This past Shabbat, we studied the Torah portion Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23. This portion tells of the physical and moral standards of the Levites, the tribe dedicated to the priestly duties of the Israelite community, as in verses 21:1-4: “None shall defile himself for any [dead} person among his kin except for the relatives that are closest to him.: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she is not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself.” (Coming in contact with blood relatives is identified as “profaning,” why?)
Further, in 21:5, “They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or gashes in their flesh.” In 21:7, “They shall not marry a woman degraded by harlotry, nor shall they marry one divorced from her husband.” In 21:9, “When the daughter of a priest degrades herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she degrades; she shall be put to the fire.” (This is the emphasis on the behavior of the women related to the priest-wife or daughter, not on the male children of the priests.) The ban on shaving their heads or beards must have been a mark of distinction, a badge signifying a member of this special class of men. And, in a patriarchal society, the behavior of the wives and daughters of the priests is reflective of the control men had over women.
Strict moral and physical standards are placed upon the Levites: “He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God, Mine the LORD’s. He may marry only a woman who is a virgin. (21:12-13) “A widow a divorced woman, or a woman in “harlotry”, a priest could not marry.
Verses 21:17-32 says, “No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God,” such as the blind, the lame, one with a limb too short or too long, or broken limb, or a dwarf, or affected with scurvy, or blind or with crushed testes or a number of other physical defects. What is the basis of this? It could be that, as the priests are to offer to God the finest animals and produce of the land, ones with no defects and blemishes, the priests themselves are offerings to God.