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“Take a Seat”: Video Art by Nili Broyer and Ita Tal-Or October 21, 2010

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in Jewish Thought, Society, Uncategorized.
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This thought-provoking video piece suggests that we view society as a game with rules fixed to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others. Eitan Frier Dror interviewed Nili Broyer:

Where did the idea for this clip come from?
Around four years ago my sister asked if she could make a short film about me as part of her studies, and I refused. In films of this sort, the person with disabilities is always presented as a hero who has succeeded in spite of his problems, or else as an object of pity; this did not suit me. I suggested that she made a satirical film – a film that would touch on the subject of disability, but that would make a social statement; a film that could put a mirror up in front of society, and not specifically in front of me the individual. I had the idea of using the children’s game of musical chairs as the basis for the film.

You don’t like definitions and categorisations of different disabilities, and yet in the film you use them quite openly.
We used labelled people very openly in this film. We used terms that are common in society – ‘retarded’, ‘disabled’, ‘deaf’, ‘dwarf’, ‘blind’ – because I believe that we have to grapple with the most jarring and painful places. There is absolutely no shame in being a dwarf or a disabled person, and if we avoid using these words we communicate that they are shameful.

Why musical chairs?
The idea of the chair comes up where disability is being discussed. From my perspective the chair can be an object for people with disabilities even when it does not have wheels. For me a chair in a place is a relief; it carries the blessing of a break and a rest. Wherever I go I check whether there is a chair. And chairs have another meaning as well; the idea of taking a place in society, in life. ‘He’s sitting well’. Musical chairs is a game that every child plays in Israel; there is something innocent about it, but also something very violent.

For you then a chair is much more than a piece of furniture. You have an ambivalent relationship to chairs.
Yes. Chairs have an element of oppressing the body, of regulating us – ‘Don’t move’. For instance, there is a gender difference in the ways men and women are expected to carry their bodies. I believe there is a basic social expectation – we see it well in schools – that one must know how to sit in a chair in a particular way, must know how to control one’s body. People with disabilities fall down there – between the chairs.

The Film’s Opening Captions in English:
A retarded man / A healthy woman / A blind man / A dwarf / A disabled man in a wheelchair / Compete for their place / In a game not designed for them / The rules of the game can invalidate them or bring about their success / “Take a seat”

The original interview appears on the website of Beit Avi-Chai.

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‘Along an open road’: Torah perspectives on dis/abled relations in the Jewish community – Jessica Sacks August 12, 2010

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in If you call this 'Normal'..., Jewish Law, Jewish Thought, Society.
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Watch Me bring them from a northern land,    I have gathered them in from the ends of  the earth. Blind and limping men, pregnant women, all together, birthing mothers, a great flock of people will come back here; in tears they will come, and in mercy will I lead them, to rivers of water, along an open road, on which they will not stumble. (Yirmiya 31:7-8)

*

The question I would like to discuss in this article is how we are to move forward, as a community, in the relations between two groups within ourselves. This time not men and women, not religious and secular, not Orthodox and Progressive, but two extremely fluid and arbitrary groupings; ‘people with disabilities’ (physical, cognitive, sensory, intellectual or psychological) – and everybody else. This way of grouping people is ridiculously naïve, even offensively so. There is no reason, for instance, for a young partially sighted woman to identify herself with an elderly man with severe learning difficulties, more than she identifies with the fully sighted, same aged friend sitting next to her in the synagogue. The categorization ‘people with disabilities’, then, comes from the perspective of a self-defined person ‘without disabilities’ – itself a very arbitrary category. There are plenty of things which I am less-able to do than others; and while I do not consider myself disabled I will almost certainly become so later in life, unless I have the misfortune to die before reaching old age. At 28, running for the bus in the morning, I have not yet fully integrated this fact into my image of myself.

Yet despite its fluidity and downright deceptiveness, the invisible fault line between ‘disabled’ and ‘fully able’ becomes deeply significant at many moments in our life as a community. People with disabilities (at different moments different people, different disabilities) are excluded from many aspects of communal worship, whether by physical barriers (inaccessible buildings, lack of provision for people with sense impairments), or by halakhic, social or psychological ones (being excluded from obligations, feeling patronised, ostracised or embarrassed, feeling alienated by the dominant worldview expressed by the able-bodied majority). ‘The community’, on the other hand, by enacting this border between itself and the ‘others’ born into it, effectively disowns and silences (again, to different extents at different moments) many of its own members, narrowing its consciousness to that of the Darwinistically selected mainstream. I misuse Darwin’s name to suggest the ‘survival of the fittest’ while avoiding the word ‘natural’; ‘disability’ is a societally defined category, and ‘nature’ could have had it any number of other ways.

My question, then, is not how to improve the lives of people with disabilities, but how to improve the internal health of the community as a whole. A community alienated from itself cannot possibly engage with the world as effectively as one which acknowledges and deals sensitively with its own shifting internal boundaries. There is no question that the two issues are bound up with one another; ‘enabling’ the community mainstream to hear the silenced voices of the people on its margins must certainly help these people to improve their lot in life and in society. But even without reference to this possibility, the mainstream itself needs these voices; it needs every voice available to it.

The question of disability in society is a subset of the question of how we deal with difference in general. ‘When a person is taken to judgment,’ says Rava, of the post-mortem proceedings of the Heavenly court, ‘they ask him, “Did you do your dealings in faithfulness? Did you fix times for the Torah? Did you have children? Did you watch for salvation? Did you seek after wisdom? Did you understand one thing from another?”’ [1] This evaluation sketches out a full, good life in a Rabbinic outlook: at the end of one’s days, one may be satisfied with this. The questions would have to be modified for a person who was not able to engage in business dealings (‘with faithfulness’); for someone unable to study Torah; for someone unable to have children. Until recently this model would have utterly excluded women; this has changed. But never will we find ourselves in a situation in which everyone will be able to answer ‘yes’ to all these questions. What are ‘we’ to do with people who are not engaged in the central projects the community lays out for its members?

I would like to discuss three different approaches to this question, which may be arranged along three different fault lines dividing those ‘with disabilities’ from those ‘without’. The first fault line is that of access; some of us are able to access the services and opportunities the community has to offer, while others are not, or are only in a limited way. The predominant response to this boundary, in our community, is charity. Another fault line, a significant one in the Orthodox world, is that of obligation. The community is more or less defined by its collective project of living out the Torah, as we understand it under the guidance of those we respect. People with a range of different impairments and disabilities are excluded, at different times, from this shared project by the halakhic categories into which their disabilities place them. This has always been a source of shame and suffering for many of the people excluded, and the community’s response to the problem has taken the form, more and less successfully, of halakhic investigation and psak. The third fault line is possibly the least considered: the boundary of experience and knowledge. A person whose body or mind functions differently from mine will experience her life, the world and society vastly differently from me; her concerns, thoughts and perceptions will overlap with mine but will not be the same. The predominant approach to this border, as to so many others, has almost always been to ignore it. I would like to suggest that a new approach is needed, and that this may be developed, perhaps counter-intuitively, using the principles of dialogue.

