As someone who is D/deaf and has Marfan syndrome with its associated sight difficulties, being a member of a shul is problematic and challenging, let alone participating in services or social events. Synagogue liturgy is largely oral centred which excludes many people with hearing difficulties. However nothing is impossible and I have found my spiritual niche as a member of Manchester Liberal Jewish Community (MLJC) which is affiliated with Liberal Judaism. MLJC is a very small and relatively young community with a strong ethos on inclusivity and equality, the community actively strives to enable LGBTQ people and ‘disabled’ people to fulfil their identity as Jews. Recently the community’s rabbi-in training Lev Taylor planned a class on ‘Disability in Judaism’ and he gave me the opportunity to lead, this is my attempt at a Drosha to explain a complex question which turns out to be not complicated at all.
From the outset it is essential to put D/disability and Judaism into its historical context of social attitudes in existence in communities many thousands of years ago. We can get a general sense of Jewish views on disability from the sources, Torah, halakha, the Talmud, Mishnah and other sacred writings. However it is important to be mindful the sources give an indication of the views of the sages and the rabbis but not how communities or individuals viewed disability.
In the classical past some Greek and Roman cultures glorified ‘manliness’ and ‘fitness’ as if the sole purpose for males appeared to be to fight in wars and for females to give birth. In such cultures children born with an imperfection or disability were commonly left to die. There does not appear to be any evidence to suggest such views existed in any Jewish community.
It might be argued the first Jewish equality & diversity commitment is found in the first chapter of Genesis which states each one of us is created in the image of G-d.
In addition Torah states: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18).
It is interesting as well as a possible positive image of D/disability much is made of the fact Moses had a speech impediment and it was not a barrier to his role as G-d’s spokesperson.
“And the Lord said to him, Who gives man speech? Who makes him unable to speak or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” (Exodus 4: 11-12).
Mention is made of Isaac losing his sight as he gets older and Jacob had trouble walking most of his life.
There is much evidence to suggest it was a requirement to show compassion for people with disabilities who were considered to be vulnerable.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.” (Proverbs 31:8).
“All Jews are responsible for one another”. (Babylonian Talmud Shevout 39a).
It would seem Torah forbids any discrimination against people with disabilities and even arguably obligates communities and shuls to be accessible and inclusive to everyone, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.
You shall fear your G-d: I am the Lord’. (Lev 19:4)
“Ben Azzai taught: despise no one and call nothing useless for there is no person who does not have his hour – and no thing that does not have its place.” (Pirke Avot 4:3).
On social humiliation or embarrassing someone: “Whoever whitens the face of another in public, it is as if he sheds his blood”. (Babylonian Talmud Baba Metsia 58b).
“Rabbi Elizer says: Let other people’s dignity be as precious to you as your own.” (Pirkei Avot 2:17).
“Teach the child according to his way.”. (Proverbs 22:6). This might well be favourably interpreted to refer to disability, gender, sexuality, place on the autism spectrum and many other factors.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:18).
According to Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a).
However the reality is the place and even the identity status of people with disabilities is problematic as halakha, tradition and thoughtlessness often appears to exclude them from participation in their communities.
It seems as if Leviticus 21 excludes just about everyone who is less than ‘perfect’ (even with the smallest blemish). This goes back to Temple worship when only someone with the ‘correct’ bloodline and without any physical or moral imperfection was allowed to enter the Holy of Hollies. This changed following the destruction of the Temple and the re-emergence of Judaism as Rabbinic Judaism which is arguably secular and without a central priestly authority.
Let us consider some examples of the ways people with disabilities might be excluded from a community –
1. People with mobility difficulties might be excluded from accessing their shul for using a wheelchair or crutches on Shabbat. The requirement to place a mezuzah two-thirds up a doorpost means someone using a wheelchair might be unable to touch it.
2. There are many legal difficulties facing people without sight not least the problem of being called up to read from the Torah as it cannot be recited from memory. During a shul service the Torah must be read from the actual scroll and not from a book or text which someone with sight difficulties might prefer. Other ways people without sight might be excluded include serving as a witness or delivering a get.
3. The status of D/deaf people without or even with speech is fraught as it is largely assumed they are without intellectual capacity and therefore ‘non- persons’. D/deaf people are excused from keeping the mitzvahs, reciting the Shema as it must be heard, or receive a blessing as they are unable to say Amen.
“A person who is deaf and without speech is not of sound mind.” (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 2b). Generally speaking regardless of halakhah, D/deaf people are largely excluded from shul services and community participation because of the lack of flexibility in thinking by rabbis and members to consider alternative means of communicating such as electronic or even simple note taking.
4. In the past some sages equated the cause of a disability with sexual ‘misconduct’ which is quite bizarre to put it politely!
“Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai said: The ministering Angels told me four things. People are born lame because they (their parents) overturned their table (during intercourse); mute because they kiss “that place”; deaf because they converse during intercourse; and blind because they look at “that place”’. (Babylonian Talmud B. Nedarim 20a-b).
5. Apparently the sages taught a person with a disability/blemish would be a distraction to the community causing them to stare, so such people should be kept away from causing a distraction. However throughout the Talmud the sages discuss exceptions to rulings. The Babylonian Talmud taught the concept of ‘familiarity’ teaching members of a community would in time get used to a disability and no longer be distracted. There are many examples of exceptions to the rule in the Talmud which is a good indication flexibility is nearly always possible. The Babylonian Talmud reports: “The mute sons of Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgeda sat and studied at the feet of R Judah the Patriarch.” (B Hagigah 3a). In the Mishnah we learn business can be conducted by lip-reading and signing. (M Gittin 5:7).
It seems clear there is nothing other than lack of imagination or motivation to prevent a community from looking at the way services are run from the perspective of someone with a disability to identity changes that might be made to facilitate better inclusion. Recently MLJC has started the concept of holding ‘relaxed services’ the idea is based on theatres who put on a ‘relaxed performance’ to encourage people with a disability, a learning disability, autism (or anything else which makes seating or standing regimentation uncomfortable) to attend. The idea is no one minds if someone moves about or takes a break during the service due to pain, anxiety or whatever. Lev (MLJC’s rabbi-in training) has started to send me an indication of themes/texts he plans to use beforehand and he posts his sermon on his blog and shares it on Facebook which makes a big difference to me. MLJC has a Facebook page in order to create a sense of community involvement and to encourage engagement. By posting about forthcoming events and photos it serves as a window to reach out to others who may not belong to a community and might feel isolated. However, some people ‘don’t do Facebook’ or answer e-mails which means they don’t communicate with me ! I am mindful they cannot be forced to as there might be reasons for this in the same way there is a reason I don’t do phones ! Financial and indeed time constraints often dictate the reason why things cannot be done, but from an idyllic point of view a community which makes use of IT, PowerPoint, handouts at services, and have a system of recording and circulating minutes and officer reports will go a long way to ensure its D/deaf members will feel included.