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Love, Davka – Jessica Sacks October 27, 2011

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When people meet me for the first time they always give me tips on how to drink my tea. One woman promised me that if I drink green tea with turmeric, I’ll get my  voice back just like that. They don’t understand that I’m always like this. That this is how I talk. That this is the only voice I have. And together with it I have become the person I am. Because in order to hear me you have to do more than hear. You have to listen.

When I was fifteen […] a car hit me at high speed and wounded me severely. My spine was injured, and I spent a turbulent adolescence in hospital. I can’t quite understand why it is that since the accident, I haven’t been in a relationship. Yes, I’ve had brief affairs with men, but the longest relationship I’ve managed to have so far is with Mina, my Korean caregiver.

I have never seen the Jerusalem Center for Independent Living so packed to overflowing as it was for the opening of the current season of Disability
Studies events. The occasion was a double film-screening, followed by a discussion with the directors of both movies. Sivan Ben-Ari and Lior Amichai
presented No Friend of Mine, and Rona Soffer, her award-winning Love Davka, quoted above. The subject of both films – enormously different as
they are from each other – is that unanswerable question-to-answer-all-questions – love. And wow, had the choice of movies struck a chord.

Why (oh why – was the question in the air) is it so hard for people with disabilities to find partners? It may be hard to walk, hard to talk, hard to
work, but why should it then also be so hard to give that simplest and most needed of things – love – when that capacity above all others is unimpaired, and so desperately eager to be expressed?

The two movies, as it happens, come at the question from opposite angles. In Love Davka, Rona Soffer sets out on a valiant, but poignantly unresolved quest
for that elusive missing element that could bring her the love she dreams of. In No Friend of Mine on the other hand, the able-bodied Sivan Ben-Ari reconnects with her high-school heroine Lior after Lior, like Rona, has become severely disabled. As Sivan falls again under Lior’s spell, bringing the audience with her, the question that forms itself is how – even now when each day-to-day activity is a feat of effort and perseverance – Lior is never without a man in
the background, while Sivan tramps home alone.

Lior’s magic works offscreen as well. The first audience question of the discussion was more of an appeal: “People don’t see me – they look straight through me – they treat me as if I weren’t a human being at all!” And Lior fielded it without hesitation – “It’s them who are screwed up; you’re great,
you’re cool, don’t let them get you down!” Lior herself is unquellable, her vivacity infectious. And yet the question with no question-mark remained.

And I wanted to go up to the questioner and say – “Yes, they are wrong; yes, you are cool – but understand them. They cannot read your body language; they cannot read your expression. They see your wheelchair before they see you; they hear the slur in your speech before they hear what you are saying, and they do not know – genuinely they do not know – where your experience of the world is the same as theirs and where it is different. They do not know how you see them. They do not know how much you understand or what they can understand of you. You have to tell them.” But of course I did not. Because I know it is not that easy. Someone really has to be listening.

One of Rona’s friends, responding to her question in the film, denies that it is a meaningful question at all. “Is there anyone in the world with or without
a relationship that you can explain? […] Why does [anyone] have a relationship?” And she is right – and yet… And I, able-bodied and healthy,
am as mystified as Rona. And yet once again – it is not the same thing.

A midrash comes to mind:

Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon opened: “God brings those who are lonely back home.”
Matrona, a Roman noblewoman, asked Rabbi Yossei bar Chalafta a question; she said, “How many days did it take the Holy One to create His world?” He answered, “Six!” […] “Well then,” she said, “What has he been doing from that day until now?”
Rabbi Yossei replied, “The Holy One is sitting and matching up pairs – each man with his child, each man with his wife, each man with his wealth. […] I tell
you, to you this seems like a trivial thing, but before the Holy One it is as hard as the splitting of the Sea.”
(Genesis Rabba 68:4)

The Rabbis like to bring in outsiders to ask their difficult questions for them; here a Roman woman asks an unsettling question about God. If the Creator made His world complete, including the laws and cycles of nature, all running their own sweet ways, what role is left to Him now? Some things are fixed in the
nature of our circumstances; others are in the hands of our free-will. But there are things which are neither fated nor chosen, Rabbi Yossei reminds her –
and that where God resides. Making matches. Each one with his love, his child, his fortune. And so God is in the meetings, impossible as they are, impossible
as the splitting of the Sea, which cannot be crossed until one is brave enough to walk right out into turbulent floods of it – and then, by some miracle,
perhaps it may.