The boundary of access; charity

The Jewish community excels when it comes to charity. Jews with disabilities benefit from enviable services, homes, independent living facilities, special education and sheltered employment. We are even trained in the correct responses – to smile, to be friendly, to offer to help, not to stare. But charity has its dark side, and that is a side we never see until we shift from being ‘givers’ to being ‘receivers’.

It is Rabbi Yehoshua who points out, commentating on the book of Ruth, that ‘more than the man of the house does for the poor person, the poor person does for the man of the house.’ [2] In the case of Ruth this is eventually recognised: ‘Your last kindness is greater than the first’, says Boaz, the man of the house, referring to Ruth’s act of throwing herself at his feet in the middle of the night. [3] But most of us, not being in love with all the recipients of our kindness, do not make the shift of consciousness Rabbi Yehoshua suggests. The image he overturns is perhaps the most basic Rabbinic image of charity; and, as it happens, of boundaries: ‘The boundary-crossings of the Sabbath are two that are four: the man of the house inside and the poor person outside…’.[4] Our halakhic world is mapped out in terms of inside (‘master of the house’), outside (beggar); giver, receiver.

Note, then, that Rabbi Yehoshua’s imagery is spacial. The spotlight, at any given moment, is pointed at the house, which is fixed; the poor person enters stage left and leaves stage right, nobody knows to where. The drama on the stage: What will the man of the house decide to do? Will he extend a hand with bread or money in it, or will he send the beggar packing? To the beggar, in the great scheme of things, it does not make much difference. His livelihood depends upon a certain proportion of the houses he petitions coming up with the goods – he does not mind which. To the man of the house it makes all the difference in the world: he is the star of this play, with freedom of choice, and must choose whether to be cast as hero or villain. His casting in the world to come depends entirely on the repertoire of parts he builds up in this one. The man of the house effectively climbs up to heaven on the shoulders of the beggar; Rabbi Akiva says as much explicitly, if with irresistible charm.[5] Talmudic beggars had enough ironic perspective on their own dramas to be aware of Rabbi Yehoshua’s principle: ‘Merit through me,’ they would say, when marketing their destitution on the streets.[6]

This not overly kind description of ‘hessed’ is all very well, but what about ‘tsedaka’? We are all proud bearers of the rhetoric of caring for the disadvantaged as an act of ‘tsedek’, justice, as contrasted with the patronising ‘Christian charity’ practiced by everyone else who cares.[7] Certainly we have done well at integrating the principle of giving as a form of holy income tax, which is in itself a wonderful thing; something which helps us to give willingly, without begrudging the recipient the gift which was never really fully our own. Yet our understanding of the content of that justice has not kept up with our willingness to work towards it. When we see a person who has been afflicted from above, we have sufficient religious ‘hutspah’ to rebel against that heavenly judgment and work to make the suffering person all the recompense we can. But we have not yet learnt to make fine distinctions between afflictions from above and the decisions society makes about how to define and deal with them.

I will take the extreme example of the disabilities brought about by aging. The opportunity to age is one of the back-handed miracles of our generation: by maintaining life longer we have bought ourselves years of gradual physical decline and loss of independence. This is a fact of all of our lives. For anyone, aging is a stressful process. Community care for the elderly, at its best, can be respectful, creative, sensitively offered and efficiently provided. At its worst, it can be a trauma all of its own. But almost always, residential care and sheltered accommodation distance those who require them from the life of the community, leaving only a limited number of bridges marked ‘hessed’. People who in younger days hosted family, friends and passing strangers, now wait for visits from ‘volunteers’; their place within the main body of the community has been devolved to others.

Housing issues, however, are secondary to the fact that the Jewish community we live in is strikingly age-segregated. This again is linked to the fact that our lives run along a certain expected path; the shifts in our social careers correspond to the rites of passage – study, work; youth movements, dating, marriage, children – that build up that Rava-esque c.v. for the Heavenly Court; together we work, we study, we take our parts in the great Jewish mission of perpetuating the people. We find it hard to recognise continuity with others at different life-stages, or whose lives will progress along different stages from ours. And so when we invest in elder-care it is out of a sense of responsibility and kindness towards our elders, and not because we are investing in homes for our own retirement years. Not because the fragility of a disabled older person’s life is the fragility of our own lives also.

As a tradition-centred community we have it better than some. At least we have an accessible mode of positive relation to the elderly. We have the vague concept of ‘wisdom’ – some Other kind of knowledge available only to the old and to their confidants – to counter our host society’s general trend of age discrimination. This is not to say that we necessarily have more time to listen to an older person’s ‘endless complaints’ about her health (though we may have endless time to hear our peers’ troubles, with which we have greater ability and inclination to identify), or that we will not construe her attempts to defend her rights as overly pushy, cantankerous or pathetic. But our ears may be more attuned to ‘wisdom’, and we may be prepared to push our patience and generosity further in the hope of discovering it. Again, the older person must be packaged in a certain way to be palatable, and the connection between us both stands and falls on her being Other than I am.[8] This is true of our relations with people further down our own lives’ paths than us; people going not just where ‘but for the grace of God go I’, but where, with the grace of God, I fully intend to go. How much more so with people for whom the unfathomable grace of God has had other plans?

A person’s congenital differences, then, are a matter of her fate/fortune/destiny; but isolation, alienation, discrimination, lack of access, marginalization, boredom and humiliation are social constructions. For the community to delegate responsibility for those on the other side of the access line to ‘hessed’, however genuinely heroic, necessary and sensitive that hessed may often be, is like a local authority demolishing a family’s house and then offering them a holiday in Jamaica; the short-term solution, however costly and colourful, is not enough, bears little correspondence to the family’s underlying need and no responsibility for their loss, and – even if inadvertently, unconsciously – it spares the community any soul-searching by distancing the sufferer from it.

The boundary of halakhic participation; creative psak

For a religious Jew, one of the most painful forms of social exclusion is exclusion from communal religious practice; halakhic literature bears out the fact that this is not a new sentiment. Questions of whether a disabled kohen can perform the priestly blessing, whether a blind person can be called up to the Torah and whether a deaf person can be a valid witness have been discussed from the Talmud onwards and are still debated today.

Halakha stands in tension between stability and change; the job of the ‘posek’ is to negotiate between the immoveable, utterly authoritative Law and the constantly changing pressures of social reality; this is generally done either by showing that the text does not apply in this case as we would first have thought, or by asserting the authority to redefine the law in accordance with the spirit in which it was intended, which we assume was for the good of mankind as the particular rabbi understands it. This is rare and in any case only represents a position a little further along the same spectrum as the first approach. In every event, the new ruling (suited to current needs or wishes) is expected to make its peace with the original Law and with the broader system, by reference either to another equally valid source, to the precise wording or intention or the specific law, or to the perceived spirit (perhaps hiding) behind it. A qualified mediator must carry the title Rabbi.

