Rabbinical rulings say that people living with special needs must be included in communal Jewish life, albeit with slight modifications. What can this teach the rest of society?
Working in the disability justice sphere for over 30 years, “inclusion” is a concept I’ve encountered many times. My own organization lists inclusion of people with disabilities into wider society as one of our primary goals.
Generally speaking, inclusion could look like more integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools in Israel. It could mean targeted outreach from employers to recruit applicants with disabilities, or city planning with the needs of wheelchair users kept in mind.
But in Judaism, inclusion has a very specific meaning. Multiple rabbinical rulings have gone further than just encouraging people with disabilities to participate in communal life – it’s mandatory.
A person living with disabilities has the same prohibitions regarding Shabbat and Jewish holidays as any other Jew. Their disability does not necessarily excuse them from fully participating in religious life – they must fast on Yom Kippur and eat matzah on Passover, hear the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, keep Shabbat, and perform the mitzvot compulsory for a Jewish adult.
A fundamental part of integrating people with disabilities into wider society is high expectations. By expecting people living with disabilities to fulfill certain obligations, we are conveying respect for their abilities, even if they may be different from ours.
Emphasizing this point, Maimonides wrote, “Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah — whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah, Ch.10)
We find messages of inclusion throughout the Torah. We are told, “Do not curse a person who is deaf and do not place a stumbling block in front of a person who is blind,” (Vayikra 19:14) and “If there be among you a person with needs, you shall not harden your heart, but you shall surely open your hand.” (Devarim 15:7)
Rulings by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most prominent Torah scholars of the last century, specify modifications that can be made to accommodate people with disabilities. Someone who uses a wheelchair is allowed to put on Tallit, Tefillin, and recite the Amidah prayer from the wheelchair, even though these acts require one to stand up. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 94:6)
A deaf person who is about to be married can skip the reading of the Ketubah (marriage contract) or sign language can be used as an alternative to reading it out loud. (Feinstein, M. Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Even Haezer, Part 1 #87)
A blind person may be accompanied by their guide dog anywhere – it’s even permitted for them to enter the synagogue with their guide dog. (Ibid. Orach Chayim, Part 1 #45)
Disability justice activists around the world have been battling for decades in pursuit of these kinds of radically inclusive policies. From these rulings, it’s clear that full participation in religious Jewish life for everyone, even if it requires slight tweaks, is paramount. We are being told that people with disabilities are valued members of society, and it’s up to us to accommodate them, even if that means changing the way things are usually done.
But I believe that the most important thing to note is that Judaism views accommodating people’s disabilities as an obligation of the entire community. Judaism understands that children with disabilities can grow up to be leaders with important roles to fulfill in the community.
After all, Moshe Rabeinu had a speech impediment.
In a conversation with HaShem, he said, “Moses said to the Lord, ‘I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Who gave man a mouth, or who makes [one] dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'” (Shemot 4:10-11)
Someone with a disability was chosen to lead Am Yisrael out of Egypt, so I am confident that there’s room for people with special needs in mainstream Israeli society.