The midrash continues –

There are some who go to their partners, and some whose partners come to them.

Isaac just looked up one evening and saw his bride coming over the horizon towards him; but others, like Jacob, must journey far out of their comfort zones, open many wells, labour many years and slay many dragons before reaching their partners. Until they can find the one who can learn to understand and be understood; who is able to listen and hear, to be listened to and heard. Why should he have to do all that when someone else is blissfully wed on a wave of naiveté at twenty? Nobody knows.

I don’t, at any rate. But I do recommend the films. If only to remind oneself that if at certain moments one feels alone – one is not alone.

For details of further events at the Center for Independent living, contact Tzlila: ciljr@012.net.il.
The film
Love Davka is available in full, with English subtitles, on Youtube.

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Don’t Dwarf Me – Nili Broyer October 1, 2011

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In December 2007, the Haifa regional court, headed by Judge Bilha Gilaur, charged the State to pay a short young man 750,000 NIS in compensation for ‘wrongful birth’. Allow me to risk summing this up in layman’s terms: ‘It’s a pity you were born.’ As a little person myself, I heartily object to this patronistic approach. The crime is not the birth of a little person, but the fact that society views his life as a tragic mistake.

Numerous reports have shown that Israeli society is trigger-happy wherever selective abortions of embryos identified as ‘flawed’ are concerned. The state invests considerable sums in pre-natal tests. And from a legal point of view the detection of a flaw – any flaw – is enough to allow the Committee on Terminations to permit an abortion.

The case in brief: In the 21st week of the pregnancy concerned, the fetus was identified in an ultra-sound test as having short arms and legs in relation to his body. After the Committee on Terminations had given license for the abortion, the hospital decided to refer the case for further testing, because of the advanced stage of the pregnancy. In the end, the hospital refused the abortion application and the pregnancy continued to term. The legal charge was brought by the parents on behalf of the 14 year-old boy, who, in accordance with protocol, was not present in court at any time during the proceedings.

As a little person, and as an activist striving to create legitimacy for difference in Israeli society, this case touches my most sensitive nerves. From my point of view, the court’s decision to compensate a short person for a hospital’s refusal to permit his abortion, is not only absurd, but insulting. I feel a personal need and a social obligation to negate each separate claim:

“Life with  a defect is worse than death”: This is a highly problematic and dangerous attitude, which was qualified in the last ruling given in such a case (1986) as applying only to rare cases in which the defect is exceptionally severe, and it can be determined that it would be better for the claimant had he never been born. It would be difficult to claim, in the case of dwarfism, that this is an extreme case justifying euthanasia, and, indeed, the judge did not take such an attitude towards the young man in question.

“Life with a defect is worse than life without a defect”: Here the comparison is between life with a given condition and life without it. The damage varies according to the severity of the defect, and even minor defects may be enough to qualify the claimant for compensation. The aim of the compensation here is to enable the person to live with his defect, and for this purpose it is necessary to assess how much damage has been inflicted on him. As, in this case, the claimant is an adolescent, it is possible only to speculate how tall he will be when he has finished growing. On the basis of expert opinion, the judge rules that he is predicted to reach a height of around 1.50 meters. Aside from the question of his height, the young man was examined for medical disability. Based on expert consultation and testimony, the court noted that the claimant does not suffer from dysfunction, is not under medical surveillance, and is as able as any other person his age. He participates in trampolining classes, plays football and guitar, and cycles.

 “Distress caused by social reactions to dwarfism”: When we decide not to view this man’s condition as a disability, we move from assessing dwarfism in a medical context, and instead see it in an aesthetic-social context. It was stressed in the protocol that “the claimant wishes to compensate the young man for the pain and suffering to which his short stature expose him. He claims that the boy’s anguish and frustration are acute, ‘and he will be forced to cope daily with the looks and reactions of other people to his different shape.’” As a result of this discriminatory and stigmatic attitude, which does indeed exist, and which many of us must cope with, the prosecution claim mentions the likelihood that, when he grows up, the young man is likely to face difficulties in finding work and in building a relationship.