This is not to say that other people do not influence the halakha. We influence it all the time; we are the social reality that forces the change. Rabbi Beny Lau, in his article ‘Disability and Judaism: Society’s Influence on Halakha’, describes two ways in which this has taken place in relation to disability rights. [9] Halakhic authorities, hesitantly, integrated changes in the social realities of deafness over the nineteenth century, accepting that since medical and pedagogic advances were changing the place occupied by deaf people in society, the assumptions the Sages held about them no longer matched the circumstances. Halakha could then change without actually changing: when deaf people were deemed, millennia ago, unable to marry in a halakhically valid way, the regulation was never intended to include a person whose intellectual capacities had been fully developed in specialist school for the deaf.

In other cases, however, it is not science that advances, but society: any given society. Societies advance all the time in many directions; often they even advance backwards. The case R. Lau highlights is that of the rights of priests with visible physical differences to bless the congregation with the others. He cites the parallel Talmudic cases of Rav Huna and Rabbi Yohanan who, while making no blanket change to the prohibition against this, allowed specific priests suffering from potentially problematic discharges to bless their own congregations.[10] The Rabbis explain that this was acceptable because the communities in question ‘were used to’ those particular priests, and so were not perturbed by their conditions. In other words, abnormality is something the community defines for itself. Unlike the case of deafness, the question here rests not on the priest’s physical ability to perform the obligation, but on the effect of his disability on the community’s experience of the blessing. In this case the halakha describes, but does not prescribe, where we place the boundary between ‘normal’ and disabled.

Despite the somewhat inhibitive fact that Reform are also concerned with the issue, Orthodox rabbis, here and there, have been beginning to address the remaining lacunae in halakhic literature when it comes to the rights of people with disabilities. The Bet Midrash for Social Justice, for instance, which Rabbi Lau directs at Beit Morasha, Jerusalem, has produced a small amount of research on questions such as access in the synagogue, the place of people with physical disabilities in communal worship, and the rights of people with epilepsy in divorce proceedings. This and other such work is published patchily, on a small scale. The most comprehensive book on the subject, Tzvi Marx’s Disability in Jewish Law, is broad and fascinating, applying social and psychological insight to a broad range of Rabbinic sources; this underpublicised book is relatively difficult and expensive to come by, and Marx’s aim is to deepen our understanding, rather than (although as a necessary prerequisite to) making changes in the halakha we practice. [11]

Halakha, then, meanders along its way, influenced by and sometimes putting up its necessary resistance to the pressures of ethics and expectations from the outside. People with disabilities remain on that outside. As in the charity model, there are ‘men of the house’, mostly rabbis, working with the best will in the world, to bring in outsiders as much as they feel they can. The tug-of-war mode of halakhic change-in-stability requires a fixed hierarchy of influence, a hierarchy one can climb only in so far is it is made accessible to one.

Exceptions are worth noting. Rabbi Shaul Anvari, a graduate of Yeshivat HaKibbuts HaDati at Ein Tzurim, is perhaps the first ordained Orthodox rabbi with cerebral palsy.[12] With the help of a team of other rabbis, and typing painstakingly with his feet on a computer specially adapted for him by members of Kibbuts Sdeh Eliyahu, Rabbi Anvari is compiling a book of halakhic responsa for people with disabilities. The issues he deals with belong to the everyday: how should one lay tefillin if one does not have enough motor control to bind them? When should a person who uses a catheter say the blessing after going to the toilet? Can a person with disabilities fulfill his obligation using electric Hannuka candles? This concern with the personal religious life of a Jew with disabilities carries the scent of something new: until now the focus of halakhic discourse has been on the public face of disability; on the synagogue and on the interpersonal laws of contracts and damages. Finally we may be becoming able to accept people with disabilities as full halakhic beings in their own rights.

The boundary of experience; dialogue

The border-line which is perhaps most difficult to acknowledge that divides between people with disabilities and those without, is the abyss dividing our experiences of the world. How are we to navigate our interactions truthfully and lovingly, when we cannot articulate or even really gauge the difference it makes that my concept of body-image is unlike yours, that I am struggling with different challenges and ambitions in my present day-to-day, that I may have grown up in a different education system, that you may have grown up forever ‘different’ in the same education system? It may be literally impossible for me to empathise with the everyday experience of somebody else. It may be emotionally impossible, except perhaps in moments of agonizing grace, for me to contemplate what that experience means to him, or what it implies about me, my life, my experience.

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.’[13]

Liturgy is one of the most powerful ways of creating ideological norms; when a person preaches a sermon he tries to persuade his audience to agree – when he tells them to say a particularly blessing, he literally puts his words into their mouths. To the extent that I am aware of what I am saying and do not consciously rebel against it I integrate the blessing’s assumptions seamlessly into my own worldview. Berakhot, then, align our reactions to particular situations and stimuli, either drawing our attention to an everyday event which could have slipped by unnoticed, or offering us an appropriate, scripted mode of reaction to something out of the ordinary.

The Talmudic discussion of these Tanaitic sources on the appropriate blessings for people with various visual ‘abnormalities’ makes a distinction between people born with the ‘whitening skin complaint’ in question, and those who contracted it later in life. Illness, accident and violence are personal calamities; the Jew who responds to the scars with the ‘justification of the judgment’ formula, ‘Blessed is… the true Judge’, is assumed to identify so powerfully with the stranger’s suffering that he needs a blessing to keep his faith intact, perhaps to console himself for his vicarious suffering, and to maintain his sense of a somehow-coherent universe. If the disability (the commentators take the distinction between ‘skin complaint’ diagnoses to apply to the other conditions as well) is congenital, then no ‘justification of the judgment’ is required; at least, not the conventional one. Being created ‘different’ is no disaster; it is the spice of life.

The dynamic of this blessing is played out in a Talmudic narrative, Taanit 19b-20a:

‘Once, when Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon [bar Yohai] left Migdal Gadur, his teacher’s house, he rode on his donkey, moving along the bank of the river, extremely happy, and in a strutting frame of mind, because he had learnt so much Torah.

‘He happened across an extremely ugly man. The man said, “Shalom, my teacher.” Rabbi Elazar did not answer him; instead he said, “Idiot! How ugly that man [i.e. you] is! Could it be that everyone in your city is as ugly as you?!” The man said, “I do not know; why don’t you go to the artisan who made me and say, ‘How ugly that vessel You made is..!’”

