Arriving in LA to serve as scholar-in-residence this past weekend, I picked up the handsome brochure put out by Chabad.org on the weekly Torah reading. Contained therein was a short piece by Rabbi Aron Moss addressing the question of why some children are born with mental disability. Moss’s answer, however well-intentioned, disturbed me deeply, and I felt there had to be a response, lest unsuspecting readers conclude that it is somehow the Jewish position on the subject.
His argument, in a nutshell, is that souls come into this world and are confronted with moral choices. If they choose wrong it will tarnish them. It’s a necessary risk that G-d is willing to take. But some souls are so lofty that G-d doesn’t want to take any chances with them. So he puts them in a body, or empowers them with a mind, that will make it impossible for them to sin, thereby guaranteeing their innocence. The rest of us ought to just be awed by how special these souls are and inspired by the dedication of the people who love them, who teach us what true love is all about.
Now, one can only assume that Moss has spoken to G-d directly and heard this explanation. No doubt, given his direct line to G-d, Moss should be able to answer other questions for us as well, such as where Jimmy Hoffa is buried and who will win the Presidential election.
More seriously, Moss’s shallow and unfortunate argument that mental disability is some sort of blessing goes against the grain of traditional Jewish thought. Simply stated, we are in the business of protesting to G-d against all human suffering. We never justify it. The word “Israel” translates as “he who wrestles with G-d.” As Jews, when we witness human suffering we don’t accept it, we do not seek to understand it, and we do not explain it away as something lofty and blessed. Indeed, one of the principal differences between Christianity and Judaism is that the former insists that suffering can be redemptive — as when Jesus suffers on the cross to pardon human sin – while the latter insists that suffering is a tragedy without redemptive merit that must be remedied and removed.
When Abraham is informed by God that he will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their sin, refusing to accept any virtue in the suffering of even the sinful, Abraham protests to G-d: “Will the Judge of the entire earth not Himself practice justice.” When G-d sends Moses to free the Jews from Egypt, but Pharaoh refuses and instead increases their workload, Moses offers this unbelievable protest:
Why have You behaved wickedly with this people? …for since You have sent me You have failed to redeem Your people.
And them, most famously, when G-d threatens to annihilate the Jews after the sin of the golden calf, Moses says to G-d that if He carries out his threat, “Remove me, I beg you, from the Torah that you have written.”
Love the child – not the syndrome
We Jews protest and remonstrate against suffering. We don’t excuse it. We don’t justify it. We don’t find beauty in it. We don’t find spiritual purpose it in. We fight it and, to the best of our ability, cure it.
I have no idea why G-d would allow any child to come into this world with severe mental or physical disability. What I do know, however, is that He shouldn’t. Children deserve to be born with all their faculties and with all their abilities. All children deserve to be healthy. Those who come into the world with mental handicaps are, of course, beautiful children, the equal of every healthy child, deserving of infinite love, equality, and rights. Indeed, given their special needs they require more of our love, more of our attention. What they do not deserve, however, and what they certainly have never earned, is our contemptuous effort to justify their suffering and their challenges by ascribing them to some unknown and lofty divine purpose.
To be sure, children with special needs most often have bright, luminous souls. They are indeed the very epitome of innocence. But this is despite their challenges, not because of them. Even as we love and cherish every Down-syndrome child we dare never dignify Down syndrome itself, and I honor all doctors who work tirelessly so that this disease can be purged, allowing children come into the world healthy.
About 11 years ago a friend asked me if he could bring his 30-something-year-old Down-syndrome brother to meet Michael Jackson. The young man loved Michael’s music and did his own version of the moonwalk. I asked Michael, who graciously agreed, and the young man, who was supposed to spend only about ten minutes with Michael, was there for much longer. Michael loved meeting him, and the attention the superstar gave the young man greatly endeared Michael to me. When he left, I asked Michael why he had given him so much time. “I’m jealous of him, Shmuley.” Michael told me. “That man will always be a child, always be innocent. I’m envious.”
Children with special needs have very special qualities. We will give them all the love and attention they require. But let us not make light of the challenges both they and their families endure. Divorce rates for parents to autistic children have been quoted as being as high as 80-90 percent, and while some debunk these numbers there can be no question that having an autistic child puts an extra strain on a relationship. Of course the effort is worth it, as every child is equal and of infinite value. It does mean, however, that offering these parents fraudulent comfort by inventing silly theological justifications for their children’s challenges is not something that any religion should be in the business of.
So what should a rabbi or priest say to a parent who asks them why their child was born with severe disability? They should acknowledge their limitations and tell them the truth:
I don’t know. I honestly have no idea. G-d owes us every child being born health. Why He does things is not our business. What we do know is that your child needs no spiritual reason to be here. He is beautiful, he is innocent, and he is exceptional. And you are not alone. You have a community. We are here with you. Your child is our child. Your baby is our baby. You will never have to raise them alone and you will never be abandoned. G-d has a lot of explaining to do, but we have a lot of work to do. So rather that wasting time endeavoring to understand why it happened, let’s give your child the best programs and care so he can have the most normal life possible.
Fill the empty spaces
A quick story is in order. Friends of mine had a baby that was born with severe Down syndrome. The doctors told them the baby would need extensive surgery just to survive. Sobbing uncontrollably, the wife told her husband that she was not sure she was up to the task of raising the boy. It would take too much out of her, and ruin their finances and possibly their marriage. The husband said, “We’ll find the strength. This is our child.”
A month of intensive care and surgery commenced and the baby survived. Today he is about 15 years old. He needs tons of extra love and care, which his devoted parents and siblings provide. The family is immensely protective of him and they all take turns playing with him and even, at times, feeding him. They tell me he has taught them to love that much more deeply and they would not give him up for the world. Even as I write this, I’m become emotional because the circumstances are very moving. I have no idea why the child came into the world suffering. But I do know that his life is infinitely more precious than any explanation, and that any attempt to explain this life would never do justice to the grandeur of the boy’s existence.
Why does God allow the innocent to suffer? I have no idea. He shouldn’t. But our job is to fill in the empty spaces G-d seemingly vacates in His universe and to act in G-d’s stead, being as human and loving as we can.