Making the Most of Our Mistakes: How Mechilah Can Give Us a Model to Go Forward on Inclusion

Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in the religious world, but I find that I often have trouble truly understanding the Jewish concept of Mechilah.  I actually spent a bunch of time reading about it yesterday as I was preparing for yesterday’s blog post, and I still can’t figure out whether the true weight of the tradition is in recognizing how we’ve harmed others and trying to make amends, or in seeking the forgiveness of those that we’ve harmed, specifically because we know that amends only go so far.  I suspect that the answer is somewhere in the middle, and that is why we see both the obligation to request, and the obligation to grant forgiveness.

I wonder if we can take this as a model for inclusion for the year.  I was reflecting this morning on the various congregations that I’ve helped to prepare in various ways this year, whom I know will be implementing things that we’ve discussed at the high holidays.  I was excited as I thought about all of the things that they will do, and momentarily perturbed as I realized that they would almost certainly not be perfect.  A week from today, and two weeks from tomorrow, there will be stories, probably at every congregation in the world, where inclusion did not happen the way we wanted.  There will be mixups, misses and unanticipated situations.

The question is not how to avoid those, because I believe that our tradition teaches us the folly of expecting perfection.  The question is rather, where do we go from here.

I’ve been in a lot of meetings where organizers are reflecting on past events, and been privy to a lot of anguished sharing sessions where participants with disabilities painfully recount things that went wrong.  Too often, the one side is busy defending the adequacy of intention, while the other side has determined that they have suffered at the hands of an organization incompetent at best and indifferent at worst.  Battle lines are drawn.  Hurts rage.

What if we did something a little different?  What if we practiced a little post high holiday Mechilah?

What if those of us in charge of organizing events were to say, “we want to hear where things did not go right.”  What if we were to then first acknowledge the painful nature of the experience for the participant that experienced it, and then have an earnest discussion about how it could be improved in the future.

What if those of us that felt excluded were to candidly share our hurt, assuming that we have a receptive audience who will show contrition.  What if we were to then do the really hard work of letting go of the pain and hurt, and offering forgiveness while we work together on a solution?

Judaism does not teach us to turn the other cheek, that sort of blanket forgiveness belongs to another faith.  Judaism does teach us that we have an obligation to forgive an individual that comes to us in true contrition, trying to act better.

If both sides practice this Mechilah, then we have a blueprint to move forward.  We’ve identified problems and solutions, and while Rosh Hashanah 5778 will no doubt still have its problems, they will be different and hopefully fewer than 5777, and each Shabbat, and each event this year will benefit from the process.

In tradition, Mechilah is about removing negative entries on the accounting of our souls (so I read).  What if, in this inclusion Mechilah, what we are doing is taking potential negative entries on the ledger of our collective and shared experience in synagogue life, and building instead credits to the ledger to make us more inclusive?  Then we might truly be sealed for a better year in the year to come, whether we believe that that is a spiritual phenomenon or not.

In closing, I hope that everyone that reads this has a wonderful experience next week and the week after.  Unfortunately, I’m reasonably certain that there will be some setbacks, and I hope we take those as an opportunity to grow our relationships, our dialogue, and our inclusion.  Shana Tova

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Teshuvah and Inclusion: What Can the Days of Awe Teach Us About How We Move from Exclusion to Inclusion for All.

I was talking to a colleague the other day about what it really means to create a dedicated plan for inclusion, and as I thought about the process, and I thought about how one of the first steps that I recommend that an organization or synagogue undertake is an inventory, like this one that I worked to develop with Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston while working with the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project.  Maybe it’s just the time of year, but this got me thinking about Chesbon haNefesh, the accounting of the soul that Jews do in this month leading up the high holidays.

This important first step is a prerequisite to any teshuvah, to any return or repentance that we do.  Basically, we can’t really repent unless we have honestly, searchingly and unsparingly assessed who we are, the good, the bad, our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities .  After all, ultimately the standard by which we are judged is whether we were the best versions of ourselves, and it takes some self-knowledge to get there.

I was struck by the parallel of the Chesbon haNefesh and the inventory, and then I began to think about the metaphor of teshuvah as it relates to the process of moving from where we are to where we want to be on inclusion.

To me, the parallels are striking.  First, there is the idea of a searching inventory.  Second, there is the idea of actually reaching out to the people whom we wronged, and those who wronged us, understanding the situation, and asking and offering real forgiveness.  This is a prerequisite before divine forgiveness, we learn.

Similarly, I don’t care if you have the best inventory, and have downloaded every item on inclusion.  It doesn’t matter if every certifying organization in the country has told you how inclusive you are, (an analogy to forgiveness from a higher power). Until you’ve reached out to those in your own community who feel excluded, to understand the source of that exclusion, and make a commitment to try to remedy it, it is impossible to be inclusive.

Thirdly, I love the notion that the sins that we list out in one of the central prayers, the Al Chet , don’t necessarily seem inherently bad.  Some are: bribery, idolatry, hate.  Others talk about the sins that we’ve committed in speech, in eating and drinking, in business dealings and more.

It’s not that speaking, eating, drinking, or business are inherently bad.Judaism recognizes the value in all of these things. Rather, it is possible to sin while doing all of these.  What’s more, since the prayer refers to sins committed knowingly and unknowingly, the prayer recognizes that we might be going about our regular business, failing to pay sufficient attention, and sin.

I find this to be an amazingly strong parallel to our inclusion efforts.  It’s easy to look at the big sins of exclusion.  Lack of physical access.  Lack of interpreters.  God forbid, but all too common, outright discrimination against those with mental illness, or intellectual disabilities, who might act or present in ways that make us uncomfortable.

But what about our routine exclusion when we schedule an activity without thinking about how a person with a mobility impairment will get there, or when we sit at a synagogue social gathering without asking the person next to us who is deaf how to best communicate with them?  What about when we ignore the person with an intellectual disability because we don’t feel comfortable addressing them.  What about when we use language in our liturgy and choreography that makes people feel excluded, as I wrote about here?

These scenes of exclusion, the exclusion that we practice as we are doing otherwise normal things, the exclusion that we didn’t even realize we were committing, are as much a part of our inventory to remedy as the horrible examples above.  For all of these things we seek absolution, but it means that first we must truly repent and do better.

The last parallel is in the doing better.  True repentance is about more than a searching inventory, some apologies, and absolution.  It’s about making a plan to rectify the places where you sin, and commitment to learn from your past sins, to do better in the year to come, that you might be sealed for a good fate in the book of life.

That type of self-improvement isn’t easy.  It requires a plan, attention, strategies, steps, growth.  If we know that our temper was issue in a previous year (a big one for me) it’s not enough to acknowledge it, rather we must acknowledge that we are watching out for it and what our strategy is to improve it.  It’s not enough to chastise ourselves for being a little too interested in gossip only to go back to our tale telling ways before Sukkot.  The idea is to look, to plan and to take that inventory trying each day, to be better than we were the day before, so that next year when we have again fallen short, it’s a little less short, and we’ve been doing better.

The same could be said of inclusion.  It’s not enough to do an inventory.  It’s not even enough to come up with some fixes and implement them.  It’s not enough to bring in someone like me to teach for a weekend and get people thinking.  Only if you come up with a plan to address the systemic shortcomings to inclusion in your organization, and Implement it faithfully, will things be better next year than this.

So what do we do with this insight?  Yom Kippur is like a mini death from which we come back ready for new effort in the new year, committed after a month of searching, and some days of repentance.

What if we did something similar this year on inclusion?  An intense inventory, culminating in mechila, seeking and reconciling those who were wronged and making what reparations or repairs we can, followed by forgiving ourselves with a strong and purifying commitment to do better, to be reborn as an inclusive organization that learns from its past but is not held by it, so that next year’s inventory is a little better, and we continue to strive ever vigilant, ever active to be better.  When the gates of repentance close, maybe we can throw open the gates of inclusion.

So I wish you all a good and a sweet new year, a meaningful and reflective period of teshuvah, followed by a sense of renewal, and the best of sealings in the book of life.  I hope that 5777 finds us not only working on our personal shortcomings, but bringing our inclusion practices to new heights.  Thank you

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How Inclusion Helps Us Realize Our Dreams: My Visit to Greene Family Camp

“Bring your Lexus to Bruceville Texas.” 