Rabbi Elazar immediately accepts the man’s point (‘na’aneti’ – literally: ‘I am answered’ – a moment before he would not deign to ‘answer’ the respectful stranger greeting him.) The power dynamic between them reverses; the rabbi apologises profusely for his rudeness, and when the offended man, understandably enough, does not accept, he follows behind him in a gesture of contrition, refusing to leave him alone until he is forgiven. This leads him as far as the very city mentioned in the rabbi’s flippant outburst:

‘The people of [the man’s] city came out to greet the rabbi and said, “Shalom my teacher, my master, my master!” The man said, “Who do you think you are calling ‘my teacher’?” They said, “That man who is coming after you!” He said, “If that is a teacher, I hope Israel does not have many like that.” They said, “Why?” and he told them what he had done to him. They said – “All the same, forgive him; he is a very learned man when it comes to Torah.” He said, “Well, for your sake I will forgive him; but only if he does not make a habit of it.”’

The image of one man walking after another is that of a student following his teacher to learn from him.[14] Both Rabbi Elazar and the ‘ugly man’ are fully aware of this reversal in their statuses, and it is only to the bystanders who still recognise the well known rabbi for what he is supposed to be. It is these ‘people of the city’, carrying the pressure of convention, who restore order in the end. When they were invoked in their absence, it was in the mind of Rabbi Elazar, who wondered, at least in somewhat contemptuous rhetoric, whether the explanation for the man’s ugliness could be the ugly city he comes from. The man ‘does not know’ whether or not he is ugly in relation to his neighbours; they, unlike the wise-man, do not draw attention to his looks. Among them, ‘for their sakes’, he can afford to be forgiving. They teach him to make allowances for teachers. More to the point, they listen to his story with enough respect for him to relax his militancy, knowing that his point has gone across. He is now the ‘teacher’, though of a different kind. And indeed:

‘Rabbi Elazar went straight into the Bet Midrash and taught, “Let a man ever be soft like a reed, and never hard like a cedar.” This is why the reed had the honour of providing pens for the writing of Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot.’

How Rabbi Elazar learnt this lesson from the man, who for all his insight and presence of mind is not exactly ‘soft’, is open to interpretation. He may have learnt it in the negative from the man’s obstinacy, in the positive from his eventual capitulation under the pressure of his neighbours, or from the insight he gave him at the outset, into the diversity of beauty in God’s creation. The point may be driven home by the condition for his forgiveness, ‘only if he does not make a habit of it;’ only if he learns to replace his closed-minded, arrogant habitual response with something more sensitive to the individuals he encounters. In any case – a transformation has taken place. If the Torah the rabbi learnt a moment before the story began made him vain and narrow-minded, the Torah he has learnt from this encounter requires him to accept difference and vulnerability. From now on, all scrolls must be written that way: from a soft and humble material, responsive and delicate.

For all the rabbi’s learning, the ‘ugly man’ (in his eyes) knows something he does not know. He knows his own city and his own place in it. He knows something about creation which does not correspond to the model understood in the Bet Midrash. He knows that God’s aesthetic is broader than any human’s. He knows things born of the pain of his rejection, and things born simply of his different angle on the world. He knows that God is God because He ‘makes His creations different from one another’; he knows that the hierarchy of knowledge in which the men of the Bet Midrash self-define as the ‘teachers’ bears a very precarious correspondence to reality. The transformative knowledge Rabbi Elazar gains here comes less from the words exchanged between him and the man, than from the hardness and softening of the encounter itself. The meeting of clashing worldviews opened up to one another is perhaps what we would now call dialogue.

There are various models of dialogue. Cobb’s theory of interreligious dialogue is that the places of encounter should be the points of shared crisis; that two communities must identify their common weak points – traumas, internal divisions, crises of faith – and meet to learn from one another’s ways of coping.[15] This shared problem-solving should transform each community separately (first of all), and then the two together. To bring up such a theory of dialogue here seems highly inappropriate; here we are not discussing ‘us’ and ‘them’ but only us: us the Jews, of all abilities. But to say that it is as simple as that would be a denial of the fences, the moveable, semi-transparent fences that divide people with disabilities and the community at large along the three fault-lines we have discussed and probably along others as well.

‘The community’ encounters its members with disabilities only at moments of strength – or across the ‘mechitsa’ of charity. Only at the times and in the places which have become accessible, or when representatives of the ‘community’ go out to meet those on its outskirts, expressing their position of strength and wholeness in compassion for others. At the points of weakness, of our shared weakness, we do not meet; people are denied access, are spared the trouble of obligations (which may trouble others to help them), are alienated from the dominant worldview, or interact in partial or complete denial of their disabilities so that they can ‘fit in’ more easily. Encounter at the crisis moments – as when Rabbi Elazar finds the ‘ugly man’’s pain and humiliation and meets it with a corresponding crisis of his own understanding of the world – are rare. Fortunately. Rare also are the quieter moments of encounter with the divide; moments when we realize our shared vulnerability, allow ourselves really to see the vulnerability, isolation, suffering and frustration of others, and acknowledge the weaknesses and gaps in our own experience of the world, which require the silenced knowledge of others to help fill them.

What we need may be dialogue, not in the sense of a staged showdown, but in the sense of constant, everyday presence together, listening, speaking, learning together, working together on our shared limitations. Presence needs to be worked on, it must be enabled and invited. But it is not the end in itself; it is what we all need to reach a shared end, a fuller self-awareness, a healthier shared process, moving wherever we need to be going together, and cannot yet predict.

Redemption

Yirmiya, quoted at the top of this article, draws an image of redemption where all of the scattered nation is brought back together to its land and its ritual life; ‘blind and limping men,  pregnant women, all together, birthing mothers’. The phrasing suggests a gentle homecoming; a redemption accessible to all ‘together’ – so Radak: ‘…I shall bring them easily, along an open road, such that even the blind and limping and pregnant and birthing will be able to walk with them and will not stumble as they walk.’ Yet Rashi brings a different nuance to bear: ‘Blind and limping: Even the stumbling people among them I shall not reject (lo em’as).’ Where does Rashi find the ‘hava amina’ that these people might be rejected? Does he include the pregnant and birthing in this expectation? Yet the assumption is not absurd in the slightest. The eventual Zionist resettlement of the land was fueled by an ideology which had little space at all for people unable fully to participate in the physical labour of the enterprise.[16]

This vision of redemption is helpful in drawing our attention to what we are lacking in the present state of things, and to the way things work, ‘really’. Without a little divine mercy, none of us will be getting anywhere. And divine mercy is a thing to be shared, not to be swallowed up first by the ‘fittest’. But we do not need to wait for Redemption to work towards shifting the balance. We have always known, at least in the basics, how it is done:

‘A person who witnesses the new moon and is unable to walk, [others] must bring him [to Jerusalem, to testify] on a donkey – even carry him on a bed. If the witnesses are anxious, they bring sticks; if the way is long, they take food in their hands, for with a walk of a night and a day one breaks Shabbat and goes out to testify to the new moon, as is said, These are the gatherings of the Lord… which you must call at their times.[17]

I have translated the opening of this mishna with an awkward wording that reflects the Hebrew grammar; ‘a person who witnesses… [others] must bring him…’ Both the disabled witness and the undefined others who may be any able-bodied Jews, are the subjects of this law; the object is the moon itself. We are all responsible for this man’s testimony being heard, not out of responsibility towards him, but because his own declaration, spoken by his own mouth, is needed in order to fix the community’s calendar. We will break Shabbat to make sure that this happens. We will carry his bed a night and a day’s distance. No second-hand telling will do; we will not rely on the probability that somebody else will have seen the same thing. He must make sure that he is heard, and we must all make sure to enable him. This is how holy gatherings are made.

