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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.


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.