These cheerful and yet unfamiliar words provide a perfect backdrop to my week at Greene Family Camp (GFC).  We sat in front of a campfire, with four men leading.  First, Loui Dobin, the camp’s energetic powerhouse of the director, whom I met only last year when I started my inclusion work, and yet who fits so many of the adult male archetypes from my camp childhood that I feel like I’ve known him much longer. 

Then, Loui’s son, whom I didn’t even get to meet, but who, as a lifetime camp person who has now transitioned in the professional world, I feel like I know.  On the other side, Dan, a song leader whom I just met but with whom I already feel the easy connection of a camp friendship, and Noam, one of my oldest friends, who doesn’t know the song any better than I do, but is affably playing along, like you do at camp.

This is a metaphor for the week that I’ve just finished.  Surrounded by new friends that feel like old friends, by camp fixtures that evoke all of the wonderful memories of my own safe spaces that I wrote about here and here, camp stories that though not my own feel like I could have lived them, and just enough drop ins by my old friends to tie it all together, my time at GFC really allowed me to explore how the very inclusion that I wrote about for children works for adults too.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my original contact with GFC was about bringing my inclusion programming to the children, the staff, and and education summit for Texas youth professionals which capped off the week.  All of these things happened, and they were fabulous.  But they only tell part of the story.

As I was making my initial plans with my old friend Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, we envisioned something greater.  What if, instead of coming in for a marathon of inclusion programming as has been my custom at summer camps, I actually joined the camp family is a faculty member for a week?

I must’ve said “are you sure you can handle me for that long?” at least a dozen times.  But we decided to do it, and so, as of the first Monday of camp’s second session, I was guiding several units of campers in creating their Britot Kehillia, the governing contracts for the bunks, and by Tuesday, I was going into individual cabins to teach campers their Shiurim, or Jewish lessons.  Together we learned about the Jewish concept of Hineni, which the camp interpreted as being there for each other.  I got to watch as the campers wrestled with the ideas, embraced them and made them their own.  Slowly but surely, we formed connections, such that they invited me to their talent show on the night before I left, some of the boys wanting to put on an act specifically for my benefit.

After my inclusion program with the counselors in training, I feel like we enjoyed a strong bond, with them coming up to me at all times, for a chat, a high five, a quick connection.  Somehow, I know that I slipped some life advice in with my disability advice and I think that’s what resonated.  The feeling is mutual, as the energy and enthusiasm gave me hope for the future

I swam with kids, I ate with kids (at least one of the nights when I dined with the rising 10th graders), and I had the singular honor of being belayed on a high ropes course by a bunk full of preteen girls, delightfully chronicled here, with video below.   Someone wiser than me will have to decide whether the kids were more moved by the experience, or I was.

My incorporation into the community was more than just the campers.  Invited to the leadership team meeting because it was an honor extended to all guests, I was privileged to be able to offer some of my own perspective on the issues that the team was facing, and privileged to continue to share what little wisdom I had with the senior staff whenever the opportunity arose. 

Though I’m sure that some parts of what felt like the team’s attentive listening had more to do with the wonderful respectful people that they are than any special contribution of mine, I do feel that, at several key times, maybe I contributed a little bit.  Certainly, I felt a part of the community, driven to do what I could.

I’m very aware of the effort that went into giving me that feeling.  I’m aware of the tireless efforts of a team of senior staff, none of whom, with the exceptions of Loui and Ana, who departed before I arrived, had ever met me in person before I entered the gates, gave freely of themselves both before and during my visit to make sure that I could seamlessly integrate into a new environment. 

Whether the constant companionship, the endless offers of water to drink, or Mamtak, the GFC word for candy, to eat, or the invisible efforts evident in the fact that I was in a new place for eight days and nothing went wrong, I know how much commitment was devoted to bringing me in, and thus enabling me to give of myself to the community.  In the Reform Movement, we like to speak of audacious hospitality.  I can’t imagine a hospitality much more audacious than this.

And what did it mean for me?  As earlier blogs have chronicled, I had a truly amazing experience as a camper at the Eisner camp as a child.  Between Eisner, the URJ’s Crane Lake camp, and the URJ’s Henry S Jacobs camp, I’ve also got to experience, in some measure, what it is to be a special guest at camp, to teach the campers.

But I seldom speak of the road not taken in my life, the Rabbi that I probably would’ve been had not the realities of a young college graduate in a wheelchair made me feel that that path was unattainable, and the joy that I would’ve felt to follow in the footsteps of my father and my mother, teaching young children at camp.  This week GFC gave me an opportunity that I’ve never had before, the opportunity to participate as a full camp faculty member, to bring my knowledge and love of Judaism, not just inclusion to young Jewish minds.

This, then, is the sum benefit of my inclusion experience at GFC.  I hope that I was able to bring my Jewish knowledge and my inclusion knowledge to a whole new group of young people (and young at heart).  I hope that I was a good friend to people throughout the week, and I know that they were true friends to me.

But more than that, my wonderful inclusion at GFC, a place that, though new to me, now feels as familiar in some ways as my true spiritual home in Great Barrington, allowed me to realize get another dream.  I wrote a few years ago how camp helped me to have all the experiences of a full childhood.  It seems that the same can be true in adulthood as well.

I have returned home virtually in awe of the lengths to which I was helped to participate this week.  Truly, GFC gets to assume a place in the pantheon of treasured places in my life, right along with the camps that did so much for my childhood.

I also feel a renewed commitment to the power of inclusion, to help us give of our talents and realize our goals.  I often speak about the fact that we can’t truly appreciate the benefits of inclusion until we practice it.  We may never know to which kids I made a difference this week, but I will surely know that the difference that they made for me. 

Last week was transformative, enriching, and fulfilling at a level that my paltry words can only partially embrace, all because the GFC family is entirely sincere with the invitation to  “Come on with Me to GFC”.

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Remembering My Grandmother on the Sabbath of Song

Remembering My Grandmother on the Sabbath of Song

Last week, I raised my voice in full in that Sabbath of Song, in my aunt and uncle's unfamiliar synagogue. I mourn my grandmother, whose memory blesses me every day, but I think her for her wisdom and support, and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to honor her memory on the Sabbath of Song.

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Welcomed Without Asking: Making Our Communities Inclusive to All

I reject the idea that forcing people to identify is necessary or right. Certainly, at the very least it creates awkwardness and stigma. In a worst-case scenario, it gives license to exclude from a community of support simply because someone isn’t carrying the right (metaphorical) paper. I posit that a truly inclusive community would strive to broadly accept the habits and behavior of its members, without requiring an identity of disability.

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Saving the World, Over and Over, One Life at a Time.

“Whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.” I have known this quote from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 since literally before I can remember, which is to say that I literally do not remember a time before I knew it.  I even sang it as a child in a catchy tune at summer camp.  And, while the intellectual idea of the limitless value of one human life is a concept with which I have been comfortable since I was a teenager, I think that I sometimes lose it in my work.

As a consultant to corporations and nonprofits, and a former federal official, having the greatest impact for the most people is a watchword, and it should be.  And yet for all the talk of maximizing numbers, it’s nice to have a wake-up call about the power of helping an individual.

I have been privileged, since I moved to Boston, to have multiple interactions with the work of the Ruderman Family Foundation.  I have been honored to write, honored to consult, and honored to share whatever knowledge I have to contribute to important work.  Because I am something of a policy wonk and a technocrat, much of this discussion has been big picture.

Last week, however, I had the opportunity to experience the work of the Foundation through a different lens.  I had the dual experiences of my first meeting as a member of the Jewish Services Committee of Jewish Vocational Services in Boston, under whose auspices is found the RFF sponsored Transitions to Work Program, and of attending Sweet Sounds, the annual Gala of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, another program made possible by the Foundation.

In both situations, I heard deeply moving personal narratives from parents whose children’s lives had been completely transformed by these programs, from parents on the Jewish Services Committee whose son had transitioned from dependence to employment, to the moving story of Gateways parents who had relocated from New York so that their daughter with significant disabilities could have the Jewish education that was such a deeply cherished value for them.

Two lives in their own way saved.  Twice the entire world saved.  To hear these stories, to feel these stories, one cannot think that they were anything less.