The article first appeared in Degel (Nissan 5770) – posted with kind permission of Benjamin Elton.


[1] Shabbat 31a.

[2] Midrash Rabbah Rut 5:9.

[3] Ruth 3:10.

[4] Shabbat 1:1

[5] Bava Batra 10a: ‘Turnusrufus asked Rabbi Yehoshua, “If your God loves poor people, why does he not sustain them?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “So that we may be saved by them from the judgment of Hell.”’ (The story carries on to define Israel as ‘Sons of the Lord’ only in so far as we obey the moral imperative of caring for the needy.

[6] Eg. Yerushalmi Ta’anit 1:4.

[7] Islam has a concept of charity ‘tax’ very similar to ours, and uses the same Semitic root in the term ‘sadaqat’ used for spontaneous giving (understood in the sense of ‘sincerity, truth’). And of course, we should hesitate before criticizing Christian philanthropy and activism; we owe countless breakthroughs in human rights and social justice, as well as almsgiving, to  religiously motivated Christians.

[8] This subject is developed by Barbara MacDonald and Cynthia Rich in Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism, (Midway, 2001).

[9] First published in Hebrew, BeMa’aglei Tsedek 11, (Jerusalem, 2005).

[10] Megilla 24b.

[11] London, 2002.

[12] Some of R. Anvari’s work is available in Hebrew at shaul-anvari.info; translations may be found at jewishdisabilityunite.wordpress.com, where Rabbi Anvari also provides an ‘ask the Rabbi’ service.

[13] Berakhot 58b.

[14] Cf, for instance, Hagiga 15a, ‘Once, “Aher” was riding his horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir walked after him to hear Torah from his mouth.’

[15] J. B. Cobb, Beyond Dialogue: Towards a Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and Christianity, (Minneapolis, 1982).

[16] The negative impact of Zionist ideology on the rights of disabled groups in Israel is discussed by Dr. Dina Feldman in ‘The Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law, 5758-1998, at the Crossroads between Charity and Right’, available in Hebrew Bema’aglei Tsedek 11 (Jerusalem, 2005).

[17] Lev. 23:4; Rosh Hashana 1:9.

Fate, Destiny and Disability – Ariel Goldberg August 2, 2010

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in Jewish Thought.
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Disability is a fate. Fate is a word with two common meanings: “the development of events outside of a person’s control, regarded as predetermined” or “the course or inevitable outcome of a person’s life.” Until a generation ago, disability was understood as a fate in both senses of the term. Today, it more widely understood that although the development of a disability is outside of a person’s control, it is not inevitable that it will determine the course, or outcome, of his or her life.

This distinction is one that is very real to me. At the age of sixteen, with no warning, I developed major idiopathic (undiagnosable) chronic fatigue. Five years and countless medical interventions later, with recovery nowhere in sight, I began to despair of ever regaining control of my life. It was then that I began to look for solutions outside of medicine and integrate my religious life into my process of healing. I adopted practices of mindfulness, including Jewish meditation and yoga. To make sense of my situation intellectually I began exploring Torah classics including modern Jewish theology. The more I explored, the clearer it became to me that while I might be fated to live as a person with a disabling medical condition there was no reason why I had to  live as a ‘disabled person’ whose life would be permanently defined by his condition.

One of my greatest discoveries was Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s essay Kol Dodei Dofek (The voice of my beloved is knocking). It taught me that although I cannot control what happens to me, I can choose my reaction, which happens through me. In this way, I initiate my destiny – the other force shaping my life.

Fate and destiny, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, exist in dialectic, as if the two concepts are in conversation with one another.  He summarizes fate with the slogan “against your will you are born and against your will you shall die.”  The slogan of destiny, on the other hand is “by your freewill you shall live.” “Man is born as an object and dies as an object,” he continues, “but he lives as a subject.”

We are all born as objects of fate. We enter the world affected by objective limitations, including our genetics, familial circumstance, economic status, historical and geopolitical situation, and, for some of us, disability.  When we die, we are affected largely by conditions beyond our control. In between, we live as subjects with freewill.

A dictionary definition of “subject” is “dependent or conditional upon.” A human subject, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view, lives a life that is conditional on the exercise of his or her freewill. She may be fated to experience real limitations, whether from a disability or something else, but the ultimate definition of her life is conditional on her exercise of her freewill. She is the shaper of her own destiny through the relationships she has with G-d and people, her creative and professional life, or the attitudes she takes.

Kol Dodei Dofek was written in 1955 as a theological response to the Shoah and the creation of the State of Israel. Its title is taken from one of the most poignant verses of the Song of Songs: “I sleep but my mind is awake. Listen! My beloved is knocking (Kol Dodei Dofek). Open for me, my sister, my beloved, my dove, my perfect one . . . ” Midrashic interpretation of the Song of Songs understands it as an erotic poem about two lovers and, at the same time, as a metaphor for the relationship between G-d and his beloved Jewish people. For Rabbi Soloveitchik, it is also indicative of the existential situation that confronts the Jewish people and individual human beings alike.

Fate, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s terms, is a knocking, meant to awaken us from our slumber, challenging us to take up “man’s mission in this world”; namely, to turn fate into destiny, from an existence that is passive and influenced to one that is active and influential. It is about moving from “an existence full of compulsion, perplexity and speechlessness into an existence full of will and initiative.” This, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, is the challenge posed by the Shoah and the birth of the state of Israel. These events call out to the Jewish people to move from being a passive people who let history happen to them to playing an active part in their history’s unfolding.

When fate knocks, our first question is often “why?” Without denying the value of seeking after an answer, Rabbi Soloveitchik stresses that it is a speculative question, for which there can be no satisfactory answer.  For him, the most meaningful response is not to question fate with a “why?” but to ask “what can I do now?”   Rather than question why the Shoa happened, for example, the Jewish people should ask what it can do now to rebuild Jewish life, especially in the context of the State of Israel.

My friends and relatives who have intellectual or physical disabilities have taught me powerful lessons about what it means to be the shaper of my destiny.  Mostly. they have done so their personal examples (which our sages teach is the most powerful way of communicating). These lessons were especially meaningful  for me while I was in the acute phase of my illness. They continue to resonate for me even now when I have largely regained my well-being.

