Judaism and Disability 1 of 4: A Twisting Branch of the Tree of Life: Disability in the Bible

From roughly spring of 2001 until roughly the spring of 2002, I researched and wrote as part of my baccalaureate degree at Yale University a paper entitled Judaism and Disability. It was quintessentially a work of undergraduate scholarship, building heavily on the work of Judith Abrams, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, and what few other scholarly articles were available on the topic at the time. In the years that followed, I have spoken numerous times on the subject, usually to synagogue audiences, tailored to give them an ethical and halachic framework on which to make disability related decisions as Jews and Jewish organizations. The more times that I have given the talk, the more I have come to realize that, while scholarly treatments of this subject exist, there is a dearth of any type of written material explaining the sources and the perspectives and the practical points of view to the interested Jewish layman. These four posts are the key points in that work: In Exodus 6:7, God tells Moses to say to the Israelite people, “and I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.” A little later, we read, “... if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation...” The text indicates that all the Israelites are a treasured possession, a “kingdom of priests”. In tension with this norm of equality, tradition treats Israelites with disabilities with great ambiguity. The Torah is sometimes supportive, but at other times completely exclusionary.

NARRATIVE TREATMENTS

The Tanakh has an inconsistent view of disability, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. The first disability in the Tanakh is the physical or metaphorical blindness of Isaac. The rabbis often interpreted blindness as a lack of insight. Jacob tricks his blind father, and, according to some Midrashim, spurns Leah for her weak eyes. Some rabbinic traditions hold that his acquired physical disability, a limp, is a punishment that atones for his sins.

Though the events of the Joseph story could readily lead one to question whether Jacob’s blindness ever truly disappears, there is universal agreement that Jacob’s fight, his injury, and his subsequent renaming as Israel represent a rebirth. As Abrams points out, this means that not only was Israel disabled in its very first incarnation, but also that the disability engendered the transformation of Jacob into Israel, making him worthy to be the progenitor of the Israelite people. From the beginning, therefore, we have the fundamentally contradictory question that will guide all of Judaism’s perspective on disability. Are people with disabilities worthy of respect, either as those with something special to give, or at least as worthwhile people, or, is the disability punishment for their weakness, making them unsuitable for the Jewish people? These questions are not so much answered as wrestled with our tradition. It may be fair to say that the answer is not black-and-white.

Moving on in the list Israelite heroes, we come to the undisputed paragon of the Jewish people, Moses. Moses also had a disability. In being chosen to lead the Jewish people, Moses protests. We read: But Moses said to the Lord, “Please O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that you have spoken to your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” And the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:10-11) This passage is fraught with significance for the biblical perspective on disability. Firstly, the concept that God intentionally assigns disabilities is troubling but unavoidable. It is easy to excuse the unpleasant parts of life as that God feels constrained to allow, but this passage indicates that disability, rather than being an imperfection in the world to be remedied is in fact a pivotal piece of God’s plan. This idea is very present in Jewish thought. In fact, Rabbinic perspectives included the ideas that disabilities were punishments from God, and things like birth defects resulted from sexual perversion.

More positive, however, is the fact that the biblical story also presents the first compelling idea of accommodating a disability. In response to Moses’ protest, God allows Aaron to act as his mouthpiece. Moses’s disability is accommodated to allow him to do the job for which he was born.

Of course, the rabbis must explain away the discomfort of a disabled hero. From here comes the well-known Midrash of an angel guiding Moses to choose a hot coal over the jewels so as not to be killed by Pharaoh. In addition, the language used to describe Moses is literally Ch’vad peh uch’vad lishon, meaning heavy of mouth and tongue, not cheresh, the biblical and rabbinical term for a deaf man or a mute. This separates Moses from that category.

As the Bible continues, the view of disability remains resistant to categorization. Reasons for it include reward and punishment, as well as compensation for a character flaw. Samson is led to Delilah by his eyes. Upon being captured, he is blinded, and, once blind, he achieves his greatest victory. Notably, a sin with the eyes is punished by blindness. The idea that the punishment fits the crime recurs throughout the Bible. For Saul, after his misdeeds at Agag, he develops mental illness, which is equated with both an evil spirit and punishment from God.

LEGAL TREATMENTS

The legal codes of Tanakh lay out specific ideals of treatment of people with disabilities. Following the general admonition, “you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” of Leviticus 19:2, we find the specific instructions, “you shall not insult the deaf or places a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:14) There is much to learn here First, the etymology teaches a lesson. The word used for blind person here is iver; the word for deaf person is cheresh, which in later times will be a deaf person, a mute person, or a deaf mute. It is interesting that this sin is tied not only to an affront against holiness, but to the obligation of fear of God. The use of the vav consecutive makes it clear that these phrases are related, i.e. the sin, punishment, and fear of God. It indicates that God would protect those who would not know their tormentor. Furthermore, the text puts these groups within the community. In fact, as a teaser for the next section, note that the Talmud expands on this very theme. In Sanhedrin 66a, the rabbis compare the deaf to the humblest of society, who are thus especially under God’s protection as weak.

