Embracing the religious obligations of the ADA, rather than the faith exemption

Judaism fundamentally obligates Jews in the Americans with Disabilities Act -- despite the loophole of a faith exemption
Illustrative. A woman sitting in a wheelchair. (Shutterstock)
Illustrative. A woman sitting in a wheelchair. (Shutterstock)

Friday, July 26th marks the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This anniversary should be celebrated by all Jews, as it is so consistent with our values. Indeed, perhaps the first recorded instance of a workplace accommodation is found in the Torah when God commissions Moshe to lead the people out of Egypt. In response to Moses’ claim that he cannot fulfill the mission because he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” God says that he will also send Aaron and “tell both of you what to do and he shall speak for you to the people.” The ADA furthered the foundational American principle of equality and ensured that disabled persons, like Moshe, received the accommodations they need in order to fulfill their higher purpose and live with dignity in the world.

Separation of religion and state, another foundational American ideal, is one of the reasons why Jews thrive here like nowhere else in the Diaspora. But this separation also leads to some paradoxes, none greater than the blanket exemption of religious institutions from the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A full exploration of religious exemptions is beyond the scope of this article, but it ought to concern everyone with an interest in Jewish community that secular American institutions are held to, and therefore generally strive harder to achieve, a higher standard on accommodation for persons with disabilities than our own Jewish institutions.

As we approach another ADA anniversary, we must take a closer look at the impact of our exercise of the religious exemption from the ADA. An estimated 50% of American families have at least one member with a disability and experts point out that nearly 100% of us, even if only through aging, will experience disability at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, a significant number of our religious institutions currently do not provide appropriate accommodation for people with disabilities.

At a minimum, it ought to make us very uncomfortable that American secular law takes a more activist stance on ensuring equal access and accommodation for the diversity of God’s creation than the Jewish community.  The distinguishing mark of Judaism is the conviction that the path of law and obligation yields better outcomes than the path of choice. While Jews take various approaches to ritual mitzvot, all streams of Judaism agree on the binding nature of ethical mitzvot.

The concept of “lifnim mishurat hadin” or going beyond the letter of the law, recognizes that no legal system can account for every moral obligation in law. By living a Jewish life, we internalize the underlying values and apply them, voluntarily, even when they are not spelled out in law.

Furthermore, Jewish law may be interpreted to compel us to provide the kinds of accommodation described in both the ADA and God’s response to Moshe’s speech impairment. There are many Jewish teachings which very specifically lay out how educational accommodation is to take place. Teaching one’s children the story of yetziat mitrayim (our people’s liberation from Egypt) is a parent’s obligation. Recognizing that children have different intellectual, neurological, and behavioral styles, the Passover Haggadah offers four distinct curricula for each of four paradigmatic sons, who are provided as an illustrative, rather than a finite set of examples. This practice of teaching each child “al pi darko,” according to the way in which they most effectively learn, is first attributed to King Solomon in the biblical Book of Proverbs (22:6).

Judaism recognizes that if you place a high expectation on people in terms of obligations, they will need a close, collaborative community in order to fulfill them. The religious exemption from the ADA has the unintended consequence of allowing Jewish institutions to more easily avoid the community’s obligation to the disabled. We should take upon ourselves the obligation of attempting to live up to ADA standards. Such a commitment would require us to rethink our priorities. It would also have the effect of bringing many disparate groups together in a shared enterprise that is wholly consistent with Jewish values, thus strengthening us through obligation, rather than exemption. It’s worth a try. Moshe was able to do his job because he was given the accommodation he needed – he did such an effective job that we’re still talking about it.

About the Author
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is CEO emerita of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the association of the world’s Conservative movement rabbis and founder of Leading Ethics, which helps organizations grow by building trust. She also served on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
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