One of the most poignant of these learning experiences unfolded on Simhat Torah two years ago. On that day, a man whom I will call Jonathan Kraus, was honoured with the Hattan Bereshit (the first  aliyah of the new reading cycle, where the first section of the book of Genesis is chanted). This was no ordinary aliyah and Jonathan was no ordinary oleh.

Jonathan has a condition similar to A.L.S. (Lou Ghreig’s disease). He is totally paralyzed and can communicate only by blinking his eyes.  Prior to his illness, Jonathan was an admired figure in the Canadian Jewish community.  He is one of those precious Jews whose life embraces traditional Judaism and, at the same time, the world at large.  Combining outstanding Torah learning with an excellent knowledge of the humanities, dedication to the Jewish people with service to the general community, analytic brilliance, and mentschlichkeit, Jonathan seemed to have it all. Then, without warning, he contracted his illness and, in under a year become completely incapacitated.

By the time he celebrated Simhat Torah in 2008, Jonathan had lost ninety percent of his muscular function. Unable to speak for more then a few seconds or move, except slightly, he avoided doing much of either in public because the effort required was too difficult. When he was wheeled to the bimah for his aliyah, the Torah reader whispered to Jonathan that he need not recite the blessing out loud to fulfil his Halachic obligation as reading it silently was enough. Hearing this, Jonathan gave a slight wave of his hand, as if to say “don’t worry about me.”

He began reciting the Bracha.  A blessing that is usually done in ten seconds took Jonathan over a minute. His words were garbled, almost unrecognizable. But this was one of the most meaningful prayers I have ever heard.

Getting the words out required Jonathan’s total concentration. With his eyes closed, fists clenched, and sweat dripping from his forehead, he willed his way through each syllable of the blessing. The Shema tells us ‘you shall love H-Shem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your energy’. Watching Jonathan, I  truly understood what that meant.

His Bracha was Jonathan’s way of affirming publically that no matter what happened to him externally, he would be the master of his destiny. When the Aliyah was over, The Sefer Torah was placed on his lap and then, with his power wheelchair, he lead the procession around the synagogue, beaming at everyone he passed. Jonathan may have been almost completely paralysed but I have never seen anyone so strong.

Living a life that is a response to the question “what can I do?” is, I believe, dependent on having a strong sense of meaning. Viktor Frankl, a pioneering psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust, argued that there are three approaches to discovering meaning: 1) By “creating a work or doing a deed” 2) “By experiencing someone or encountering someone” 3) “By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering”.  Quoting the philosopher Fredrich Nietzche, Frankl concludes that ‘he who has a why to live can endure almost any how.”

In reflecting on Frankl’s ideas I recalled another verse from the Song of Songs.  After the lover hears her beloved knocking, she reports “I arose to open for my beloved.” Rashi comments that this “opening” is done “wholeheartedly and with a desiring soul.” If we extend Rabbi Soloveitchik’s metaphor of the knocking of the beloved as being G-d visiting  us with fate, I think we can understand this verse as offering us a metaphor for responding to our fate with total openness.

In the Kaballah, emunah, (faith,) the highest state of consciousness, involves complete openness to whatever G-d may bring into one’s life. When fate knocks, perhaps in the form of a disability, a person with emunah will embrace the new situation and open themselves to all of its possibilities for meaning.

In her own way, my aunt Pnina has modelled this kind of openness. A quadriplegic  (paralysed from the neck down), due to multiple sclerosis, she has for a decade been  unable to eat, move or perform bodily function without assistance from others.  At the same time, Pnina has embraced the experience of having a disability wholeheartedly and out of it created a meaningful life.

A people person with a gift for organizing, Pnina has become an important disability rights advocate, empowering people with disabilities and those without to think more inclusively.  By choosing to embrace the possibilities for meaning offered by her disability, my aunt has been able to transcend much of the pain that is also present. Her life demonstrates Viktor Frankl’s equation, S = P – M.  Suffering is the presence of pain in the absence of meaning. (Alternatively, pain could be substituted with the words “limitation” or “disability”). Everyday, Pnina awakens in the morning and faces her frustrating limitations anew. But because she has meaningful work to do, these pains are not the be-all of her existence. Enduring them is a means to a greater end.

Living or not living with physical or intellectual limitations is not an either / or. We are all fated to experiences limitations of one sort or another, especially death. The question is not one of “if” but “how” and “when”. People with disabilities can teach the rest of society about this reality. Their examples can challenge others to respond meaningfully when fate knocks.

People who are not disabled and do not encounter the naked reality of their limitations on a daily basis often have the option of making the same mistake as the narrator in the Song of Songs. They can delay arising when they hear the knock until it is too late. (When the lover opens the door she discovers that   “My beloved had hidden and was gone . . .  I sought him but found him not. I called to him, but he did not answer me.”)  When they experience temporary setbacks which highlight their limitations these people can let the experiences pass by without reflecting on how these aspects of their fate can be transformed into a meaningful destiny. An existence that is lived in partial denial of reality is not, to my mind, one that fully embraces the blessing of life. A lack of awareness of one’s limitations is itself a powerful limitation reducing a person’s capacity for a destiny which includes real joy, love, faith and creativity.

People with disabilities are often recipients of help from those without disabilities in meeting their physical or intellectual needs.  But the reverse is also true, I believe.  People with disabilities have much to offer people without them when it comes to meeting spiritual needs.  Insuring that people with disabilities and people without them can be integrated in the Jewish community is not about Hessed.  We are all blessed when we live together.

Ariel Goldberg grew up in Ottawa, Canada, and is currently a student at Yeshivat Hamivtar.

Disability and Judaism: Society’s Influence on Halacha – Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau January 28, 2010

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in Jewish Law, Jewish Thought.
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1. We all have disabilities

To be a person of Torah is to take on a quest to reveal the light of God which shines out of the Torah, as it has been revealed to human beings. Halacha [Jewish law], in as far as it is a translation of the Godly Idea into human behaviour, must radiate that light for which all those who worship the Almighty pray. Among the subjects that linger disconcertingly between light and darkness is society’s approach to people with disabilities. Already in the Talmud we find the story of one of the greatest scholars of the Tanaitic period (70-220 CE), Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, who studied Torah from Rabbi Meir, and returned home completely caught up in the joy of his studies, which consumed his entire character:

He happened upon a man who was extremely ugly. The man said, “Shalom to you, Rabbi!” 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.” “I will not forgive you,” said the man, “until you go to that Artist who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made.’”[1]

The gap between the harmonious light of Torah and this offence to perfection that is the “extremely ugly” man, strikes Rabbi Simeon like a blow. The Torah he has been learning has not refined his character, but rather had sharpened his aspiration to “angelic” completeness, which refuses to encounter an ugly reality.

