce the “othering” and distancing of a physically non-normative priest from his brethren, and from his service of the Divine.

Last Shabbat, in my synagogue, a young member of our congregation celebrating her bat mitzvah stood beaming before the congregation, preaching a Torah of inclusivity — for the rights of transgender and queer people, and for a society that recognizes each person as a reflection of the Divine image. After the ceremony, when everyone else had filed downstairs for kiddush lunch, two young men and their families lingered in the sanctuary, and a small group of concerned congregants gathered around them awkwardly. The congregants felt ashamed. I felt ashamed. These two young men—one had just celebrated his bar mitzvah a few months ago—both travel by wheelchair. The New York City church building that houses our shul, built in the early 1900s, is not ADA accessible. While they made it (with some difficulty) into the sanctuary for services, the young men and their families would not be able to join the bat mitzvah and the rest of their friends for kiddush lunch downstairs. Everyone wanted to make it better, and no one could. As she accompanied her son out of the building, one of the mothers said, “I get it, it’s the money. But it’s the law.”

I can’t stop thinking about these two families, and about the fundamental values of our congregation. Our mission and practice is that of radical inclusivity—yet we cannot live up to these ideals as long as our space is inaccessible. I began to research ADA regulations and houses of worship, and was shocked to learn that it’s not the law. Houses of worship are exempt from ADA regulations, for reasons of church and state separation; churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have no legal obligation in the US to build accessible spaces or to retrofit old buildings to ADA standards. And the financial burden of retrofitting an unwieldy old building makes these changes prohibitive for many congregations.

But who can enter holy space? Who can approach and bring their offering? Unwittingly, as leaders of religious communities, we are demarcating between those who have access to religious community, and those who cannot enter the sanctuary (or the social hall, or the religious school classroom…), or who cannot read the small print of the siddur. As Elizabeth Patterson and Neal Vogel write in their article, “Accessible Faith”: “Such barriers prevent those with limitations from participating in a full life of faith and community…and such barriers limit the richness and diversity of congregations.”

We want to believe that we are building a diverse community, and welcoming people of all bodies and abilities—that we have evolved by leaps and bounds since the text of Leviticus 21 was composed. And so, we conveniently forget that some of our buildings send a clear message that diverges from our mission and our values. The Reverend John Jay Frank reminds us: “Sins of omission, such as failing to put up safety rails or failure to use universal design or to provide reasonable accommodations, are as serious as sins of commission, such as cursing the deaf or putting a barrier in the way of people who are blind.”

How do we begin? Organizations like Respect Ability point communities in the right direction. Their mission is to “reduce stigmas, failed government policies, and other obstacles that deny people with disabilities the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.” Under the leadership of CEO Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Respect Ability has published a Synagogue Inclusion Tool Kit (as well as a High Holy Days tool kit), that walks congregations through self-assessment and a step-by-step process toward eliminating barriers both “architectural and attitudinal” to people with disability. The UJA-Federation recently graduated its first cohort of congregations in the Synagogue Inclusion Project, an 18-month pilot program creating a replicable, sustainable approach to integrating members of our community with disabilities.

Let’s make this week a heshbon hanefesh moment, a time for communal soul accounting. Let us begin to roll up our sleeves and rebuild our own sacred spaces, in line with the vision of Isaiah 56:7: “I will bring them to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their [offerings] are desired upon my altar; and my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer was ordained June 2014 by the Hebrew College Rabbinical School.  She strives to build community through prayerful music, and music through prayerful community. She has performed as a vocalist with Hankus Netsky, Frank London, and Yuval Ron, and studied and performed sacred Jewish music in Jerusalem. She received graduate theater training in London, and has appeared in many film, theater, and television projects in Europe and the United States most notably, as a principal role in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.


Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work. Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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