Enriching Modern Disability Awareness With An Ancient Jewish Value


It’s not surprising that Jewish, Christian and Muslim disability awareness initiatives resemble each other.  All of us who are disabled face architectural, communications, transportation and attitudinal barriers.

The similarity challenged me to seek Jewish “old normals” to enhance our “new normal.”

Stronger Than Inclusion, Deeper than Awareness: The Concept of Kvod Habriyot (respect for all human beings)

Kvod Habriyot arises from our belief that all human beings are created in “Btzelem elohim”—God’s image. Just as one wouldn’t desecrate the American flag, one dare not humiliate a person whose soul’s hidden depths contain the stamp of the Divine.

Practicing Kvod Habriyot means customizing your words, tone of voice, facial expression and sincerity to convey respect to every unique human being.

One dark evening, I met a prominent rabbi across the street from a Manhattan synagogue.

“I’ll help you cross this dangerous intersection,” he said.

“You’ll be late for the evening service!” I said.

He responded, “I’m taking you through this dangerous intersection.”

He wasn’t ignoring my wishes. The deep warmth of his voice reminded me how much he loved and cared for me and all human beings.

Sometimes Kvod Habriyot affects halachah (Jewish law). Because of kvod habriyot, we do not inform a person that he is wearing a wool and linen garment (a forbidden mixture) until he reaches a place where he can discretely remove it. Under certain circumstances, rabbinic Sabbath restrictions can be relaxed so that a person can maintain physical cleanliness.

Kvod Habriyot and People with Disabilities

Those of us with disabilities are also created in God’s image, but some of us are not always accorded kvod habriyot. We find ourselves labeled as “differently able” or “physically challenged” without recognition that we can and should choose our own identity. The myth that all disabled people are sad and limited compels some organizations to conduct “thrill-a-minute” programs. Truly treating us with respect means helping us develop the ability to be givers, tolerate disappointment and failure and challenging us to recognize and build upon our strengths and talents.

How can we bring Kvod Habriyot into our daily lives?

  1. People of all abilities should treat others with honor and contribute to their communities.
  2. Kvod Habriyot encourages us to “treat ourselves” with dignity. Rather than blaming others, we should instead focus on what we ourselves can do to improve our situation.
  3. People should speak to us directly rather than speaking to us to a third person.
  4. We should have ongoing meaningful input to service providers, their funding sources and evaluation of their activities on our behalf.
  5. Similarly, disability organizations and advocates should have ongoing meaningful dialogues with their synagogues, Jewish schools and virtual and “bricks and mortar” businesses to plan and implement accessibility.
  6. Treating us with dignity extends beyond “good feelings.” We should have the same opportunities as others to worship, study, earn a living, seek a life partner and train for and assume leadership positions.
  7. It is unacceptable for any individual or agency to (without our consent) represent us (to the public, claiming they know what’s best for us.
  8. We must interact directly with people and organizations, rather than through parents, caregivers or others. We value and welcome their assistance, but we should appropriately strive to take charge of our destinies.
  9. Those who conduct disability “sensitivity sessions” must convey to participants that they experience only what it’s like to be disabled on Day #1. Living with a disability is much easier by the time you reach Day 613.

In less than a month, our Jewish Disability Awareness will make way for other projects.  Kvod Habriyot must continue to guide us as we establish disability priorities and policies–from the national level to the stranger with a disability whom we meet on the street.

May our practice of kvod habriyot brighten the future of good-hearted people of all faiths.

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.