The “ugly man”, then, refers Rabbi Simeon to the source of all ugliness in the world: the Holy One, the Artisan who made him. This is a decisive religious statement, which seeks to cancel out the categories of beautiful and ugly as seen by human beings, and to bring them instead to a more holistic vision, which takes account of the fact that God created all of mankind, in all the forms it may take, in His own image. Not, that is, with a godly body – for God has no body – but rather with an essential nature that is divine, an associate in the creation and advancement of the world. Man created in God’s image is not God – he is “a little less” (Ps. 8:6). This is what brings us to the absolute knowledge that all of us are people with disabilities.

It is worth remembering that when we engage with sources from the past we are touching the very pulse of a society’s life. The sources of the Oral Law are shaped in a human society and are intimately bound both to the norms of that society and to changes in those norms. What approach has Jewish society taken through the ages to people with physical and cognitive disabilities? Did the Torah lead to these people’s acceptance into society, or was she part of the universal tendency to exclude? What attitude has the religious community taken in the modern era, as the world outside goes through a process of acceptance and integration? Has the religious world led this movement, gone along with it, or remained far behind?

There is a genuine expectation that the world of Torah should pave the way when it comes to attitudes to people with disabilities, people who were also created in the image of God. There are also disappointments, as we look at the sources and see where the great minds of the outside world have taken society vast leaps forward with regard to these attitudes, while Jewish scholars merely reacted later on to these ethical advances.

I would like to demonstrate with two examples; one in which the halacha has followed after human progress, and one in which it has led the way for humanity as a whole. First – in relation to deafness, and second – to blindness.

2. The Status of Deaf People – Halacha’s Response to a Change in the World

In the Jewish Law of ancient times, deaf people had the same status as the mentally retarded. They were distanced from society and free of its obligations. Until the 18th century, people with severe hearing impairments were not integrated into the education system and nothing useful was expected to come of them. The sages, likewise, related to deaf people as to people with no intelligence, exempt from all the obligations of a mature human being.

With the establishment of schools for the deaf, and the development of sign language, which enables people with severe hearing impairments to communicate with those around them, the world has made huge steps forward in its relations with deaf people. It is fascinating to read the attitudes expressed by rabbis during the period in which people with aural impairments were just beginning to be integrated into society.

The discussion centred around the question of whether the change in the status of deaf people in society should influence their status in halacha; are these people now obligated by the commandments? Are they able to be married and divorced? May they perform other legal actions that require mature awareness? In the words of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (late 19th century) we may find an interim summary:

In the case of a deaf person who has been taught to speak in a school for the deaf (in the technique that has been developed in recent years), such that there is no difference between him and other people, apart from lacking the sense of hearing and a certain degree of speech impediment, while his intellect and understanding in all dealings are as those of any hearing person, the leading authorities of our generation are in disagreement. Some say that such a person is like a hearing person in every way, and has the legal status of one who speaks but does not hear. Others categorize him as a ‘retarded person’, giving him the same status as one who neither speaks nor hears. Other authorities are undecided and judge strictly in each case, because of the doubt. [2]

One of those who deemed this group to be ‘like any hearing person’ is the Great Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, of blessed memory, who wrote a responsum[3] to Rabbi Yehuda Libush of Levov, to demonstrate that a deaf person who has learnt to communicate is like a hearing person, with the legal status of one who ‘speaks but does not hear’.

Among those who did not reach a decision on the matter was the great Rabbi M. Shik. Rabbi Shik investigated the matter in depth in his responsum (Even Ha’Ezer 79), and his indecision is implied the conclusion of a long discussion of several different categories of deaf people:

And all the same it seems that a deaf person who has accustomed himself to speak at a school still has not removed himself from doubt. He is not to be considered a person of full intellect, and is not to be counted in a minyan [quorum of ten men needed for communal prayer], or relied upon to fulfill ones’ obligations [vicariously, eg by making the collective blessing over wine on Shabbat], and one cannot eat meat that he has slaughtered; in my humble view this is the correct approach to take.

The doubt over which these authorities are debating is the question of whether a deaf person’s intellect is normal or defective. Professor Victor Jenner brought about a global change in this area when he published his pedagogical treatise for the training of deaf and dumb children (1832-6). He proved that people with hearing impairments have full capability to acquire spoken language: they have sufficient intellect to learn languages, the necessary speech organs, the senses required to take in linguistic forms, and that beside all this they also have other means of communicating with others. This research took root in the world, and from the mid-19th century onwards, attitudes to deaf people in Western Europe improved immensely.

Rabbi Hildesheimer lived at the end of the 19th century, read the relevant studies, and saw the educational achievements of the schools for the deaf. As a result of all this he reached the following conclusions:

The realities have disproved the view expressed by the great Rabbi M. Shik, that a deaf person who is educated acts like an ape; namely, that he does nothing but what has been fixed and imprinted in him through repetition and rote-learning, and that he has no free choice or intellect.

Rabbi Hildesheimer’s responsum proceeds to demonstrate that the rabbis of mid-19th century Germany had continued to debate the point, without fully accepting the change in the legal status of people with aural impairments. A generation later, however, Rabbi Hildesheimer himself was well aware of the implications of the scientific and pedagogic changes that had taken place in the area of hearing impairment. In response to those rabbis continuing to relate to the deaf as to people without mental faculties he writes:

… This, however, was the prevalent attitude to deaf people at that time (Sha’ar Haz’kenim was published in 1830, and it is not recorded when that specific responsum was written. Rabbi Y.D. Bamburger’s responsum, likewise, does not record the time of its writing). Medical writings from that period upheld the same views, and it is only later on that the doctors’ opinions were amended, until they reached the conclusion that deaf people have mental powers (and only a difficulty in bringing this potential into full expression) and this view has been borne out in the experience of our own times. There is no contradiction here with the words of our sages, who only referred to deaf people with no opportunity to access their own intellectual potential. In my humble view we must not follow these great minds in deciding that a deaf person’s education has no significance. In post-factum cases, however, we must certainly make efforts to rely upon their words.

Behind the debate on the status of people with hearing impairments stands a deeper disagreement on the ability of society and scientific progress to affect basic assumptions in the world of the Torah. Rabbi Hildesheimer, aware of this anxiety, reassures his readers:

There is no doubt that research in the natural sciences has no authority to contradict the traditions received from the sages. Here, however, we are simply interpreting the sages, to determine whether they made no distinction between one deaf person and another, or whether their intention was only to rule on a deaf person without eduction.

A hundred and fifty years have passed since this was written, and today almost all halachic authorities agree that people with hearing impairments may be integrated into social frameworks, and so, without question, also into religious ones. This is a rare and definitive development, which points to society’s power to influence legal attitudes, and among them those of our own halacha.

3. The Status of the Blind – Halacha as a Pioneering Force

Like deaf people, people with severe visual impairment have also experienced a remarkable improvement in their status. In the past it was commonplace to alienate blind people and to degrade them. Blind people had no means of earning a living, and instead went begging from door to door or on street corners. Most blind people were condemned to lives of suffering and could aspire to no personal achievements. The exceptional few, Homer, Braille, Helen Keller and others, showed outstanding talents and were the exceptions that prove the unproductive rule. As in the case of deaf people, here too attitudes have changed in the modern age, with the establishment of schools using Braille script (invented in 1829).

