(Chapter 21:1–24:23)

                                                                   What is Perfection?[1]


Deuteronomy 21 states “No male among the seed of Aaron the priest who has a blemish may approach to offer a sacrifice to the Lord …he may not profane my sacred places” (verses 21 and 23). This injunction, seeking “perfection,” includes the prohibition of marrying certain women and coming in contact with the dead. Midrash Sifra, Saadiah Gaon, Rashi and others explain that if a priest has a physical blemish that is healed, he may resume his service at the altar. Virtually all the biblical commentators write that these rules were instituted to impress people who see the priests that the temple service is beautiful.


It is interesting to note, however, that the Torah says nothing about disqualifying a priest if he is an unsavory character or possesses moral blemishes. One wonders why this is so. Perhaps it is because it is obvious that such a priest would be disqualified. Yet we know that during the second temple period there were many dishonorable priests, including individuals who paid bribes to secure the high priesthood. Perhaps Jews of these ages didn’t think that moral depravity disqualified a man from being a high priest. However it is also possible that the people during this period lacked the power to change the situation for Judea at that time was controlled in large part by Greece and later by Rome.


We can understand the need for “spiritual standards” for religious leaders. However, is it fair to disqualify a priest from serving in the Temple because he is lame, or has a broken leg or arm, or has a sore or scab? Should rabbis be disqualified if they are lame or have a broken arm? Today we have become so sensitive to the need to be helpful, sympathetic, and understanding, rather than discriminatory, in relating to those who are handicapped. Isn’t it somewhat unjust to disqualify a priest for physical reasons?


We know that many biblical rules were instituted to meet the conditions of the time they were instituted with the idea that they should be improved upon as people gain greater understanding. Examples include laws about slavery, allowing soldiers to have sex with a captive female, an eye for an eye, killing a wayward son, and the like. In my recent book “Mysteries of Judaism,” I described how every biblical holiday, without exception, was changed by the rabbis. Is this another example of a law that should be changed?[2]


What is “perfection”? The mystic Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz recently wrote in his book Change and Renewal that perfection requires people to rise above the material aspects of this world toward the abstract and spiritual, and free themselves from human desires. Then they can have a better understanding of God and be close to God. Do you agree? Isn’t this a passive existence? Do you think that God placed many delights in this world and then told us to ignore them? Can a person come to understand God by avoiding material objects and desires?


Maimonides taught that the purpose of the biblical laws is to teach some truths so that we can learn how to improve ourselves and society. He stressed the need to learn the sciences, how the world functions, so that we can perfect ourselves and society. Erich Fromm put it this way: “Be all that you can be.”



[1] This is a version of an essay contained in “What’s Beyond the Bible Text” that Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner and I wrote.

[2] It was never changed because there was no need to do so. The temple was destroyed in 70 CE and the temple service by priests ceased. The issue was then moot.