We continue to strive for systemic change.  I would like to see comprehensive employment programs like Transitions replicated throughout the country.  Even more, I feel that the work of making Jewish education and Jewish heritage accessible and available to all Jews is a sacred mission, and that the Jewish world should be committed to expansion of Gateways style programs and services to its every level and facet as a moral imperative.  But these are big picture goals, and focus exclusively on them risks of securing the tremendous power of each individual experience.

So I honor the work of the RFF, as do so many, because of the cumulative transformative effect on the lives of Jews with disabilities.  But, I also honor it, and others like it, for the incalculable value of each life so transformed.  There is more to be done, and I have great confidence that the work will continue, but at this moment, I honor all of the worlds already saved.  Kol hakavod.

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Preparing to Launch: How My Wonderful Camp Family Reached Out, Raised Me Up, and Prepared Me to Fly.

“Summer wasn't complete without hearing his laugh coming over the hill.”  – My friend Meredith, referring to me in a re-post of my “My Launch Pad” blog post.

The above flattering quote typifies the overwhelming and soul enriching response to my post about the launch pad provided to me by my inclusion that summer camp.  I was moved by the reaction of my beloved fellow alumni.

More than that, I remembered anew that inclusion is a function of people more than places, attitudes as much as actions, and feelings as much as realities.  Conversely, exclusion can result from perceiving oneself as unworthy of affection, respect, and inclusion.  I can’t speak of the inclusion of camp, and of how it nurtured my soul, developing me and preparing me to launch, without a discussion of the people.

Camps themselves are just rolling pieces of beautiful land, and camp programs so many ideas on paper, without the people that make it real.  It was in hundreds of thousands of interactions with my fellow campers and staff, the way we engaged, and the way they treated me, and laughed with me, played with me, and occasionally argued with me, that I truly felt myself brought within the community.  Collectively, and individually, each one of them was somebody without whom, to paraphrase Meredith, “summer would not be complete.”

My fellow alumni, my camp friends and family, (of which I was privileged to have my biological family be a part), the thousands of wonderful people that actually reached out to help me become the man that I am today, they are the true architects of inclusion.  If camp was my launch pad, they were my ground crew, my engineers, my fellow astronauts and mission control.

Indulge me, so that I may share a little bit about my interactions with them, and how it would help me to challenge my self-perception, and to make sure that I never excluded myself.  Individually, you will find no greater human beings.  Collectively, you will find no greater group of exemplars of the inclusion that we all want to practice.

An aside: I will only be using first names in these stories.  I have chosen to share my experiences that some might enjoy and others might learn, but, a similar decision would be for each of them to make.  Also, had I a book and not a blog, and a memory like a computer, I would still have trouble recounting all of the wonderful people in my camp life.  This is not even an attempt to do that, but rather to use a few select people to illustrate the incredible collective role of these wonderful human beings in my inclusion experience.  (Special mention to David Friedman and Eve Rudin Kleinman, the individuals at Eisner and Kutz respectively who had overall responsibility for my inclusion.)

The first camp person I remember is Ilana.  We were both camp babies at Eisner camp, and, being similar in age, we were childhood playmates in the days when we were too young for formal programming.  As I look back at my life, she must have been my first able-bodied playmate (my only segregated educational experience was my nursery school, a delightful program for its time at United Cerebral Palsy in Connecticut.)

Three decades, disparate lives, and in her case marriage to another treasured friend of mine, Danny, and children, have long ago pushed our paths apart, and these days I learn about her life from Facebook status updates.  Still, I haven’t forgotten the powerful memory of that first friend, and I haven’t forgotten that, even as an adult, on the rare occasions when we encounter each other, I’m touched by the powerful familiarity that comes with a friendship of such long-standing.  I’m also aware of how rare it was for a person with my level of disability in my generation to have that kind of friendship within able-bodied child, long before the world was beating the drum of inclusion.

Also in those early years, the warm and open camp family helped me to find my voice as a public speaker.  Various official biographical sketches will tell you that I began public speaking at age 4, and it makes for a good publicity point.  The human element that is missing from that discussion is that, in order to give a four-year-old such a platform, to envelop him in comfort, and empower him to share, requires a panoply of special people.  Here, I don’t exactly know who was involved in arranging my opportunity to speak to the whole camp at age 4, apart from my wonderful parents,but I know that, to do it, they had to instill a self confidence that remains to this day.

What’s more, quite apart from those presumably staff decision makers, there were the hundreds of Eisner campers who listened patiently to a piping four-year-old, who asked questions, whose warm interest I remember even now.  One of them, in fact, my friend Jen, still reminds me to this day of the impact of that my words had on her life.  There can be no greater affirmation than that.

As I grew through childhood, other warm campers would add to that sense of affirmation.  While I was still in day camp, (then the program for faculty children not yet of camp age) a group of girls in the youngest unit became my swim buddies.  The long passage of time has dulled my memory of all of the names, but I do remember Courtney and Stephanie among them.

On the one hand, eight-year-old girls everywhere enjoy six-year-olds, sort of like a human doll. Yet, one could easily imagine an experience where I, as the six-year-old it was a little different, was rejected or shunned.  Instead I was embraced (figuratively and literally) and, while I may have developed a bit of an ego problem, I certainly never needed to ponder if I was wanted or loved.

This lesson, learned at camp, became something of a subconscious self-affirmation.  As hard as it is, before you can really push for your own inclusion, it helps to be convinced that people want you there and may be don’t know what they’re missing yet.  This lesson, I learned from my camp family.  (My biological family is also very loving, but it’s hard to translate those lessons into dealing with the wider world.)

This lesson would continue to be reinforced by dozens of fantastic bunkmates throughout the years.  Since I cannot name them all, and I have no meaningful way to choose, I have chosen to name none of them.  Just know that you are all in my heart.

Many such lessons would be learned at the pool.  At the pool was where I would flirt for the first time, lacking some of the physical distance that my wheelchair put between me and others on land.  I won’t name names here, but I am grateful to a long list of young women whose good-natured flirtation made me feel lovable in another way, before I would fall prey in my late teens to the deep insecurities that almost all of us with disabilities have when it comes to body image, an issue about which I have written before.  Here, even the power of camp’s inclusion could not spare me the scourge of self exclusion, but I like to think that it planted seeds as I fight to break free even now.

Also at the pool, I would learn to respect my body as the only one I had, and something for which I needed to care.  I think many of us with physical disabilities tend to think of our bodies as useless at best and liabilities at worst.  We eschew exercise not out of laziness, but because it seems pointless.  I’m grateful then to Wendy. who began to teach me to use my body to swim in the pool, and to Doug, who, over my vociferous objections, made me swim every safe pool day for all of my years at camp, because he knew that my health depended on it.  I’m grateful to Jacob, to Asher, and to Stephanie, who would allow me to continue this important habit when I moved from Eisner to Kutz, with Asher and Jacob even creating an achievement award.  I have all the bad habits of a middle-aged man, but I never lost the appreciation that my body was important and that I could maintain it if I put in the effort.  I was included in being healthy.

I learned at camp that I could be included in anything if it was important enough to me.  I am grateful to Animal, and to Jen, who tried tirelessly, if in vain, to find a way that I could play the guitar when I was young, and to Andy, and Robbie, and Rosalie, each of whom would help me to realize my dreams of leading a song session, even though a guitar would always elude my grasp.  I learned that I could be included in anything, if I was willing to accept that that inclusion might look different than the way that I first envisioned.  The day that I sat next to Andy on the elevated stage in Eisner’s old Chadar Ochel (dining hall) is still one of my happiest memories.

I learned that even my needs could be a source of inclusion, rather than exclusion.  I learned it as my friendships with Eric (now Winter) and Josh deep end as they helped to meet my physical needs at Kutz when my Camp America staffers proved on equal to the task.  I learned it when Billy and Jeff and Franklin and Aaron and Scott and Scott (two different people, you know who you are), and many staff members not named here, took their own roles in my care.  And finally, I learned it, when, as pictured below, my beloved Kutz bunk mates transformed my fear of traveling camp paths alone into an honored role for them as my Secret Service guards.

