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Disability and Judaism: Society’s Influence on Halacha – Summary January 29, 2010

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in Short and Simple.
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There is a story in the Talmud which teaches us something about the way people see people with disabilities. Once a great rabbi called Rabbi Simeon met “an ugly man” as he walked home from studying Torah. He was so shocked to see the ugly person after learning beautiful words, that he said “How ugly this idiot is!” The man, who was certainly not an idiot, was very hurt. He said, “Why don’t you go and tell the Artist who made me [that is, God] what an ugly thing he’s made!” Rabbi Simeon realized what a stupid thing he had said, and begged the man to forgive him.

This story shows us that each of us is made as we are by God. If we keep this in mind we will see that nobody is perfect, but nobody is ugly.

All the same, people with disabilities have always had different rights and responsibilities in Jewish Law than others. As society changes, so the law develops. Sometimes the rabbis see a change in society and change the law, and sometimes the law itself makes a change in Jewish society.

In ancient times, deaf people could not learn to communicate, and so they were treated like people who cannot understand. In the last two hundred years, we have learnt ways to educate deaf children, and they can fully take part in society. Slowly, rabbis responded to this and gave deaf people a bigger part to play in Jewish life.

Blind people, on the other hand, could always communicate by speaking. Jewish Law always protected blind people and insisted that they should be treated with respect, just like everyone else. In this way, Jewish Law was ahead of its time.

The attitudes of people in the Jewish community affect the way the law develops to include more and more people. This is very important if we want the Torah to remain an inspiration for ourselves and other people.


The Holy Freak Show: Summary December 25, 2009

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in Short and Simple.
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In the past, especially in the nineteenth century, there used to be ‘freak-shows’ in many fairgrounds. These were places where the public would go to look at people who were advertised as being ‘weird’: but in fact many of them were simply people with disabilities. Some of these ‘freaks’ were the slaves of the show managers, but others even got rich by displaying themselves. The money was made by tricking the public into thinking the freaks were ‘weirder’ than they were.

In the Talmud, the Rabbis tell us to say certain blessings when we see people who seem unusual to us. The blessing to say when we see someone who has become disabled after an accident or illness is ‘Blessed are You, God… the true Judge’: this is a way of reminding ourselves that God has a reason for what He does, even if it seems terrible to us. But if we see someone who we think is unusual, but was born that way, we are told to say ‘Blessed are You, God… who makes all His creations different from each other.’ This is to remind us that ‘different’ does not mean ‘weird’: we are all different from each other and that is how things should be.

The people who used to work in freak shows made money from the fact that many people do not know what disability is like. They like to stare but do not want to talk to people with disabilities and find out what they can learn from them. This is a big mistake: if we have all been created different, that means that each of us knows something that other people do not know about the world. If we stare but do not speak to each other, we will never find out.