Sex & Gender, Torah

Vayikra: Utopian Unblemished Bodies

Avigayil Halpern is publishing a weekly feminist dvar Torah on the parsha though her newsletter, Approaching, which is being crossposted to Jewschool. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.

Vayikra is a parsha that overflows with bodies. The body of those who offer sacrifices, leaning their hands onto the head of their animals; the bodies of priests, with their hands full of blood and of flour, butchering animals and hauling wood. And, most present of all, the bodies of the animals sacrificed: bulls, sheep, goats, and birds. The parsha is full of their organs and their blood and their fat, removed and drained and sprinkled and burned.

Wendy Zierler, in an essay published on, draws our attention to the focus on the “wholeness” of the sacrificial animals, for example in Vayikra 1:3 and 1:10:

אם־עלה קרבנו מן־הבקר זכר תמים יקריבנו אל־פתח אהל מועד יקריב אתו לרצנו לפני יהוה

If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before the LORD.

ואם־מן־הצאן קרבנו מן־הכשבים או מן־העזים לעלה זכר תמים יקריבנו

If his offering for a burnt offering is from the flock, of sheep or of goats, he shall make his offering a male without blemish.

Zierler explains that “[i]n biblical Hebrew the word tamim (תָּמִים) means ‘complete’ or ‘perfect.’ The specific point here is that it should be without any physical blemishes, but the imagery is one of wholeness. In fact, this requirement of wholeness is applied throughout the sacrificial laws in this parashah (lectionary unit), applied to male and female animals alike.” But this physical wholeness is short-lived. Zierler quotes Vayikra 1:6:

והפשיט את־העלה ונתח אתה לנתחיה

The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into sections.

Dismemberment, argues Zierler, is a key part of the process of offering a korban:

To use a mixed metaphor here, dismemberment is not a bug in the sacrificial system; it’s a feature. One takes something whole, dismembers it, and it thus becomes an olah, a whole burnt-offering, pleasing to YHWH. In other words, dismemberment of a whole is necessary in order to create a new whole.

Zierler applies her insight to human life as well, saying that “Human life, knowledge, and devotion may begin in wholeness, but almost immediately, this wholeness gives way to differentiation and a splitting off into constituent parts.” But the idea that korbanot must begin whole and then be broken into pieces to attain a new kind of wholeness, takes on a new poignancy when read through the  more concretely physical understanding of the Ramban that sacrifices represent our own bodies:

…ויזרוק הדם על המזבח כנגד דמו בנפשו, כדי שיחשוב אדם בעשותו כל אלה כי חטא לאלהיו בגופו ובנפשו וראוי לו שישפך דמו וישרף גופו; לולא חסד הבורא שלקח ממנו תמורה וכפר הקרבן הזה — שיהא דמו תחת דמו נפש תחת נפש וראשי אברי הקרבן כנגד ראשי אבריו.

…And he sprinkles the blood on the altar corresponding to the blood of his soul, so that a person think in doing all of this that he sinned to God with his body and his soul, and it is fit for her that his blood be spilled and his body burnt; were it not for the kindness of the Creator, who took an exchange and ransom from him [in] the sacrifice — that its blood be instead of his blood and its soul be instead of his soul and its limbs instead of his limbs. (on Vayikra 1:9, translation from Sefaria)

In the Ramban’s telling, the dismembered animal whose blood is sprinkled is intended to replace — or at least evoke — our own bodies in a very literal way, blood for blood, body for body, soul for soul.

What can we make of this, that God wants a whole korban, a korban “tamim,” and that God also wants us taken apart? If korbanot represent our own selves, our own bodies, what does Vayikra suggest that God is asking of us?

It is an easy, facile answer to say that God wants our brokenness. God desires our dismembered selves, this dvar Torah could argue: our wounds and our pain are things we can bring to our religious and spiritual lives. But I don’t want God to want us to take ourselves apart, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that our brokenness can be a kind of wholeness, a perfect offering.I don’t want us to have to be in pieces, but nor do I want to act as if we need to find some legitimating account of our shattered parts where we are actually whole.

Perhaps the descriptions of sacrifices in our parsha themselves imply this conundrum, that the language of wholeness and brokenness cannot neatly serve us. Writing in Torah Queeries on Vayikra, Charlotte Fonrobert says of the lists in the Mishnah about disqualifying blemishes for priests and sacrificial animals that:

As much as the Mishnah seeks to project an ideal embodiment of animal and priest, the overabundance of blemishes in its catalogues suggests that the idealized and perhaps even utopian unblemished body on the sacrificial stage is, perhaps, an impossibility and can always only be approximated. In that respect, all of us who are offstage are queer.

