It once happened that a townsman was on the road leading into his home town. An important and highly regarded Rabbi met him on the road. The townsman greeted the Rabbi cordially and respectfully. The Rabbi, by way of contrast, focussed on the man who he considered to be extremely ugly and declared: “You are empty! How ugly that man is! Are all the people of your town ugly like you?”
Now this was insult upon insult, not the sort of words one would expect of a man so close to God. The presumption that physical appearance correlates with lack of intelligence; the presumption that physical appearance makes a person less than others; the presumption that physical appearance in one person entitles another to treat them with disrespect – are misplaced. Further, these are the very presumptions that are based on ignorance and lack of care to know the “other”. One would hope that the learning of Jewish law would lead a Rabbi to treat everyone he or she meets with dignity.
And this was no ordinary Rabbi. This was Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon – a rabbi described elsewhere as a giant of the spirit. As a young man he was known to be impulsive, mischievous and gluttonous. He was also known for his physical strength. In his transition to adulthood it is said that these behaviors and attributes were replaced with ones more appropriate for a great Rabbi. Yet he was still able to be so incredibly disrespectful.
On this occasion, the so called ‘ugly man’ was sufficiently empowered to object to this treatment and the question about whether everyone in the town was as ugly as he. Our unnamed townsman knew enough of Judaism to respond: “why don’t you go and tell the Craftsman who made me ‘How ugly is this thing You have made!’?” As we are, all of us made in God’s image, the insult was not only directed at the individual concerned. This sort of behaviour is also an affront to God.
Once this was pointed out to Rabbi Elazar, he immediately asked for forgiveness. A case of too little too late from the ‘ugly’ man’s perspective. We know that gossip and speaking ill of someone is treated as a serious issue within Judaism. To undo the damage caused by ‘Lashon Hara” is seen as akin to collecting every feather from a feather pillow that has been scattered by the wind. The insult here goes very deep. We know that being treated with such disrespect is the everyday experience of people with disabilities. And each comment wears the recipient down, like the drip of water on a rock.
The ‘ugly man’ is not willing to accept Rabbi Elazar’s request for forgiveness. This may seem odd, because we know that when there is bad blood between ‘man’ and ‘man’ the only person who can forgive is the person wronged. And this is a very hard thing to do. To admit to another person that you are in the wrong or at fault, to apologise and then to ask for forgiveness is extremely humbling. Rabbi Elazar seemed genuinely sorry for his ill-considered words. He seemed to realise, once it was pointed out to him, that his action was reprehensible. This is a big come down for an exalted scholar and teacher.
However, the ‘ugly’ man’s perspective was that this was not just an insult and not just inconsideration. The attack on him was far more than poorly chosen words. It was the tip of the iceberg, which masked the structural and institutional discrimination countenanced by such an attitude. He could forgive Rabbi Elazar for his words. But forgiving a person who not only holds a deeply entrenched attitude to difference but also is in a position of power and influence, is quite different from forgiving an equal whose ignorance and inadvertence may be innocent.
Couching the treatment he received as representative of an entrenched bias, the ‘ugly man’ wants and possibly even needs something far more than an apology. The ‘ugly man’ sees the fundamental problem is the Rabbi’s failure to see that all humanity is made in the image of God. The obligations to recognise that, however humans appear, we are a physical manifestation of the Divine, could be seen as the first Biblical Mitzvah or the first command God gives to humanity.
So the ‘ugly man’ tells Rabbi Elazar that he will only absolve him once the Rabbi has told “the Craftsman who made me ‘How ugly is this thing You have made!’” While behaviour during a one-off encounter may be forgivable, this discussion was not. The ‘ugly man’ considered that the deeply entrenched attitude of Rabbi Elazar was responsible for the outburst. He wants the Rabbi to change his ways and his beliefs about ugly people (a code word for people with disabilities). The Rabbi needs to understand how unacceptable it is to hold an inherently discriminatory attitude to the ‘other’. Rabbi Elazar’s behaviour is systemic, not personal. The ‘ugly man’ needs the Rabbi to own the problem, such that he will not replicate his behaviour towards other individuals he meets on his travels.
This story resonates with the experience of outsiders today. People with disabilities are not always treated as fully human. We are often treated with unconscionable abuse, while the great hope is to be treated with dignity and respect. And while Rabbis are uneducated with respect to disability and inclusion, they cannot act as leaders or role models. This equally applies to others with power – teachers, counsellors, Jewish agencies and NGOs. Today we are a long way from equality for people with disabilities. The fight for rights should not have to come from people with disabilities, yet very few other individuals and institutions are prepared to use their power to bring about the change in attitudes towards ‘outsiders’. This is a problem for the whole community and will only be overcome when communal values shift.
 This story is recounted in the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Ta’anit 20a-20b
Melinda Jones feminist human rights lawyer, disability advocate and Jewish educator. She has published 11 books & over 50 peer-reviewed articles covering topics such as the rights of people with disabilities; racism, freedom of speech & racial hatred; the rights of the child; inclusive education; and the health rights of those identifying as LGBTI.