Outdoor scene featuring 14-year-old Matan sitting in a power wheelchair flanked by for male teenagers, well dressed in dark sunglasses, touching imaginary Secret Service ear pieces. The camp program director can be seen on one side, holding a walkie-talkie with a bright smile. Also pictured, one teenage male not in uniform, And one teenage female, identity unknown

And lastly, I learned, oh so painfully, just how my inclusion could impact the lives of others, in ways I might never know. In March 1992, my camp friend, Marc Erenberg was tragically killed at age 13, the victim of the drunk driver.  At three years older than me, Marc was a friend I looked up to, but not really a peer, as his sister, Robin would become.  Had you asked to me in February 1992, I would have been gratified to merely find that he remembered my name.

And yet, I remember vividly, when my father came to me, in the basement of our Connecticut home, and told me that my friend had been killed.  He didn’t stop there, though.  He told me that he had heard from the family, and that, apparently, I had made a significant impact in Marc’s life.  So important did they feel that I was to him, that they were going to support inclusion efforts at camp in his memory.

At the time, I had trouble going beyond the simple tragedy of the bad news.  I was not yet 11, and the death of a friend is a big deal.  As I came to reflect, over the years, though, I was moved and continue to be moved by the idea that my inclusion had so moved another individual on the idea of inclusion that inclusion had become a way to honor his memory.  I only wish that he had lived so we could have seen just what further inclusion he would have inspired.  I learned from this that not only could I be included, but that, regardless of my general feelings on the inspirational nature of people with disabilities, I had an obligation to let my inclusion be a catalyst for more inclusion.

When I say camp was a launch pad, I mean that it gave me the tools to fly.  Without these tools, they could ramp every door in the world, and I would not be included, because I’d be unable to let myself in.  Without learning to see myself as able to connect to those without disabilities.  Without learning to be comfortable in raising my own voice.  Without learning that I was wanted.  Without learning that my body, too, mattered.  Without learning that I could realize my dreams.  Without learning that I could contribute best to this world by fully engaging in it.  Without all of these lessons, I could not have been included in life the way I have.  Without the people mentioned above, and so many many more, I’d never have learned these lessons.

So learn some of them, if you haven’t.  Teach some of them, if you can.  Let my wonderful camp family serve as your exemplars, if you need.  And together, let’s launch everyone into a life of inclusion.

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Finding My Voice: A Look Backward, A Look Forward, and A Request

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I talk a lot.  Loud, verbose, outspoken; these are adjectives that I don’t think anyone would deny me. And yet, as of May 1 of this year, despite more than two years in public office, more than 15 years of leadership positions, and well over 25 years of public speaking engagements, you would have been hard pressed to find more than the occasional public record of my thoughts and opinions on anything.

It’s not that I didn’t have them.  As a liberal New York Jewish lawyer (at least according to this conservative blogger), I have opinions about just about everything, whether I have any business talking about it notwithstanding.

It is rather that I really didn’t think that anyone would want to listen to what I had to say.  Living in the echo chamber of my liberal, Jewish, disability activist world, I really wasn’t sure that I had anything unique to offer.  Nonetheless, after years of gentle urging, I launched this blog two months ago yesterday, first at www.matankoch.svbtle.com,and then this week migrating over to WordPress, where we are right now if you are reading this.

I have been overwhelmed by the response.  In the two months that we have been live, I have received over 3000 visits, including over 1000 to WordPress this week alone.  The comments, feedback and encouragement, along with the flattering shares of those who push my words to even larger audiences have truly moved my soul.  It’s enough that I encourage other people to take a stab at blogging, if you think you might have something to say.

I have also had the opportunity to find my voice, and share my opinions on topics about which I am passionate.  My three top posts, each of which has had well over 700 views, have each allowed me to speak to an issue that I feel is timely and important.

In “Chutes and Ladders”, I got the chance to explore with you my take on the most critical policy barrier facing employment of people with disabilities.  I was truly gratified by each of you that responded that, having been previously unaware of this pressing issue, you were interested in opportunities to change the paradigm.

In “From Objects of Sympathy to Objects of Desire” I explored with you the evolution in the societal conversation around the sexuality of people with disabilities, a critical component to understanding us as fully fledged human beings.  From feedback in some disability fora where it was reposted, I know that I was lucky enough to give voice to an issue which troubles many of us that is completely hidden from many in the able-bodied world.  Then, spurred by the powerful words of my friend Ariella Barker, Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina, I examined the effect that this distorted conversation has on the body image of people with disabilities, in “It Starts in the Mirror.”

Rounding out the top three, this week I had the opportunity to share the incredible power of my camp experience with you, and the benefits that I think that camp presents to people with disabilities in, “My Launch Pad.”  I have been incredibly moved by the reminiscences and kind words of so many of my camp friends who spoke of the positive impact that my inclusion had on their lives, and I will be following up in the near future with a post focusing on the amazing human element of my camp experience, highlighting some of the thousands of people that made my experience what it is.  Even more encouraging, the post is beginning to circulate among those who work in the world of inclusion, and I would love to see the net result be that more people are afforded the opportunity that I had.

But now we come to the request.  In the two months that this blog has been active, I have written more than 30 articles.  I encourage you to check them all out, if only because many of them were written on issues about which I feel very strongly.  That said, I’m running a little low on inspiration.

I started this blog because other people felt that they had topics on which they wanted to hear my opinions.  So, I’m asking you, my readers, to tell me if there other things that you would like to hear me write about.  I’ve set up an email address, matansblogideas@gmail.com, specifically for that purpose.

Please feel free to send me articles questions or thoughts which you feel could be good potential subjects for this blog.  I may not write posts about them, as I really don’t believe in writing on any topic unless I have something worthwhile to say, but I promise to at least respond telling you that a post is on the way or explaining why I don’t feel qualified to express a particular topic.

I am gratified to have had the opportunity to start some important conversations.  I fully intend to continue.  I gratefully welcome your help and participation in this mission.

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My Launch Pad: How the Micro World of Summer Camp Prepared Me for Full Inclusion in Society

"Holy sh**, that’s Matan" – Unknown shmirah (on-duty counselor) late July 1994. These were the words I heard during the execution phase of a critical step in trying to sneak me across camp, from boys’ camp to girls’ camp on the last night of the first session of Eisner Camp in 1994.

In the 80's and 90's, sneaking across camp, or raiding, was a time-honored tradition, especially on the last night.  (I understand that the camp's current management has curtailed the practice.) I like to think that I was fairly innocent in my adolescence, but there is no question that hormones were a motivating factor.

Despite being as motivated as any other 12-year-old boy, there were some significant complexities in the idea that I would participate.  The first was that sneaking across camp involved, well, sneaking, and I was in a large and very loud power wheelchair.  My friends and I never got a chance to solve the next complexity, the fact that the girls bunks were not ramped, but we had great fun dealing with the first.

It became immediately clear to our 12 and 13-year-old minds that there was no way that I was going to elude detection.  Even the most inept shmirah was not going to miss a large wheelchair barreling down the road.  We knew, however, that they could not range far from their posts.  The plan began to form.

One intrepid veteran, with many successful raids, who could thus afford to be denied one opportunity, would be intentionally caught.  While he was distracting the shmirah, I would go down the road at full speed, getting outside of the danger area before attention could be shifted.  The quote above, blurted out as I zipped down the road, was the result.

Of course, we forgot about the walkie-talkies, and of then rabbinical student now Rabbi Matt Gewirtz who was driving the super shmirah van.  Matt caught up to me about a thousand feet later, and ordered me home.

I began, but as soon as the van was out of sight I resumed my trek across camp.  As I crested the hill into girls’ camp, Matt, who was sort of an older brother figure to me that summer, came up behind me again in the van.  This time, he tailed me in the van all the way home.

This was not my only raiding experience, but it was by far the best story, and it exemplifies what camp was for me.  But let’s back up.

I grew up in small-town Connecticut.  Though my parents were strong proponents of full inclusion for their children with disabilities, I faced the twin practical barriers of access and transportation for nearly everything that I did or wanted to do.  My parents did not own a wheelchair van, and none of my friends’ homes were wheelchair accessible, nor were most of the other social venues for adolescents in our small-town.

At school, the educational and emotional blessing of having the incredible Carol Lemire as my one-on-one was paired with the unfortunate chilling effect of the idea that wherever I was, the watchful eye of an adult was never far behind, limiting constructive mischief opportunities.  I wouldn’t trade what Carol has brought to my life for anything, and I have come to think of her as a second mother, but school was not quite the unfettered laboratory of exploration that it might be for other people.

