“One who sees masses of people says: Blessed be the Wise One who knows their hidden selves! Just as their faces are not identical to each other, so too their minds are not identical.” (Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:1) G-d made human beings facially unique so that we would recognize each other as metaphysically unique. It follows that our unique physical and metaphysical aspects must be related.
Yet experience denies that the body consistently reflects the soul. Each of us knows from personal experience that G-d so often frames glorious souls in disfigured or disabled bodies, and that beauty is sometimes skin-deep. Moreover, the presumption that souls and bodies are related leads us to unjustly exclude or disregard the physically disabled.
But granting that bodies and souls are sometimes mismatched, are we comfortable saying in absolute terms that sheker hachein v’hevel hayofi (grace is falsehood and beauty is meaningless)? Are bodies and souls assigned to one another at random?
This week’s parshah suggests otherwise. According to Vayikra 21:17-21, certain physical blemishes disqualify a kohen from performing sacrificial rites in the Temple. Why should this be so, if their souls are unblemished?
Ramban notes that the laws of blemishes apply to “any man of the descendants of Aharon”, apparently excluding Aharon himself. He suggests that Aharon was too perfect a man for there to be any possibility of his developing physical blemishes. This means that a blemished body always indicates an imperfect soul. One might still argue that Ramban makes no claim that physical blemishes are proportional to metaphysical blemishes, but that seems a weak reed.
Meshekh Chokhmah offers a radically different approach. He suggests that sacrifices are halakhically invalidated by a kohen’s lack of true belief. John Israel is denied atonement because of Bill Cohen’s lack of belief. That seems unfair, as John has no way of knowing what is in Bill’s heart. Why doesn’t G-d weed out the agnostic kohanim? Meshekh Chokhmah answers that 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 makes sure that agnostic kohanim also develop these disqualifying blemishes. Thus the sacrificial rules are fair to the sacrificers, as all nonbelieving kohanim are disqualified, but no particular kohen is spotlighted as a nonbeliever. The absence of blemishes indicates true belief, but the presence of blemishes may indicate nothing at all.
For Meshekh Chokhmah, physical blemishment functions like a stopped clock. It’s perfectly accurate twice a day, but how is one to know when those times are?
I have my doubts as to whether that form of accuracy is enough for those who deeply intuit that faces reflect character. The genre of portrait painting exists because we believe that appearances give us real and reliable information. I also doubt that It can satisfy those who see judging people on appearance as a fundamental moral failure rather than an inevitability which we should seek to radically limit.
There is in any case a Rube Goldberg element to Meshekh Chokhmah’s solution. What make it nonetheless interesting is its dogged insistence that the physical must at least sometimes be meaningful, even if G-d prevents us from knowing when it is meaningful.
A similar philosophic challenge occurs in the realm of history. Religious Zionists generally contend that Jewish history must always be meaningful. Therefore, if physical exile reflects a damaged relationship with Hashem, the return to sovereignty in the Land, must reflect a positive change in the relationship. We cannot go on as if nothing has happened.
Religious non-Zionists note that power and Divine favor do not correlate in any other people’s history, unless Divine favor is chas veShalom arbitrary and capricious. Empires rise and all without any apparent relationship to the virtues of their societies. The core meaning of exile is hester panim, or the consignment of the Jewish people to the realm of apparently meaningless history. In the absence of prophecy, we have no way of knowing that our current success means more than that of Singapore.
Each position has its strengths, its weaknesses, and its risks. Some Zionists are too sure that they understand the meaning of history, and advocate policies or make decisions as if there is no need to consider the risk of error. Non-Zionists risk finding that their Beloved has fled before they can make up their mind to open the door.
Forced to choose, I would see bodies as meaningless and history as meaningful. But Meshekh Chokhmah’s approach to blemished kohanim may provide a middle ground. As Dr. David Berger has argued powerfully, the belief that history can be meaningful is a vital tenet of our faith. At the same time, the example of Rabbi Akiva’s mistaken embrace of Bar Kochba teaches that we should never be certain that we know when it is meaningful.