The judge responded “If a little person qualifies for compensation on the basis of his appearance, then why should we not compensate ugly people also?” The judge recognizes society’s different attitude to people with disabilities, and the social damage involved, but rejects this claim as a basis for compensation. I would add to this: let society not salve its conscience by compensating those people within it that it oppresses and excludes – what is needed is a real change in itself.

“Negligence in decision making”: Since, from the twenty-fourth week onwards a fetus can live outside the womb, such that killing it raises more serious ethical questions, the hospital chose to refer the application for an additional hearing. Professor Caspi, the director of the hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department, decided independently, without calling together the committee, and without meeting with the parents and hearing their view, to rule against the parents’ application for an abortion. The judge saw the decision to continue the pregnancy as a reasonable one, but ruled that “a reasonable decision does not justify a flawed and substandard decision-making process.”

In tort law, it is not sufficient to show that a decision was taken in a negligent way, but also necessary to prove that this caused damage.

In order, then, to compensate the young man for criminal negligence, it is necessary to show that his birth as a child with dwarfism is the damage he has suffered. Identifying dwarfism as the essence of the damage done is a dangerous and harmful claim, casting a negative light on the life of every person whose body is different from the accepted standard. The court, which is charged with protecting justice and ethics in society, is absolutely unjustified in creating and perpetuating prejudices such as this.

The Israeli court, then, ruled that the State compensate the young man to the tune of 750, 000NIS, as global damages for his birth as a little person. It is clear that this compensation is not for medical disability, this claim having been negated, and, as the judge ruled, it is also not for society’s attitudes to people with physical differences. The question remains, then, on what basis the judge ruled for this compensation. Is it possible that height stands alone here, outside any context, medical or social? No other reasoning is attached to the judge’s decision, leaving one to infer that it was based on an attitude that dwarfism is a personal tragedy that must be compensated for.

As this judgment comes by way of precedent, it is clear that the decision is likely to encourage hospitals and doctors to adopt a stronger policy in favour of permitting abortions on the basis of defects detected in the fetus. Professionals’ fear that they may find themselves in court for refusal to allow an abortion, even in cases of “minor defects,” may amplify an attitude that already dominates in Israel, and increase the tendency towards selective abortion. Far beyond the mistaken decision, in my eyes, on the part of parents, then, is the injustice caused by the court’s decision. The fact that this ruling enables archaic and anti-social thinking to be perpetuated into the twenty-first century in the State of Israel is truly shameful.

Nili Broyer directs the Center for Disability Studies Research at Alin Beit Noam. The original article was published in Hebrew on Y-net, 27/06/2008. Translation: Jessica Sacks.

On the Amazing Power of the Brain – Jessica Sacks January 6, 2011

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in If you call this 'Normal'..., Society.
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I just saw this article by Oliver Sacks (no relation – but almost. My family took their name from his father’s; he was their family doctor, who used to diagnose malingering teenagers with GMG – Gornicht Mit Gornicht).

It puts a fascinating slant on the relationship between a person and the disability she may “acquire” during her life.

“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.

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

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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.

The Run of the Immigrant Danino – Natan Alterman July 25, 2010

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David Danino’s file states that he is not capable of physical labour. The doctor has been told that he has a slight limp. The doctor asks Danino to run a few steps forward and back. Danino understands that this is a matter of life and death. He jumps forward more energetically than is quite necessarily and strains to prove that he walks and runs well. He then comes back and stands before the doctor, a mute expression in his eyes. The doctor judges that Danino’s defect does not disqualify him. In the hall, decorated with pictures of the king and with Moroccan flags, the families that have been disqualified are crying with audible sobs. The families that have been accepted for aliya disperse quietly, with confidence. Eager for the great future that lies before them.  – S. Tevet, Ha’Aretz.

Yes, this item too will not be lost.
This too is not forgotten.
A page of silence and of shame.
The page of the disgrace
of a father who jumped, jumped
and ran, as his children looked on, stunned.

