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The Holy Freak Show – Jessica Sacks December 24, 2009

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in Jewish Thought, Society.
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The freak show, bizarrely, has not yet disappeared from history; there are still people who will pay to stare at someone very short or very tall, or at a man with deformed limbs successfully employing his mouth to perform the Activities of Daily Living. The history of the phenomenon is analysed in a thought-provoking book by Robert Bogden; if you only have four minutes, try Mark Knopfler’s delicate Devil Baby.

What would a ‘Jewish response’ to the freak show phenomenon be? The Talmud, interestingly enough, lays out fairly clear guidelines:

One who sees… an albino, or a giant, or a dwarf, or a person with dropsy, says ‘Blessed is He who made his creations different from one another.’ One who sees a person with missing limbs, or a blind person, or one with a flattened head, or a lame person, or one who suffers from boils or a person with a whitening skin complaint says, ‘Blessed is the true Judge.’ (Talmud Bavli Berachot 58b)

It is important, though sometimes difficult, to look beyond the unfamiliar language of the Talmud and to examine the values it proposes. Nineteenth century Americans gazed at people with Microcephaly (a condition characterized by an unusually small head) and marveled at this ‘joke of nature’, or ‘missing link’ in the evolutionary chain. Other disabilities would be explained through the theory of ‘maternal impression’; in former times people would have explained them as the devil’s mischief or God’s vengeance. But for the Rabbis, this encounter, like so many others, calls for a blessing.

The section I have quoted from makes a distinction between two forms of the same ‘whitening skin complaint’. If, rather than developing after birth, a person’s condition is inborn, then the appropriate blessing upon seeing her is not ‘Blessed is the true Judge,’ but rather ‘who makes His creations different.’ The distinction is telling. In this worldview, accident, violence and illness are recognized as afflictions. When we witness their debilitating effects we ‘justify the judgment’; remind ourselves that, although it is impossible for us to conceive of it at this moment, God is nonetheless benevolent and just. The seemingly judgment-focused blessing actually corresponds to a compassionate response of distress.

An inborn physical difference, however, should not primarily evoke compassion. It is not a pathology: it is part of the glorious technicolour of God’s creation. This question is developed in the Talmudic story (Ta’anit 20a-20b.) analyzed by Rabbi Benjamin Lau in his article, ‘Judaism and Disability: Society’s Influence on Halacha’ The story discusses Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, who, when walking home from an intense intellectual/spiritual experience, is greeted by a ‘very ugly man’.

Rabbi Simeon did not reply. Instead he exclaimed, “Idiot! How ugly that man is! Could it be that all the people of your city are as ugly as you?”

The man said, “I do not know, why not go to the Artisan who made me, and tell Him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made’?!”

When Rabbi Simeon realized that he had done wrong, he dismounted from his donkey and fell down at the man’s feet, saying, “I fully accept – please forgive me.”

The ‘ugly man’, understandably, does not readily accept Rabbi Simeon’s apology. The encounter has exposed the shallow reach of the Rabbi’s understanding; fortunately the offended man’s eloquence redeems the situation. Injecting a theological sting into his comeback, he engages Rabbi Simeon in dialogue on the scholar’s own terms.

The story illustrates a theme which is prominent in Bogden’s book: in the freak-show world also, the division between showmen – ‘freaks’ included – and the ‘suckers’ or ‘yokels’ (‘mainstream society’), was one of knowledge. The ‘freaks’ knew truths that their audience did not; deception and hype were the name of the game. The freaks were presented, and often carefully presented themselves, as other, bigger, smaller, more freakish than they were. Many people built successful show-biz careers on the artful playing-up of their own disabilities. Celebrity glitter dazzled the plain truth; that freaks are simply human beings, created different (like everybody else).

By shutting the public out of their closed world, showmen were able to reverse the power relations between themselves and the mainstream, shamelessly robbing and deceiving the ‘yokels’ in a trade which was lucrative for some, though certainly not all, the human exhibits.

We must examine the relationships between ‘society’ and its ‘others’ with care. On one side there is power – power to control the access of people with disabilities and other outsiders to the community’s resources, and their influence upon its values and identity. But on the other side there is knowledge – knowledge of otherness and of the community as it appears from a different place; knowledge of God’s creation itself – which can never be accessed by the mainstream until it learns to engage those ‘others’ in dialogue. The religious world must acknowledge and readdress its relationship with disability; not now from a place of charity or justice, but simply as part of what it means to be religious – to pursue that peace that is founded on truth.

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