None of us, Fonrobert suggests, can really attain this “utopian unblemished body,” on our own or as represented by sacrificial animals. We in our imperfection are “offstage,” not depicted in the litany of perfect bodies then taken apart intentionally, but there are hundreds more of us in the audience than there are on the sacrificial stage.

Above, when I talked about our wholeness and our brokenness as represented by korbanot, that seemed to be referring to our interior lives. My strawman of “our wounds and our pain are things we can bring to our religious and spiritual lives” reads tidily as a metaphor — emotional pain, spiritual wounds.

But this is a parsha about bodies, and our bodies are also just that: bodies. Injury, disability, and pain are not analogies for our spiritual lives. They are real experiences that we all pass in and out of, and we are indebted to the disability justice advocates who recognize and teach that, in the words of Mia Mingus,

Understanding disability and ableism is the work of every revolutionary, activist and organizer—of every human being. Disability is one of the most organic and human experiences on the planet. We are all aging, we are all living in polluted and toxic conditions and the level of violence currently in the world should be enough for all of us to care more about disability and ableism.

I had been exposed to the work of disability justice advocates and the idea that ability is contingent and shifting, but it smacked me in the face last year when, just as I was starting yeshiva, I began to experience headaches and fatigue. At first it was occasional, and it grew until I was missing hours of yeshiva, sleeping through minyan every morning, and spending each day drinking giant bottles of Gatorade and cycling through Advil and Tylenol in a mostly futile attempt to stave off the ache in the middle of my forehead. I didn’t think to use the word “chronic” until, after several doctors, I finally saw a headache neurologist who did.

My body became the center of my days in a way it had never been before. When I would decide if I could drag myself out of bed and hydrate and medicate enough to spend my day bent over the Beit Yosef, I would consider if I could walk the few blocks to the subway or if I was too exhausted and in pain. Before I saw the headache neurologist, I worried about how many stairs I would have to climb in the subway stations on my way there. And I was never not aware of my head, as it asserted itself with its steady, radiating pain.

Thank God, I was able to be diagnosed and heal from these headaches, an experience which is all too rare for women in particular navigating headaches and chronic pain conditions. But in addition to the toll of being in pain and the missed time with friends and Torah learning, my headaches wreaked havoc on my prayer life.

Left to sit with a siddur, trying to say words I knew by rote with nothing to fill my mind, all I could do was pay attention to how much it hurt. In a minyan, where I couldn’t rush through and then distract myself, it was worse. Standing for the amidah, I’d finish as quickly as possible — though I never passed out, the combination of pain and fatigue made me frequently worried that I would, and sitting felt better than standing. Once a thrice-daily davener, I lapsed into regularly missing Shacharit, skipping Maariv to fall into bed early.

The pandemic followed swiftly on the heels of my recovery from my headaches. This time has affected every pray-er’s relationship to tefillah. I feel like I’ve come in already many steps behind, left trying to recover the regular davening practice to which I feel obligated. I’ve struggled to get back to my former Shacharit-Mincha-Maariv, the rhythm around which I used to build my life and my identity. Too often, zmanei tefillah just mark times I feel guilty and embarrassed.

My pain isn’t something I’ve been able to offer God; my body’s lack of perfection hasn’t transmuted itself into a korban. It’s just my body, which was in pain.

When I think about my experiences of illness, I turn to Mia Mingus’s classic essay “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link.” Mingus writes:

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.  The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level.  Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years.  It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.

This is what I experienced when my friends would ask me if I’d had enough to drink when they saw my drawn face, if I needed to sit down, if I wanted to walk more slowly. And this is one of the defining intimacies of my childhood friendships, having grown up with a life-threatening milk allergy: the friends who I could always trust when they offered me food, who would tell others I couldn’t have that snack, who knew to wash their hands after eating ice cream before we played with my dolls.

What would it take to have access intimacy with God? What if the wholeness we should strive for in our religious service is not some sort of idealized brokenness, a poetic dismemberment, but instead a relationship with God where we experience what Mingus describes as “a freeing, light, loving feeling?”

Vayikra is a list of the kinds of bodies God asks for. What if those bodies can be our bodies? What would it feel like to trust that God knows my needs, understands what this body can and can’t do, how it shapes what I offer?

What would it feel like to do my avodah if I felt that?

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