The page of the disgrace
of a father whom the great Return to Zion
commanded to jump, and he,
in his little circle,
ran, ran, and in his heart
a prayer to God Almighty,
to help him not to feel
the aching in his leg…

And God Almighty heard him!
And so God said to him:
Run, run, servant Danino…
Run, thou shalt not stumble.
I am with thee!
If this be a law unto Israel
then we shall overcome it,
thou and I!

Run, run, servant Danino…
I am a help unto thee…
Run, run and fear thee not.
And I shall hide thy blemish.
And yet I shall not hide
the insult of My people’s resurrection,
the radiance of which
now glimmers in thy tear.

*

The poet Natan Alterman ran his “Seventh Column” in the popular journal Davar during the 50’s and 60’s in Israel. The column was a poetic commentary on items in the news, including some which may otherwise have passed with little public comment. Here, writing in 1955, Alterman takes note of the discriminatory immigration policy used in ‘selecting’ which Moroccan Jews could make use of the Law of Return. Translation: Jessica Sacks.

Access to the Place: Some Impressions – Jessica Sacks June 13, 2010

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Rabbi Shaul Anvari’s new book of halakhic responsa is entitled Access to the Place – the ‘place’, meaning the home, the workspace, the synagogue. And the ‘Place’, meaning God, ‘the Place of the world’. The book launched last Thursday night in Jerusalem; I am excited to write about it even now. An and-then-this-happened account of the evening would be tedious; the evening was long and full – but I would like to share just a few impressions with you, a few of the moments that have stayed with me.

*

Rav Aviya HaCohen discussing the midrash that describes the Torah as the map by which God created the world. A map which must be updated as the landscape develops, and to which details must be added as new territory, the areas in the periphery which the people of the centre ignore – is explored. Shaul as an intrepid explorer of one such place. Making it accessible.

*

Shoshana Goldberg Mayer from Milbat, the Israel Center for Technology and Accessibility, telling us of the solutions the volunteer engineers and occupational therapists of the organization create for the problems people with disabilities bring them. Telling us of the middle-aged religious woman who came to them, asking them to find her a way to light Shabbat candles for herself, despite her visual impairment and unsteady hand. Of how, when she was enabled to light her own candles for the first time, the woman had said, “Now, at last, I can be with God alone”.

*

Shaul’s speech, which he had typed out beforehand, so that each of us held a copy in our hands. Slowly, slowly, he read what he had written; and silence in the room as each of us strained to understand from his voice, the words that we were reading on the sheet in front of us. My friend Sagi, who is blind, sitting silently in the front row.

*

Michael Ben Admon, Shaul’s neighbour from the kibbutz, asking how this book affects his own religious life, as an able-bodied Jew. Citing the Religious Kibbutz Movement thinkers Moshe Unna and Tzuriel Admonit, who describe Torah study as a social value, and the incompleteness of my own religious fulfillment when another Jew is excluded from his. “All of Israel are involved with one another.” Michael describing his own children walking by Shaul in the kibbutz with their friends and pointing at him, saying, “That man is a scholar: he writes halakha.”

*

An old friend of Shaul’s from his yeshiva days, a singer, providing a musical interlude. “This is the tune that Shaul would always demand when I led the prayers in the yeshiva:” How can I repay the LORD for all that He has done for me? […] I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid – You have opened my chains.

*

After the speeches ended I went up to the speakers to ask if they had anything written that I could put up on the site (watch this space). I caught up with Rav Aviya beside the entrance – “Can I ask you a question?” I said. He nodded and led me aside, to a quiet place where he could hear me. Suddenly I realized that he did not know whether my question was a request for an article or a loan, for advice on an unplanned pregnancy or a solution to the problem of Evil, and that he was ready to listen to whatever I asked and to respond without judgment, with all that he could bring me from his learning and being.

Walking home I understood what it was that excited me so much about this event. Not only the book, though the book is new and important. I realized that Orthodoxy has two faces, one open, one closed. The face which is closed opens only to the ‘password’, to what is familiar to it. And so it is closed not only to those who are a little different from the norm, but in some ways, to everyone – to everyone who has something in her that is not familiar and already known. And the face which is open is open to whatever and whoever may come, straining to hear something different and unknown, just as we all strained to hear Shaul speak, slowly, reading from the sheet he had prepared. Straining to hear each person’s voice. And this face is capable of hearing something new; genuinely new. That is the face that greeted me on Thursday night.

