During the past few weeks, I have had some time to reflect on the lives of both of my parents, as their yahrtzeits (anniversary of day of death) were both during Tammuz. I decided to sponsor Seudah Shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) in my shul last Shabbat in honor of both of my parents. I’ll summarize some of the words that I said, then.
Both of my parents were deaf, as is my oldest son. The Torah has a special commandment that is dedicated to only two disabilities — the deaf and the blind. It says:
Do not insult the deaf, and do not place a stumbling block before the blind.
Considering that the Torah mentions not to insult the deaf, I find it interesting that in the Talmud and much of Halachic literature, the deaf are grouped together with the minor and the imbecile. The Talmud defines a cheresh as a deaf-mute. They assume that deaf people could not communicate and were, therefore, out of touch with the world and “stupid.”
Centuries later, in the US, for many years, that attitude remained. For a while, after my mother came to the US with her parents escaping the horrors of the Holocaust, she was also considered psychologically deranged. .
In fact, my parents were far from stupid. My mother used her talents to create amazing artistic paintings. A few were displayed in various art galleries. I have a few of her paintings hanging in my home. But one of the more amazing and positively puzzling talents that my mother achieved was to speak and write in English fluently within about six months after arriving in the US.
My father joined his brothers in the Hungarian Resistance. A few of my uncles told me how he had keen insight and knew how to travel through the paths of the Carpathian forest at night to help smuggle Jews out of danger. At some point during the war — I’m uncertain when — he was sent on a cattle car to be gassed in Auschwitz. He managed to pry open the car and jump off the moving train. I’ve heard excerpts of what happened immediately afterwards. But, the amazing “smart” aspect was that he did it and lived to tell the story.
A sidebar political note that I feel that I must interject, here. I am appalled by how many Jews — one or two of them who were Holocaust survivors themselves — compare President Trump to Hitler. I can tolerate this, to an extent, from Gentiles as they are either ignorant, or this is just part of their general expression of Anti-Semitic rhetoric. Regardless of who says this, this claim cheapens and dismisses the seriousness of who Hitler was and what he actually did. If either of my parents, especially my father, who was not easily fooled by much, heard this, he would, perhaps, hit the speaker in the face and give him an angry warning. Saying this claim to my father would be one way to insult the deaf!
Several years ago, I received a copy of a halacha (practical Jewish law) pamphlet dedicated to outlining Jewish laws as it applies to the Jewish deaf, today. The foundation of the pamphlet’s discussion is the discussion of what the Talmud meant by the term cheresh. They conclude that today, most deaf communicate either by signing, lip-reading, speaking or a combination of the above. There are various degrees of deafness and many hear using hearing aids. Cochlear implants have become a fairly recent technology that has helped some completely deaf people gain decent levels of hearing. My son has bilateral implants. I’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of these in a future blog. Most deaf people today would not be classified as the cheresh defined in the Talmud. Because they are intelligent, communicative, and aware of most of what occurs around them, they are considered as anyone else in terms of their obligation to perform most Jewish commandments. Generally, those commandments that specifically require hearing are the ones they are exempt from. An example would be, hearing the sound of the Shofar. (Although, the pamphlet has an interesting discussion about whether cochlear implant users can properly fulfill their obligation of hearing the Shofar sound.)
It seems that with the combination of technology, halachic analysis, and better awareness and tolerance, deaf insulting is a significantly less occurrence than it was decades ago. If anything, I think the concept of “insulting the deaf” applies more to the hearing community. I have mentioned, in a few previous blogs, about the dangers of loud noise exposure. It’s an endemic situation in the US and in the Jewish religious community. People who are well-known in the community, especially rabbis and Jewish communal leaders can attend several weddings, bar mitzvahs, school dinners and other similar functions several times per week. Each of them tends to have dangerous blasting music. This exposure, of course, is not limited to rabbis; It affects the entire population. The sad part, is that people are either unaware of the long-term damage or are continuously ignoring it. Worse, is that rabbis and community leaders make no mention of this danger to their congregants and community. In my mind, this is a way of insulting the deaf, as well. These people may eventually become deaf, themselves,
You’ll be hearing (no pun, intended) more about this ongoing problem, together with some ideas that you can do to preserve your hearing. Meanwhile, avoid loud noise, and, please encourage your friends and family members to do the same. Don’t be foolish and don’t insult the deaf.