But, every summer, from infancy through age 18, I was at summer camp, most of those years at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp Institute for Living Judaism, where my parents were on faculty and where the above story takes place.  (Honorable mention to Camp Hemlocks in Connecticut, Camp Oakhurst in New Jersey, and the URJ Kutz Camp/NFTY Leadership Academy in Warwick New York for rounding out the 18 summers.)

My inclusion at camp was a rough and ready thing.  To put things in historical perspective, the ADA was signed by the first President Bush while I was in my second summer as a camper, and would not apply to any kind of Summer camp until three years later.  (Arguably, the First Amendment means that it still doesn’t apply to Jewish camps, but my focus is on where the understandings of the world were, not legal obligations.)  At the time, I was the only wheelchair user at camp.

Because it was rough and ready, with no blueprint, no past experience, and certainly no specialized services available, my inclusion was just that.  Full inclusion.  I was included in functionally all of the substantive activities available to another camper my age.

I swam in the pool every day.  They would slap a new ramp every summer on an appropriate boy’s cabin for my age group, and I would live there.  When it became clear that scrubbing the sinks was the only cabin cleanup task of which I was physically capable, that unenviable job became mine every day.  Each program, each sport, each song session, the presumption was that I would participate, and the creative college students running everything but their imaginations run free as to how that would work.  And it did.  There is almost no camp experience that I haven’t done.  I have danced at dances, acted in the Camp shows, and even once had my nails painted in a battle of the sexes.  (Let me tell you, I don’t look half bad in bright red nail polish, though it’s not my style choice today.)

But that is only a small part of the value.  If you recall my discussions of home, the biggest challenges to my social inclusion where transportation and access.  Camp, however, was its own little world.  Transportation lost its meaning when we all lived in a 600 acre Village.

As for access, when faced with a finite number of buildings that made up the camp social community, Carl, the wonderful camp maintenance man who had a wife in a wheelchair, built ramps to every camp building.

Even better, my ubiquitous escorts were cool twenty-year old guys who had no responsibility to enforce the rules.  (My most well-known assistant, my still dear friend Martin Smith, even helped me go raiding once.)  Here, my opportunities were the same as everyone else’s.

Then there were the differences in the community, and my human interactions.  My fellow campers lived with me, ate with me, swam and showered with me.  Anyone who has ever been the camp knows the depth of connection that that fosters.  In that depth of connection, it’s amazing how the separating otherness of disability falls away.  It wasn’t Utopia, and we had all the problems of a group of 500 kids 8 to 15 under the supervision of 150 kids 18 to 20, but it was pretty damn good.

It is perhaps no surprise then that it is camp where I had my first kiss, and my first heartbreak.  It is camp where I got an entire childhoods worth of bruises and tumbles, and the little triumphs that tend to follow soon after.  It is camp where I saw my first adult magazine, played my first card game, and broke my first curfew.  And, as described above, it was camp where I got the indescribable experience of raiding.

Since I could hang out with the other kids, camp was also the first place I encountered the Beatles, Billy Joel, and Simon and Garfunkel.  It was the first place I was surrounded by Phish Heads and Dead Heads, and the first place that I got to sing with friends as they jammed on ubiquitous acoustic guitars.  Many who know me now understand that each of these are significant parts of my current identity, but, in the pre-Internet world, I would have not found any of them sitting in my home in New Milford Connecticut.

The difference and social experience was also profound.  I think that I was well liked in my home town growing up, but I was always a little separate, no one knew me that well.  At camp, I was popular.  I had friends, acquaintances, and that loose construct we call “a crowd.”  At camp, I learned the social skills which would serve me well when I got to college and the real world and, for the first time, had year-round experiences with easy access to my peers.  This is, perhaps, a sensation experienced by many summer campers, but that doesn’t change its value to me.

Camp was also my first experience at independent living.  My assistants, especially Martin, were very clear that they were there to help me with my disability needs, but not to direct my life or my choices.  I had counselors for that, like everybody else, and the requisite independence that all campers experience.  So, simultaneously, I got to learn to make my own choices and the important lesson of how to comfortably accept the care of professionals not in your family.  Both of these are critical skills for someone with my needs to learn in order to live independently, and it was in the relatively safe, supportive environment of camp where I got to test these ideas for the first time.

This, then, was camp for me.  Like many Jewish children, I found it a nourishing experience, fostering a lifelong connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.  Beyond that, though, it was the place where I got to develop into a full-fledged human being.  Looking back on my life, I can’t think of a single social developmental milestone which happened for me somewhere other than camp.

This is not to say that camp is a panacea for socially isolated people with disabilities.  It is critical to my success that I grew up there.  My experience would no doubt have been different had I first arrived at camp a teenager that had never been included in a broader social world.  In fact, as a professional, I have encountered less than successful situations where just that was tried.  Further, though somewhat socially isolated, I was always included with my nondisabled peer group for education, and I have no doubt that that gave me tools which helped me to succeed at camp.

That said, for those with the basic tools, I think that camp can be in incredible opportunity to broaden one social development.

A key caution for anyone thinking to pursue this option.  Camp was only successful for me because I was allowed to have the same experiences as any other camper.  This meant that I was not bubble wrapped, but was able to get a few bumps and bruises.  Most importantly, it meant that I was not chaperoned, any more than any other camper.

As I mentioned, my assistants were cool 20- somethings with a clear idea of their role.  Further, when my parents, as camp faculty, were informed of my mischievous deeds, they made it very clear to those conveying the message that they were just happy that I was having the same experience as any other camper, and that if whatever I was doing would not normally necessitate a call home, then they didn’t need to know.  If you make camp as isolated and protective as the larger world, you will have no better results than the larger world.

But, done right, camp can be a launch pad, and for me was perhaps the key launch pad to help me find my current integrated place in the world.

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My Eser Experience, a Meditation on Community and Its Power to Make a House a Home

This is just a stub to point you to a guest blog post that I wrote for Eser, an in-home informal Jewish learning project run by Hebrew college and sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies. I hosted the downtown Boston group in my home this past Spring, and it showed me how, when strangers become friends, the awkwardness of difference fades away and new places gain treasured memories. Read the full post here.

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Meaningful Employment for People with Disabilities: Let's Start Making It Happen Now

Today, I have the honor of being the featured writer on Zeh Lezeh, a blog of the Ruderman Family Foundation. For those who do not know, the Ruderman Family Foundation is a fantastic organization based in Boston and in Israel. Their mission statement, in their own words, is that,

Guided by our Jewish values, we support effective programs, innovative partnerships and a dynamic approach to philanthropy in our core areas of interest: advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community; fostering a more nuanced understanding of the American Jewish community among Israeli leaders; and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide.”

I can personally attest to their impact as I continue to find their philanthropy at the heart of a vast number of initiatives in the Jewish world designed to improve inclusion of people with disabilities.

Today’s honor reminded me of the first time I had the honor of being their featured writer, on January 2, 2012. I wrote a pitch entitled Full Employment for People with Disabilities: If Not Now, When? It is now two years later, and I feel that my call to action remains, unfortunately, as timely as ever. Therefore, I reproduce the following post here, and challenge my readers to think about how they could implement it.

Guest Blogger Matan Koch, Associate at Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel, LLP and Member of The National Council On Disability

The below represents the author’s personal views, and not those of the National Council on Disability.

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam teaches that, when dealing with tzedakah, or righteousness, “the greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by . . . finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs [tzedakah] no longer.” Archaic language notwithstanding, this simple fundamental truth guides us today. Read properly it should inform and motivate efforts to employ people with disabilities, to lessen or to replace their dependence on lesser forms of tzedakah like Medicare, Medicaid, SSI and community supports, and set them up for long-term meaningful independence.

This is nothing new to most people, but the implications of such a focus might be. We read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 11:1, “Send forth your bread upon the waters; for after many days you will find it.” The rabbis explain this directive to mean that we, the doers and givers of tzedakah, benefit.

American businesses are just beginning to understand the benefits of employing people with disabilities. They are learning that it provides access to a separate and often overlooked talent pool. For example, I am a Harvard Law school graduate. Harvard Law school graduates are in high demand, and it is for this reason that I represent an appealing recruit for many businesses. Those businesses will work hard to accommodate me in order to access that talent. These talents, both those that are evident on resumes and those which are only discovered throughout the course of work, present significant benefits to employers.