Shaul Anvari’s book, Access to the Place, is published in Hebrew by Mishlavim, Yeshivat Ein-Tzurim. For more information, contact us at jduinfo@googlemail.com. Shaul is already working on his next book, and welcomes any halakhic questions on issues relating to disability.

Thoughts on Working with Children – Dana Berezowsky May 27, 2010

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Dan said in school yesterday that Ami’s legs disgust him. Why? “Because they are crooked.” Ella’s response: “So you’re perfect, are you?” My response: “Deal with it.”

Now, writing about it at home, another question arises: what does it bring up for Dan, or any other child, to see a person with a physical difference? Perhaps fear? The fear that it could happen to me too? Disability is frightening at the most personal level – what if it happens to me? What if I have a child like this? Noam, who works with the survivors of wars and road accidents, sees it all the time – this coming to terms with what is lost.

I remember a man I once saw with three other children on the bus. Through the window we could see that he walked a little funny. It’s true. But if we tell him – he will be hurt. If we laugh at him from a distance – it will be insensitive. He really does have a funny walk. I try to think what I would tell my own children.

I have a problem with preaching morals. “We don’t say things like that,” “It’s not nice” – this kind of speech represses the problem but does not make it disappear. Then I thought to say – “I wonder whether he’s a nice person.”

Perhaps this is what takes us beyond our superficial judgments: of what is beautiful, ugly, disabled. The question “Who is this person?” To see him as a person. Even if I have no intention of actually getting to know him, my perspective on him might change.

And to Dan? “So what if Ami has crooked legs?” There is no point trying to blur the facts. But we can point out different aspects of them. And certainly we can point out to Dan that saying it in Ami’s hearing is very insulting…

Dan told me the answer: “It disgusts me”. That is a strong statement. Does it frighten him? Can disgust hide some other feeling? All the same, is it not worth trying to understand the source of his disgust? Does Dan’s statement really come from some inner feeling, or is he looking for a way to provoke a response? Also a question.

As an educator I have two options: to cancel out Dan’s statement in a few words; “Deal with it”; “So you’re perfect, are you?” Or else to enter into the depths of the issue. This in itself removes the sting from the provocation: he wanted to annoy, and got a lecture.

The correct response must depend on the time and place, and we are bound to get it wrong many times. In the end, intuition and experience are the best tools we have.

Dana Berezowsky is an occupational therapist working at the Ilonot School, Jerusalem, and in a ‘training apartment‘ for teenagers with Cerebral Palsy. Translation: Jessica Sacks.

Braille Menus in the Cafes of Jerusalem – Sagi Yudovitz May 5, 2010

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“We have a menu in Braille!” the waitress greets me joyfully, and rushes to lay it down in front of me. This is fast becoming a common event in the cafes and restaurants of Jerusalem, thanks to the activities of Bema’aglei Tzedek.

The organization publishes menus in Braille as part of the ‘Social Seal’ project. “Lately,” the organisation’s Ohad Zakbach explains, “We have begun to distribute large-print as well as Braille menus, to make things easier for partially-sighted people who are not completely blind.”  Zakbach, speaking on the radio programme ‘Lo Ro’im MiMeter’, explained why the organization has chosen to focus on providing menus for visually impaired people.  In his view, the chance to receive a menu in a form that suits his or her needs, enables a blind or partially-sighted person to experience a greater degree of independence in places of leisure.  Zackbach added that the Braille menus encourage the more frequent and more natural presence of visually impaired people in public leisure spaces, making the wider population more accustomed to the routine presence of people with disabilities in these sites.

The experiment demonstrates that the presence of people with disabilities in general, and in this case, visually impaired people, in places of leisure and in all areas of life, has the effect of breaking stigmas, of undermining walls of repulsion and of educating the public at large to see a person with disabilities as a full personality, and not simply as a function of his disability.

The existence of the Braille menu in a café or restaurant creates an expectation among its workers that people with visual impairments will be among their customers.  The ‘magic writing’ engages their curiosity, and when they finally meet a blind customer, they are eager to ask him about the script, and a conversation is opened up.  This conversation between waiter and customer changes the latter from an anonymous figure to a known, named acquaintance, with a certain sense of belonging to the place.