The offering laws of chapter 21 of Leviticus, at their most basic reading, contain some exclusionary language. It is written: “No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame; or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth on his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the Priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them. (Leviticus 21:17-23) On a purely technical note, it is interesting to see how many disabilities are enumerated. They include injury, disease, and congenital disabilities. Far more interesting is the fact that these people with disabilities are excluded from all Priestly rites, and yet are free to partake of priestly privileges, such as the offerings. What can explain this apparent inconsistency?

The first clear answer is the idea of the protection of a holy place. It is important to remember that profane and impure are not evil in Judaism, merely the opposite of sacred and pure. Most intense signs of physicality and mortality were impure. It is no surprise that a disability might fall under this category. It is important to remember as a measure of value judgment that sexuality, one of the chief forms of impurity, biblically mandated.

For a different point of view, Judith Abrams offers a suggestion. Says Abrams, “As pure a reflection as possible of the heavenly spheres was needed in the corporeal world to ensure that the sacrifices were acceptable above.” According to Abrams, the Priest was in an environment of blindly lethal holiness. Being among the divine, any blemish would make their bodies unable to withstand the forces. This is why the disability takes the Priest of the cult but not out of the priesthood. It is not the goal to exclude him, but rather to protect him.

IN VISIONS AND POETRY: THE PROPHETS

In the Prophets, disability receives an interesting yet incoherent treatment, crucial to understanding later views. In speaking of the redemption in Israel, Isaiah uses fascinating imagery, which allows us some insight into that culture’s view of disability. “In that day, the deaf shall hear even written words, and the eyes of the blind shall see even in darkness and obscurity” (Isaiah 29: 18). This seems to indicate that along with forgiveness of the people will come healing of disability. This might be taken to mean disability is also a judgment that will be reversed much like God’s other punishments of Israel. This idea would inform much of Rabbinic thought. This same idea is repeated in Isaiah 35: 3-6.

The idea of lameness or disability as a punishment is hinted at further in Micah. Talking again of the day of redemption, the prophet speaks for the Lord as saying, “in that day -- declares the Lord -- I will assemble the lame [sheep] and will gather the outcast and those I have treated harshly;” (Micah 4: 6). This seems to indicate that those with disabilities may be among those with whom the Lord has dealt harshly. This might again label the disabilities as punishment. This is repeated in Zephaniah. In her book, Judaism and Disability, Judith Abrams deals with this topic noting that Israel is metaphorically disabled by sins, yet healed by the love of God.

Later in Isaiah, the role of people with disabilities becomes even more confused. In what appears to be a description of the messiah, we read the following words. First, in 42: 3, “a bruised reed, he shall not be broken; a dim wick, he shall not be snuffed out. He shall bring forth the true way.” Then, in 42: 18-20, “Listen: you who are deaf; you blind ones, look up and see! Who is so blind as My servant, so deaf as the messenger I send? Who is so blind as the chosen one, so blind as servant of the lord? Seeing many things, he gives no heed; with ears open, he hears nothing.”

While clearly there are metaphorical questions informing these ideas of lameness, blindness, and deafness, it is never too simple within Jewish tradition to look at the direct meaning as well. It is quite possible, therefore, that the one chosen by God to bring about redemption may have a disability, and, in fact, this disability will be necessary to make him able to heed, or to bring the message, and do God’s bidding.

The last part of Isaiah that raises significant questions is the beginning of chapter 56. We read “For thus said the Lord: ‘as for the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to my covenant -- I will give them, in My House and within My walls a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.’ (Isaiah 56: 4-5). This raises tantalizing questions regarding the relationship between God, observance, and disability. Far from the Rabbinic codes that seem to exempt people with disabilities, especially eunuchs, from ritual, this seems to say that an observant person with a disability will be cared for in the world to come. Furthermore, though not a promise of healing, God will compensate them for the limitation caused by their disability.

The idea of inclusion of people with disabilities is also in Jeremiah. Speaking of the healing of the nation after exile, and the gathering of the chosen to God, the prophet attributes these words to God. “I will bring them from the Northland, gather them from the ends of the earth -- the blind and the lame among them, those with child and those in labor -- in vast throng shall they return here” (Jeremiah 31: 8). As we can see, these quotes tend to contradict earlier quotes about those who are excluded from the community. All of the aforementioned opinions, contradictory though some may seem, inform the Rabbis’ somewhat ambiguous stance on disability.