Businesses are also learning that hiring employees with disabilities may allow the employer to expand in or even dominate the consumer segment with disabilities. To build from the words of the Rambam, strengthening the name of our brethren with disabilities strengthens us and our businesses. As we seek to emulate this highest form of tzedakah, we build independence, but also stand to reap tremendous benefits. That is a win-win, so, I ask “If not now, when?”

But, even if we agree that this is a win-win scenario, how do we get there?

We learn from Pirkei Avot that “Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.” Simply, we each have our own special contribution to make to the critical work of tikkun olam. The same idea holds true for a business.

A successful employer would start by identifying needs within his or her organization, and continue by looking among jobseekers with disabilities to find outstanding candidates who could meet those needs. Conversely, people with disabilities seeking jobs need to focus on the skills and abilities that they bring to the table, just as would any other job seeker. Their path to employment involves education and perhaps vocational rehabilitation to hone and highlight these abilities, raising their appeal to employers.

A match made focusing upon the need of an employer and the abilities that the employee brings to bear is a recipe for success. Accommodations in this circumstance become a collective undertaking to best utilize the employees abilities to meet the need for which they were hired.

The law, always intended to be a floor rather than a ceiling for accommodation, drops away in importance as partners join together to find the employee his or her “place in the sun” so that both parties benefit. The employee benefits from the job at which he or she will succeed. The employer benefits from a well-matched worker who, trends show, is likely to stay with the organization longer than his or her able-bodied counterpart, and potentially provides help in accessing the market of people with disabilities. All because each party understood the place of the other.

Tradition teaches us what to do and how to do it, so I ask again, in the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?”

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Judaism and Disability 4 of 4: Halachic Living with a Disability

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, largely unmodified from my undergraduate submission: Modern note: when I originally wrote this it was heavily footnoted to the various rabbinic and halachic sources from which I gleaned the rules. I was unable to reproduce those footnotes for the blog, but please write me if you are looking for sources, and remember that none of these answers are mine.

We will now move on to a discussion about those rulings that specifically relate to people with orthopedic disabilities. The most significant set deal with the prohibitions resulting from the Sabbath. The most general rulings are perhaps those to do with movement. A person who cannot walk without assistance may use a walker, wheelchair or crutches in a public domain because these are considered body parts for the person as long as the person cannot walk without them. Braces are considered articles of clothing and are permitted. Artificial limbs are considered parts of the body. Unfortunately, electric wheelchairs are prohibited for public use because even if they are activated by a non-Jew the perception may be that the Jew in the wheelchair activated it. Interestingly, as of 1991 Israeli engineers were attempting to create a switch that would make power chair use permissible. This does tend to make one wonder how a wheelchair user who is not able to self propel a manual chair is supposed to lead that as meaningful as possible Jewish life. One loophole offered now, which will be more fully explored in the section relating to carrying on Shabbat, is that a non-Jew may be asked to push a wheelchair if the disabled person has significant distress at not going to synagogue. I ask the reader to make note of the sensitivity to mental anguish as it will figure prominently in later discussion.

The wheelchair as a body part enjoys an unusual position in Jewish law. A person in a wheelchair may carry a talit in the back pouch of the wheelchair because the pouch is considered a subsidiary to the wheelchair, and the wheelchair does not know better. In this unusual ruling, the wheelchair is in some ways given its own volition, as the comparison made is that of a small child carrying a rock. As we shall see in our in-depth discussion of the Shabbat laws, such legal fictions are no stranger to Jewish legal reasoning. Other wheelchair rulings are more readily apparent. A wheelchair user, or anyone who cannot stand, may say the Amidah, customarily said standing, from his or her chair. A chair user may also sit shiva from a wheelchair instead of a stool.

Not all rulings are this permissive, however. Driving to synagogue on Shabbat is prohibited even if there is no other option. Also, on Shabbat, a disabled person may not use an elevator or an automatic door unless taking advantage of the usage of such by a non-Jew. While at first glance, this may seem harsh, insensitive, and unfair, it is important to look at these rulings within the context of the rulings that we have already seen and the tradition from which they come. Simply put, Jewish tradition is legalistic tradition. Jewish laws are law, not to be trifled with for convenience. We have seen over and over again that modern halachic authorities want to accommodate people with disabilities. In the prior paragraph, we have even observed the creation of the convenient legal fiction to allow the carrying of talit for chair users on Shabbat. It would seem likely therefore that these prohibitions are simply things that the Rabbinic authorities could not legally circumvent or accommodate. Some might argue that the law is not perfect, others would argue that the law is perfect but we don’t understand it yet.

An interesting last piece that I feel should be tacked on to our discussion of orthopedic disabilities is a small section where Rabbis have actually a modified ritual because of understanding the specific circumstances of a disability. First, they have ruled that we have the ruling that, a right handed man should don tefillin on the left arm even if it is atrophied or paralyzed, if the arm is missing the person should don tefillin on the right arm. Then, we have the other seemingly isolated ruling that a disabled person should say the bathroom blessings after first covering catheters or collestomy bags. Intrinsically, these rulings are sufficiently obscure that they are outside of the scope of this paper. Yet, the fact that Rabbinic thought and effort were put into these specific rulings, and they were in fact published, reinforces the message that Judaism wishes to allow all Jews to make their lives as Jewish is possible, though their disability may appear to stand in the way.


The first rulings in the guidelines for the deaf are very similar to the first ruling in those for people with orthopedic disabilities. That being because they relate to what in the disability field would be considered adaptive equipment. A hearing impaired person may wear a hearing aide because it is considered an article of clothing but may not adjust the volume. One may not carry it in one’s pocket. A spare battery could be designed as an article of clothing. A microphone may be used to help a hearing impaired person hear the torah on weekdays but a microphone may never be used on yom tov or the Sabbath. I think that the reasons for these were fairly well explained in the last section. The next few rulings are what we would call reasonable accommodations, changes to an activity such that a person with disabilities can still do it, but that retain a sufficient resemblance to the original activity. Deaf people may fulfill the mitzvahs of hearing torah and meggillah by reading them to themselves. Also, deaf people may dispense with the reading of the marriage contract or may use sign language.

Strangely enough, after this spate of permissive rulings, the Rosner and Tendler article gives a very terse statement that a deaf mute is exempt from all the commandments. The first thought that comes to mind on that is the Talmudic ruling to that effect, the possible explanations for which are discussed earlier in the paper. In examining the applicability of this ruling to today, it is beneficial to examine a quote by Rabbi J. David Bleich from his book Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Volume 2. On the source sheet from the Orthodox Caucus, it quotes the following from page 375 of his book. In light of the degree of education attained even by true deaf mutes in contemporary society, it is doubtful that they are considered examples of heresh described in rabbinic references. Hence they should be encouraged to, and indeed required to participate fully in Jewish religious life, including performance of all ritual obligations as well as in Torah study. By this light, the previous ruling, while correct in everything that it said was to be applied to a category of people that existed in rabbinic times and does not exist now. The Rabbinic cheresh was unreachable, today’s deaf mute is not. As society is now able to move away from blanket exclusion of the deaf, so is Judaism.

GUIDELINES FOR THE BLIND The first ruling that we will discuss for blind people relates to Shabbat and illustrates the particular tension generated by a disability for which most modern accommodations are technological. That ruling is that a blind person may not listen to tape or radio on the Sabbath. This is immediately followed with the qualification that visiting that person to provide them with stimulation is a specially meritorious mitzvah. Again, I think this is emblematic of the tension between the highly legalistic religion and a strong desire to provide compassion.

The next set of rulings that we will discuss have to do with a blind person’s personal obligations. I will list them first, for I feel that the prevailing theme will be self-evident. A blind person is required to say the blessings over the new moon. It is preferable for others to say the Channukah menorah blessing for them. A family member should perform the search for chametz before Passover. Further, a blind person must light Sabbath candles if there is no danger to the person or anyone else. This says that you do not have to see something, be it the new moon or the Shabbat candles in order to appreciate and bless them. Yet, you are free from those mitzvot that you could not possibly perform, while still being valued enough to merit their performance on your behalf.