Humanity could presumably continue to survive without the presence of Braille menus in restaurants.  These menus, however, help blind customers to feel an integral part of the leisure environment.  Large-print menus, by contrast, are utterly essential to people with partial sight; the population at large does not grant these the attention with which fully blind people are lavished, too often leaving partially sighted people in a position of embarrassment.  The enormous gap between the ways in which the blind and partially sighted members of society are treated is a subject for another article; it may be said, however, that when people see a blind person they are generally more than enthusiastic to go out of their way to be of help.

‘Can’t See for Miles’, a magazine programme on issues relating to the blind and partially-sighted community, broadcast on Mount Scopus Radio and online. Sagi Yudovitz is a social activist who keeps a blog on the Israel Disability Experts’ Community site, abiliko.

The Equality for People with Disabilities Law 1998: at the Crossroads between Charity and Right – Dr. Dina Feldman April 2, 2010

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“You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Rabbi Akiva said: This is a central principle of the Torah.

Ben Azai said: “This is the Book of the History of Man… the Lord created him in the image of God.” This is a greater principle still.

Until that legal happening of the winter of 1998, the enactment of the Law of Equality for People with Disabilities, most of the 10% of Israel’s citizens who live with disability, lived as “Other”, “hidden”, “demonic” citizens. They were entitled to certain special benefits – “social rights” – but nonetheless were effectively hidden away within an inaccessible society.

“Other”, “hidden”, “demonic”, mean being denied the right to a full life in the community, equal opportunities at work, integration, and access to those other human rights that should belong to all of us in all areas of our lives. Without these rights, people are denied the opportunity to take social responsibility, an essential ingredient for building up a sense of belonging and commitment to the community. Only with these rights can a person really feel herself to be a citizen of her county, and be seen as such by others.

The hiddenness of people with disabilities is evident even in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (1948). In this Declaration, the new State acknowledged the danger that certain groups may be disadvantaged or discriminated against within it. In response to this, it voiced the need to take action to establish the right to equality, to a life of dignity, to liberty and honest labour, for all of Israel’s citizens. This was stated in relation to categories of religion, race and gender – completely ignoring the large minority of people with disabilities, many of whom were, for many years, consigned to residential institutions.

A similar effect arose in the Law of Equal Opportunities at Work (1988) – Paragraph 2a. The law prohibits discrimination between workers and between applicants on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, personal or family status, age, race, religion, nationality, origin, political orientation, army credentials or the likelihood of being called up for reserve duty – but not on the basis of disability. This despite the immeasurably high unemployment rate among people with disabilities, in comparison to any other group one might care to mention.

“The Ideal Body”; “the Desired Image”

We may surmise that the exclusion of the disabled population at that time, stemmed largely from the developing Israeli collective’s need to deny the existence of a large sector of society seemingly suffering from “defects”. From the desire that prevailed at that time, to grasp on to a yearned-for, wholesome image of the “new Jew”, now being resurrected in the Land of Israel. This social tendency, indeed, is still with us today, and seems to be a direct product of the preference for “the desired body”, which Israeli society aspires to establish as the antithesis of the life of Exile. Israelis are highly concerned with fertility – but for the birth of healthy children only. The secular Israeli public locates itself on a moral slippery slope, laid out by advances in gene technology and overstepping the right they acquire for them, to define what “quality of life” might be. Israel’s crossing of the point of no return is discernable in the fact that a failure to carry out tests to for genetic defects may today be considered medical negligence, and the grounds for a judicial claim of “wrongful birth”.

Over a long period, then, Israel’s society and government have chosen to grant people with disabilities chessed – kindness – investing huge sums of money in the effort, while failing to lift a finger to remove the obstacles that prevent people with disabilities fulfilling their rights as equal citizens, and becoming fully integrated into society. The same is true in relation to equal opportunities at work: in this case the tendency to ignore the issue seems to reflect society’s lack of faith in the capacity of differently abled people to make an active contribution to the social life of the State, or to the employment market. This particularly touches upon those people who receive National Insurance benefits, and who were disabled at birth or in non-heroic circumstances. These people receive maintenance payments on the grounds of handicap, and of their inability to earn a living themselves. Many people believe that this leads, in the long term, to a decrease in motivation to enter the employment market, which would disqualify them from the benefit system.