In contrast with deafness, blindness was an area of disagreement among the Tana’im [sages of the Mishnaic period, c. 70-220 C.E.]. Rabbi Yehuda deemed a blind person to be exempt of all religious obligations, while the other sages judged him to be obligated. The Mishna in Tractate Bava Kama states that ‘One who humiliates a blind person is found liable’. The Mishna here is raising the question of the damages payments one might be required to pay a blind person upon whom one has inflicted bodily harm. Harming a ‘normal’ person requires one to pay, among other expenses, a payment for the humiliation involved. Without entering into the intricacies of the discussion, we may understand that ‘humiliation’ payments are paid to a person in response to the damage rendered to his standing in society. The very ruling that one who humiliates a blind person is expected to hand over a humiliation payment raises the possibility that somebody must have thought otherwise. The Talmud, indeed, seeks to claim that this mishna does not correspond to the attitude of Rabbi Yehuda, one of the Galilean sages of the latter half of the second century:

This mishna is not compliant with the view of Rabbi Yehuda, as we have been taught, “Rabbi Yehuda says: A blind person has no humiliation payment; and in this way Rabbi Yehuda would offer reprieve to people who would otherwise be condemned to exile [for manslaughter], to lashes and to the death penalty.[4]

The Talmud offers formal rationales to explain the attitude of Rabbi Yehuda, but these are not our concern. Of interest to us is the bottom line, and its significance is that a blind person is in no way integrated into the family of man. The Tosafists (of twelfth century France) experienced unease with the definition of blindness in Rabbi Yehuda’s teachings, and qualified his position:

A blind person who humiliates another is exempt [from payment], but one who humiliates a blind person is obligated, for it does not make sense that he should be exempt.[5]

The statement here is an interesting one. The blind person is liberated from responsibility, but society is not liberated from the responsibility to care for him. In relation to the blind, then, we find enormous responsibility on the part of the sages, who consistently seek to include the group in the community. One prominent example of this is the question of calling a blind man up to make a blessing over the Torah scroll in the synagogue. The medieval Jewish legal authorities debate the ability of a blind man to bless over the Torah, when he clearly cannot read the words, for ‘words in writing are not to be said from memory’. In conclusion, however, many of these authorities agreed that this was a case worthy of the principle ‘It is time to act for God; they are uprooting Your Torah’.[6] Rather than risk losing the human being within the blind man they agreed to rule that he should be called up to the Torah and bless over it, just like any other, fully obligated man. The decision was made hundreds of years before any mainstream social awakening with regard to the needs of the blind community.

4. Halachic Attentiveness to Social Trends in Relation to the Place of People with Disabilities in Society

As we have seen in these two examples, Halacha is not indifferent to changes in the status of people with disabilities in society. At times it creates the change; at others it responds to it. Today we witness significant social alertness to the place of people with disabilities within our society. Accessibility for people with mobility problems, subtitles for people with hearing impairments, Braille for people with visual impairments and so on and on. The State of Israel devotes significant budgets to this issue, and there is a special chair in the Law Ministry for dealing with issues relating to people with disabilities.

Halacha must listen to the voices welling up from the depths of society, and respond to them. The public’s attitude to people with disabilities is awakening the world of the halacha to find within itself the mechanism that will make it possible to include all people with disabilities within it. I will demonstrate this through a discussion of the question of whether a cohen with a physical blemish may go up to the ark to bless the congregation with the priestly blessing.

The Mishna in Tractate Megilla lays down that “a cohen who has blemishes may not raise his palms [to participate in the priestly blessing]”.[7] The Talmud understands the mishna in its broad sense, describing all the kinds of blemish that could invalidate a cohen from raising his palms. The amoraim [sages of the Talmudic period, c. 220-550 C.E.] rise to the occasion and offer their own contributions to this list of disqualifiers:

Rav Huna said: A zavlagan [the medieval commentators were divided as to whether this describes a person with a disease causing excessive tearing or salivation] may not raise his palms.

This brings the Talmud to raise an objection:

Yet there was a certain zavlagan [priest] who lived in Rav Huna’s neighbourhood, and he used to raise his palms!

Could it be that Rav Huna does not practice what he preaches? The answer follows:

That [particular priest] was familiar in his own city.

As the discussion continues, an early source is brought, declaring that a man’s familiarity in society is the factor that determines whether he may take part in the priestly blessing, or whether his presence, with his physical deformities, will cause a social problem. The section continues to tell exactly the same story, as an event that took place in the beit midrash [study hall] and city of Rabbi Yochanan, Tiberius:

Rabbi Yochanan said: A [priest] who is blind in one of his eyes may not raise his palms. Yet there was a certain man [like that] in Rabbi Yochanan’s neighbourhood who did raise his palms! That man was familiar in his own city.

Here the case in question is not that of a zavlagan but of a man who is partially sighted. In principle, such a man is disqualified from giving the priestly blessing – but the community have the power to rule otherwise by their actions. If the man is familiar in his own city, then he raises his hands to bless the congregation.

This distinction is delineated in the halacha.[8] It is clear that if the community had not reacted to those ‘blemished’ people with acceptance, the attitude of the halacha would not have changed; neither in the eyes of Rav Huna nor in those of Rabbi Yochanan.

If this is the case, the public has enormous power to define the place and standing of people with disabilities in society. Our attitude towards the disabled is not decreed from heaven. It rests upon the attention and responsibility of the entire community. If we know to see the good and the light within each one of us, we will succeed in containing every creation, in fixing the place of people with disabilities in the very heart of the community, and in allowing each and every person to take a part in our shared effort to repair the world by the light of the Torah.

Rabbi Lau directs the Beit Midrash for Social Justice, Beit Morasha of Jerusalem. He is also the author of several Hebrew books on Rabbinics, rabbi of the Jerusalem Ramban Synagogue, and regularly broadcasts religious programming on Israeli television. This article was originally published in Hebrew in Bema’aglei Tzedek 11 (Jerusalem, 1995). Translation: Jessica Sacks


[1] Ta’anit 20a-20b.

[2] Responsa of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, II, Even Ha’Ezer, Hoshen Mishpat ve’Miluim, 58.

[3] Divrei Chaim II, Even Ha’Ezer 72. Printed previously by Rabbi Yehuda Levov in Malechet Heresh, Vienna, 1864.

[4] Bava Kama 86b-87a.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The principle is brought into  play in extreme cases when it is deemed necessary to contravene a Torah injunction in order to preserve the spirit of the law (translator’s note).

[7] Megilla 24b

[8] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 128

The Holy Freak Show – Jessica Sacks December 24, 2009

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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.