Now we will move in to the reasonable accommodation phase of the laws for people with visual impairments. Firstly, a blind person may have contact with his wife before she goes to the mikveh if it is for her to provide him assistance. Also a blind person may be accompanied by his or her guide dog into a synagogue. These rulings indicate to us that certain taboos, especially those relating to ritual purity can be waived in order to allow for a accommodation of disability. By allowing the assistance to trump the restrictions, one labels them a mitzvah, as these are the only kind of actions that can at times transcend prohibitions. One accommodation offered is that blind people may pray from memory. They are not, however, exempted from any of the carrying restrictions in order to carry large print or special edition (Braille or other) books. At first glance, this may seem an unjust prohibition. Yet, it is quite easy to acquire copies of such books for a synagogue, assuming that the person can use them. Clearly, if they cannot, it presents the reason for the lifting of the prohibition on memorization. If they can, why do they need any more freedom than any other Jew? It would seem that here Judaism walks the fine line between a reasonable accommodation and special treatment. It also seems that they do so quite well.

The last two rulings relate to partially sighted people. Simply, a partially sighted person may read Torah and lead prayer, and a partially sighted person may serve as a legal witness. Both of these rulings affirmed that Jewish citizenship is based upon capacity and not some mistaken idea of the ideal.

The Shabbat Laws I already mentioned in the introduction to this section the compelling reasons for an in-depth discussion of the Shabbat laws. I will not reiterate that now, but stop only to remind the reader that we will start with a discussion of medical treatment, move to a discussion of technology on Shabbat, and finish with a discussion of the laws of carrying people.

MEDICAL TREATMENT Jewish law contains within it an imperative to heal. Life is a precious gift from God, as is the ability to save life. A doctor that does not practice his art is likened to a murderer. Yet, refuah, healing was not permitted on the Sabbath. The original prohibition against healing on Shabbat was in case herbs should be ground to make medicine. Grinding is prohibited on Shabbat. This ruling has been much debated in modern times, when people do not grind their own medicine, nor do doctors prepare medicine on the spot. The prevailing idea is not for abolishment, since in some places people do still prepare their own medicine, but rather that this fact should engender leniency. Leniency aside this remains the main concern to this day. There is, however, one other significant concern. Most of modern medicine requires the use of electronic equipment. While specific discussion of these laws will be held until further section, suffice it to say that this is customarily prohibited on Shabbat. The values used to address these prohibitions are extremely germane to our discussion. Not only is medical treatment itself a prime issue for disability, but the issues of suffering, anguish, and pain are also applicable.

The priorities of violation and healing on Shabbat are pretty straightforward. All Shabbat and most ritual prohibitions can be waived in the preservation of life, pikuach nefesh. Still, medical treatment should be done in the least transgressive way possible. For instance, it is permissible to control diabetes with insulin on Shabbat, but only if dietary control is not a viable alternative. For even serious illness, any prohibitions can be waived to provide the treatment needed. For general illness, wherein one is infectious, in great pain, or bedridden, but a threat to life is not present, one may perform rabbinically prohibited activities shinui or instruct a non-Jew to perform even a biblically prohibited task. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein considers impairment of function due to medical condition to be the same as being bedridden.

An act done shinui or kilachar yad, as with the other hand or different, constitutes a kind of rabbinic prohibition that can be violated to alleviate pain or to prevent great financial loss. Usually, performing an act shinui should be somewhat more difficult or complicated than performing the act in a standard fashion. An example might be kicking an automatic touch plate rather than pressing the button or tearing something with a full body movement rather than by jerking your hand. Rabbinic prohibitions are actions that the Bible does not prohibit, but for reasons such as a similarity to a biblically prohibited act or the potential to lead to a biblically prohibited act. These prohibitions are still binding, but it will become clear as we move through various halachic rulings that they are not given the same weight as biblical prohibitions.

Wherein there is risk to a specific body part, one may do tasks which are rabbinically prohibited without doing them shinui. If there is thought that this may become life-threatening, then one may do even biblically prohibited tasks. With illness in a specific body part, but no great pain and no threat, one may only do rabbinically prohibited tasks through a non Jew.

So far, these rules seem eminently pragmatic. Danger is identified, indexed, and treated. Interestingly, however, Jewish law seems to have made the jump to understanding the significance of psychology in ways the medical profession has yet to go. Prohibitions against various activities can be bent, especially rabbinic ones, if something needs to be done to treat mental anguish related to medical condition, even if the doctor thinks such measures are unnecessary. Many rabbis will permit rabbinic transgressions even when the anguish is not directly related to the malady at hand. A truly startling expression of this is in the fact that one is allowed to light a light for woman in labor to ease her mind. This is clearly done to relieve psychological anguish, as it can even be done for a blind woman.

The medical ethics of Shabbat are therefore quite straightforward. Most interesting for this analysis is not the varying categories of illnesses, but rather, the clever methods for circumventing prohibition and, most importantly, the recognition of psychological anguish as sufficient grounds for the violation of a rabbinic prohibition, certainly as matched with other legalisms.


Continuing on, we move to a discussion that at first glance has very little relevance to our topic, except perhaps with regard to elevators and other adaptive equipment. Indeed, later in this section we will discuss elevators at length. This lengthier discussion of electronics, taken mostly from one article, is not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it is to examine the lengths to which modern rabbis will go to allow Jews to enjoy the conveniences of modern technology on the Sabbath so that the reader will be better able to appreciate that the extensive lengths gone to in order to justify carrying people with disabilities that we will see later can be better understood. For instance, we know that kilachar yad can be used to perform a rabbinically prohibited act to allow one to avoid a biblically prohibited act. What is interesting is that potential situations recommended in this technology article include unplugging a refrigerator kilachar yad so that the light will not go on when you open it. While I suppose that this could be to prevent one from starving, to me it smacks of simple convenience. This is a more lenient standard than great pain or anguish.

The overarching issue with regard to electronic devices is very simple. Completing a circuit is work such as at least one of the prohibited categories on Shabbat. Also, anything incandescent is considered to be the same as kindling fire. As a general removal of all electronic devices would represent a significant inconvenience for the modern Jew, legal loopholes have been developed, some of which we will explore now. I offer this caveat, however. As my concern is the law and not the technology, I will often outline the loophole without giving specific examples in electronics.

The first legalism offered is the following. Halachah rules that it is okay to do a permitted action on the Sabbath even if that permitted action could possibly cause a biblically prohibited action. This is called a davar she’eino mitkaven, an unintended act. The Talmud prohibits however that this idea be taken to an absurd extreme by forbidding an action that will definitely lead to a prohibited action. There is some question as to whether or not this only applies to secondary consequences beneficial to the doer of the original action. If the benefit of the secondary action is not to the doer and is therefore clearly unintentional, it is a rabbinic prohibition. A poor example of this might include passing through an elevator door and triggering its sensor not at a time when it is pointless, but rather just as the timer was about to run out, thus keeping it open unintentionally. As an interesting addition to this, it seems that in Jewish law, ignorance is a defense, as it were. An unintentional act is permitted. Therefore, a secondary prohibited act of a permitted act is not prohibited if the doer of the primary act was unaware that the prohibited secondary act would occur.

Another category of leniency in prohibition of labor on Shabbat is one where the benefit derived is not the purpose of the action with regard to the mishkan, called malacha she’eino tzericha legufa, a hole dug for the dirt if you will, rather than the whole. The mishkan was the sight of ancient Jewish worship and is often translated Tabernacle. One example of work where the purpose differed would be turning off lights to gain darkness, since the extinguishing of flame in the mishkan was to gain the black ash. This class of prohibition could only be violated to serve the public safety, not to prevent significant financial loss as in the case of other rabbinic prohibitions. It is quite possible, however, that again significant pain or mental anguish would allow this class as well.

The final class of prohibitions discussed in this article was a grama. A grama is an indirectly caused action. This is rabbinically prohibited except in cases of potential great financial loss or likely comparable moment. An example given is that of putting barrels of water in front of a fire so that they will burn, explode, and extinguish the fire. A common example of this is a thermostat operated appliance, permissible on Shabbat. Latent circuit devices use this principle to be permitted, such as a grama telephone, because rather than completing a circuit one simply removes the impediment to a circuit. This category is particularly significant to our discussion because the wheelchair in development discussed earlier in the paper runs on the grama principle. The chair would have a latent current running at all times.