Those, on the other hand, who have been rendered disabled by the Holocaust or during their military service, and now also those injured in terror attacks, who carry a more heroic aura now than in the past, enjoy a privileged status among the differently abled. This finds expression in special social rights and in a guarantee of equal opportunities in higher education, employment and all other areas of life. This privileged approach is demonstrated in the higher levels of integration these groups show in relation to other recipients of the disability allowance. State controller report 252 (2002) points out that this is due mostly to the addressing of individual needs, and not to the application of principles of social justice. The Social Justice ideology is characterized by a lack of discrimination on the basis of disability, and by the advancement of equality and integration as independent values. This vision would entail, among other things, a reasonable level of physical accessibility and social awareness, as played out in the attitudes of people, in buildings and in infrastructure, in public spaces and services; accessibility and awareness that, in the State of Israel, are almost non-existent.

The same trend is evident in the 2003 study carried out by the Commission for Equality, on the subject of accessibility in educational, health-care, bank and shopping-centre buildings, and likewise in their 2005 study of public attitudes to people with disabilities. The Israeli public is prepared to perform numerous acts of charity, and is to be admired for this, but so far it has showed no inclination towards justice.

“Deaf”, “Idiot” and “Minor”

This social attitude has a strong basis in monotheism. In the halakha, as in other religious systems, a person “without intellect” occupies a considerably problematic position with regard to his obligation in the commandments and to his right to participation in communal life. Questions are raised as to whether these people are obligated by the commandments, public and private, what their status may be in marriage and divorce, whether they are obliged to “be fruitful and multiply”, whether a contract signed with them is valid, whether they may be regarded as property owners and whether one requires their permission to use their belongings.

Jewish legal writings reveal that people with disabilities are accorded partial social obligations, decided mainly by the level of understanding ascribed to the individual by the legal authority in question. People with physical or sensual impairments who have full use of their mental faculties are subjected to the same approach. Legal authorities and community leaders are still captive to the “ideal body” image of the “Chosen People”, and unaware of the vast effect that could be achieved by an education adapted to technological advances, education to the values of accessibility, and the removal of stigmas, which could completely change the face of the realities of life as a differently abled person, and of her ability to integrate into and contribute to society in every area. Today it seems essential to re-evaluate, with all the social courage needed, the possibility of returning religious and social responsibilities to people with disabilities, and of affording them the physical and social access that would allow them to take full part in the community and to contribute to it, independently and with full dignity.

“Accessible”, “Independent” and “Dignified”

The 1998 Law of Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities utterly rejects the common claim that the difficulties people with disabilities have to integrate into society proceed from weaknesses of those people. Instead it ascribes the blame to the ways in which society has blocked disabled peoples’ access to integration and success. The law looks Israeli society squarely in the eye and demands that it recognize people with disabilities as a group with the capacity and the right to dignified lives, to dignity and to honest employment. All this grounded in independence and human rights; no longer upon favours, kindnesses and charity. Let us recall that there is nothing new in this idea; that this is the command inscribed in Ben Azai’s favoured verse – “This is the Book of the History of Man…”

The Law of Equal Rights sees in people with any disability, full citizens like every other. These people, like all others, may exercise their rights, and receive services designed with maximum consideration for their lives, with full attention paid to their human dignity and freedom, and in protection of their privacy. This within the framework of the services offered to all citizens, which should be adapted appropriately like all other public services – of a high enough quality, within a reasonable time-frame and at a reasonable distance from each person’s home, giving him full rights to make his own decisions with regard to his life, in accordance with his own will and preferences. It is no longer acceptable, then, to discriminate against a person on grounds of disability, either in selection for employment, or in his conditions of employment, promotion or redundancy, as long as he is qualified for the job. The law also stipulates that all public buildings and institutes, including those privately owned, must be made accessible to people with all forms of disability within 6-12 years. This is an enormous challenge to all of us, requiring awareness, organization and a deep commitment to bring back to the fold this minority which is part of us, “flesh of our flesh”. It is the law. It is possible. It must happen.