The Talmud presents countless examples of sages who had physical deformities. The blindness of Rabbi Sheishet is the subject of one passage (B. Brachot 58a). Yet Rabbi Sheishet's blindness did not impede his intellectual capacity. Indeed when Rabbi Sheishet and his colleague Rabbi Hisda would meet, Rabbi Hisda's lips would quiver at the thought of the vast bank of knowledge at the disposal of Rabbi Sheishet (B. Eruvin 67a).
Rabbi Sheishet was not the only blind talmudic sage: Rabbi Yosef who is referred to as veritable Sinai, a repository of all of Torah knowledge (B. Brachot 64a; B. Horayot 14a), was also blind (B. Kiddushin 31a; B. Bava Kama 87a; B. Bava Metzia 116b). Other sages whose blessings were sought or spiritual pedigree recognized were also blind (see B. Hagiga 5b; B. Gittin 68b; Y. Hagiga 1:8; Y. Pe'a 8:8). Indeed our forefather Isaac suffered from dim sightedness and yet was still able to bestow the divine blessings (see Genesis 27).
Blindness was only one of the physical challenges faced by some of our sages; others had to contend with different physical disabilities or abnormalities: Rabbi Zeira was short and had a problem with his leg; he was known to all by the nickname "the small man of the singed thighs" (B. Bava Metzia 85a). Rabbi Yohanan's bushy eyebrows were like curtains before his eyes; with a silver fork he would brush the hair aside whenever he wanted to see what was happening around him (B. Bava Kama 117a; B. Ta'anit 9a and Rashi). Other sages carried other deformities (see Y. Ta'anit 4:1; Y. Megila 4:8). One sage - Nahum Ish Gam Zu - was blind in both eyes, missing both hands and missing both legs (B. Ta'anit 21a). Jacob too walked with a limp after his encounter with the mystery assailant (see Genesis 32:31).
The great heights reached by these sages and their significant contribution to the tradition despite their disabilities are indeed inspiring. The numerous talmudic examples, however, appear to be at odds with a passage in the Zohar. The Zohar comments on the biblical requirement that kohanim (priests) serving in the Temple must be without physical blemish (see Leviticus 21:16-24) and concludes a broader principle about being a conduit for sanctity: Holiness does not rest on something that is blind, broken or blemished. Thus, for instance, excessively bushy eyebrows disqualify a kohen from Temple service (B. Bechorot 43a). Similarly, when describing the prerequisites for receiving prophecy, Maimonides (12th century, Cairo) mentions that the potential prophet must be shalem begufo - physically flawless. The position expressed in the Zohar and supported by the rules for kohanim and prophets seems to contradict the talmudic reality described above.
The Munkatcher Rebbe, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro (1871-1937), was deeply troubled by this contradiction. After assembling the talmudic examples of disfigured sages, he sought an explanation for the contradiction between the Talmud and the Zohar. Granted the blind and the lame could not serve as priests, but did this formal Temple limitation perforce mean that they could not reach spiritual heights?
One suggestion that the Munkatcher Rebbe entertained was to distinguish between the two sources. The Zohar refers only to congenital disabilities: People born with blindness, for instance, indeed cannot attain the loftiest spiritual goals. Citing esoteric sources, the Munkatcher Rebbe noted that a congenital disability may be a reflection of a blemished soul that does not have the same spiritual potential as an untarnished soul. People who develop deformities later in life, however, are not spiritually limited and hence the numerous talmudic exemplars. This distinction matches the stories of our forefathers: Isaac only became blind in his old age and Jacob began limping in his later years.
Alas, this proposed distinction is not hinted at in the Talmud or Zohar. Who says that all the talmudic sages who had deformities were not born thus? Indeed, the Talmud describes how some of the sages acquired their disabilities, but it never suggests that all disabled sages were born without deformity. Moreover, according to some sources from Jewish mystical tradition, even a disability acquired later in life is a reflection of a spiritual defect. Could this mean that our talmudic heroes and even our wise forefathers developed spiritual deformities!?
Ultimately the Munkatcher Rebbe rejected this distinction. Clearly troubled by the contradiction between the talmudic exemplars and the statement of the Zohar, he returned to the question repeatedly without finding an explanation that he felt was satisfactory. In his writings, he eventually left the paradox unresolved and concluded that it would be a mitzva to explain this problematic passage in the Zohar.
For many of us, the Zohar's statement may be troubling, even without the background of the numerous talmudic sages with deformities: Can spiritual pedigree really be dependent on physical parameters? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to suggest that irrespective of physical defects, coveted spiritual heights can be reached by all? We may suggest that the Zohar reflects a theoretical position that is superseded by the practical reality described in the Talmud. The Zohar voices a position based on a measure of logic: We might think that the Almighty's message bearers in the temporal world must be without blemish - spiritual or physical. An esteemed and honorable message bearer lends credibility to the message; an unsightly messenger may sully the status of the message or may not even be effective in delivering the message. In this vein, the Zohar declares that holiness only rests on the unblemished.
The reality - as orchestrated by the Almighty - is very different from the theory: The divine message can be effectively carried by the blind and the lame, the blemished and the broken. Thankfully, we have many examples in the talmudic literature that clearly demonstrate the ability of all to reach spiritual and intellectual heights; the Zohar's theoretical position is thus sidelined.
The sum of the talmudic evidence is clear: Physical limitations do not perforce entail spiritual or intellectual limitations. Those with physical deformities or disabilities are able to contribute the perpetuation and evolution of our hallowed tradition.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.