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Op-Ed: A Jewish approach to the ‘differently abled’

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (JTA) — Increasing numbers of Jewish institutions are starting to pay attention to the disabled in our midst. The needs of this part of our community were in the communal spotlight this February, thanks to it being Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

As with so many categories of Jewish teaching, the traditional Jewish approach to disability is a mixed bag. Several categories of the disabled, like the cheraysh (deaf-mute) and the shoteh (mentally deficient and/or insane) are neither obligated by the body of mitzvot (Jewish commandments) nor qualified to serve as witnesses in legal proceedings, essentially being placed in the same category as minors. The blind are obligated by the mitzvot but are not allowed to offer testimony in a trial.

In other places in our tradition, a disability or a disease is seen as a punishment from God for bad behavior. Leprosy is the punishment for tale-bearing. Similarly, in the Talmud (Taanit 21a) a story is told of Nahum Ish Gam Zu, who had no hands, no feet and was blind in both eyes. These disabilities were not birth defects but were rather divine punishment inflicted on Nahum at his own request because he felt guilty for not being quick enough to feed a beggar who ended up dying.

A third way that the Jewish tradition discusses disability is essentially used as a theological trump card. It is a way of saying that God’s agency in the world is far more significant than human agency. Thus despite the fact the Moses is said to be “slow of speech,” possibly a person with a speech impediment, he nonetheless offers the most important words in the biblical story. The rabbinic commentators use this to make the point that Moses is simply an agent for God, serving as God’s spokesperson in the earthly realm.

None of the above three Judaic treatments of disability are particularly sensitive by 21st-century standards. I also fear what a disabled person, one who takes Judaism very seriously, concludes from such treatment in our sacred texts.

From a theological perspective, I am far more comfortable with the theology implicit in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” than I am with theological assumptions of the biblical and rabbinic texts. For Kushner, God does not cause disability, orchestrate natural disasters or punish human transgression with disease. Rather, God is the source of comfort to whom we turn when trying to cope with such setbacks. God is a source of healing, not of affliction.

Many parts of classical Judaism are products of the thinking of earlier generations that may not fully reflect the most enlightened understanding of our time. Yet there is one insight on the issue of disability where Judaism was not only centuries ahead of its time but where the insight is still well beyond the way most of us behave in the realm of disabilities.

The Jewish tradition prescribes a blessing upon meeting different kinds of people: a king, a wise person, a Torah scholar. The prayer prescribed upon meeting a person who is disabled or who suffers from a deformity is: “Praised are You, Creator of the Universe, who makes people different, one from the other.” Amazing!

The insight inherent in this bracha is that no two people are alike, that each of us is “differently abled.” One person can play piano; another might be skilled at computers; another can fix a toilet. A young man who was a member of my first congregation had Down’s Syndrome. Every week when he greeted me at synagogue, he offered me the most wonderful smile and the biggest hug that any person has ever given me. I came to look forward to Ben’s expression of unqualified love that was not the least bit calculated or contrived. It was his gift.

I suspect that our discomfort with people with disabilities may have something to do with our fear of being in that situation ourselves one day. One might imagine that it would make us more compassionate. But denial may be an even more powerful emotion that we trigger when confronted with a circumstance that we are not prepared to confront.

If we take to heart the Jewish teaching about every person made in the image of God and recall that one person is no better or worse than the other, simply “differently abled,” we might be better able to open up our hearts and our institutions to a wider swath of humanity.

We’d all be better for it.

(Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Clal and director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program for young adults on human rights and Judaism. He is the author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights, 2013))

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