Now, we will discuss the adaptive technology that is perhaps the most ubiquitous and one of the most useful for people with mobility impairments, heart problems, and numerous other issues, the elevator. I cannot critique the halachah of elevators because each of the rabbis quoted has a greater understanding of the engineering than I. Rather, I will reproduce it here. The halachah of elevators is complicated, and the debate seems to rage over several issues. Rabbi Yitzchak Weisz forbids riding in even an automatic elevator because the presence of even an extra passenger causes the motor to draw more current. Rabbi Yaakov Breisch rules that just as the Talmud prohibits one from being transported in a chair carried by others and this teaches not to ride in a trolley or on a subway, so it teaches not to ride in elevator, as he feels there is no distinction between vertical and horizontal travel. Rabbi Yosef Henkin and Rabbi Yehuda Unterman rule that since the elevator and not the person is doing the work, an automatic elevator is okay. Rabbi Breisch’s ruling does not appear to have any normative authority. After this, things get even more complicated. Rabbi Halperin rules that one may ride in an ascending but not descending elevator, as an ascending elevator causes the motor to draw more current, which he feels is halachically permissible. The descending elevator has two problems. One, a standard descending elevator uses the weight of its passengers to descend, and the halachah rules that one is responsible for actions caused by one’s weight trade. Two, a descending elevator generates current that is fed back into the buildings power grid. Rabbi Halperin is working on a special elevator without this problem. It should be noted, however, that the question of weight responsibility is disputed, and most authorities will allow the riding in an automatic elevator.

Moving away from these technicalities, we come to rulings most specifically relevant to people with disabilities. This is a group for whom the elevator is the only option, a group who needs to find out how to use it. One is permitted, according to some rabbinic authorities, to ride in an elevator operated by a Gentile provided that that Gentile was not operating the elevator on the Jew’s behalf. People with disabilities, however, have an even better option. For an even mildly sick person, or to facilitate performance a mitzvah, one may ask a Gentile to operate the elevator.

CARRYING Carrying is one of the thirty-nine categories of work biblically prohibited on Shabbat. It is important to note that pushing a wheelchair is considered carrying. The various loopholes that may allow this are what we will explore here. One may carry a human being who is potentially able to carry themselves even if they’re not doing so at this time, and be subject to only a rabbinnic prohibition. The minimal qualification to say that one is able to carry one’s self (chai nosei et atzmo) is that one can walk with help. If one is too sick to walk, is tied up, or is never able to walk, then they’re no longer considered chai nosei et atzmo.

By now, the reader should be aware that when a rabbi reduces something to a rabbinic prohibition, he is looking for a way to make the activity permissible. For carrying, they create a special rationale above and beyond what is normally necessary to violate rabbinic prohibition. In order to violate the rabbinnic prohibition one must do so shvut d’shvut, in essence create a situation where one is doing a rabbinnic prohibition through a method which would itself change a biblical prohibition into a rabbinnic prohibition. In essence, this can only be done in time of urgent need. This can include great pain, including emotional pain, potential great financial loss, and desire to fulfill a mitzvah, such as visiting the sick or going to services.

The next question is how to create this situation of a double rabbinic prohibition, understanding that the carrying chai nosei et atzmo is the first rabbinic prohibition. Possible methods include telling a Gentile to do the carrying, pachot pachot me’dalet amot, or shenayim she’osu. Pachot pachot me’dalet amot is the process of circumventing the limitation of carrying no more than 4 amot into public domain. The method, rabbinically prohibited, is to carry the person or object in stages of three amot. In order to get between a public and private domain one would stop in the middle of the transition point and start again which is never in fact carrying the whole person from the two domains. These methods, combined with chai nosei et atzmo, constitute a shvut d’shvut. When two people perform an act which could clearly be performed by one person is called shenayim she’osu, and this takes any biblically prohibited act and changes are to a rabbinic prohibition.

Clearly, our most pressing interest is how this can be applied to people with disabilities. In addition to questions such as carrying into a house for an oneg, shvut d’shvut can be used to push someone in a manual wheelchair for the reasons listed above. Remember that a wheelchair user is not chai nosei et atzmo, and therefore one must create the shvut d’shvut in its entirety. Some examples might be to have a Gentile pushing the wheelchair pachot pachot me’dalet amot, or for Jews to push the chair shenayim she’osu and pachot pachot me’dalet amot.

There is one more extremely ambiguous case, the Carmelit. A Carmelit is a rabbinically designated public space such as a “bungalow colony, an open field, a village street, or a body of water.” Originally, such spaces did not qualify as public areas, but they were a gray area that could easily lead to or have been mistaken for a public area. Furthermore, they weren’t private domains and needed some classification. Some consider that carrying one who is chai nosei et atzmo in a Carmelit is permitted because it is gezeira l’gezeira, a double precaution. Double precautionary measures automatically cancel each other out, with more finality than a shvut d’shvut. Others do not consider a Carmelit gezeira, though even they recognize this as an automatic shvut d’shvut.

The overriding idea is that rabbis’ go to incredible lengths to attempt to make the pushing of wheelchairs permissible. The only real place worth expressing any discontent with their attempts is that they do not see the extent of the potential mental anguish that exclusion would create. I am willing to argue that the psychological need for inclusion rates at least as high as the significant pain medical prohibition. Thus, I feel that pushing a wheelchair should not be a shvut d’shvut question, but rather one of creating only one rabbinic prohibition. This may seem unimportant and legalistic to some, but in practicality it has to things going for it. One, it recognizes the sheer weight that the psyche places on inclusion. Number two, it allows Jews to push the chair pachot pachot me’dalet amot, shinui, or in a Carmelit. To close this portion of the discussion, it is important to note that an eruv trumps these questions for a manual chair.

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Judaism and Disability 3 of 4: Halachic Treatment of People With Disabilities

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, largely unmodified from my undergraduate submission: The single most overriding ethical imperative to all Jews, ubiquitous within my sources, is that society should not treat people with disabilities as anything other than equal. It is a Jewish obligation for individuals, family and society to help people with disabilities lead as full and productive a life as possible. Perhaps nowhere is this more quickly forgotten, and nowhere does it need to be more quickly remembered than in the case of people with intellectual disabilities. In a sources sheet put out by the Orthodox Caucus, an Orthodox Jewish ethics organization, there’s a quote from the rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik from his look, Jewish Education: The Fire of Sinai that sums this up very well. He says the following. The Sheeino yodeia lishol, the retarded child cannot be neglected. Even though this child appears unable to talk and is apparently without intelligence, we are not to assume that the so-called retarded child has no potential. With proper patience, love and perseverance, one is apt to open the mouth of the sheeino yodeia lishol... Every child has to be approached individually. To the extent that the child is limited, the child’s maximum potential is to be reinforced and galvanized. This, of course, will require consuming, persevering dedication and labor, but those who devote themselves to this endeavor will certainly reap results and will succeed in becoming partners with God by infusing life and joy into the stagnant existence of retarded children. There is no nobler cause than dedication to the ushering of joy and meaning into the lives of retarded children, as the Rambam says at the end of Hilkhot Megillah (2:17): “For one who gladdens the heart of the unfortunate is similar to the Shekhinah, as it says “To revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” [Isaiah 57:15]. This is a potent argument, not just against the shunting of the intellectually disabled to the side, as is so often done in our society, but actively including them to whatever level they can be. It affirms their basic humanity, and makes a firmly founded Jewish obligation out of attempting to educate them to the fullest extent of their potential. This rabbinic authority assumes that potential.

One might immediately counter with the argument that this is an innovation in Judaism, that the Rabbis very definitely had a category of shoteh, the imbecile discussed earlier, and that this person, while protected, was excluded. Modern authorities have an answer to that question as well. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, quoted from his book, Tzitz Eliezer 14:69, on a discussion guide put out by the Orthodox Caucus, has the following to contribute. It is clear that even those who are most mentally disabled, whose intellect is underdeveloped, and do not comprehend things as other people do, do not fall under the category of a shoteh (imbecile); they are only disqualified from being witnesses in a court of law, as they sometimes cannot recognize contradictory statements... but they are certainly subject to the mitzvot, even capable of Gittin and Kiddushin (marriage and divorce) if they can understand these things when they are properly explained to them. ... Therefore an adult with the IQ of a 7-10 year old should be taken out of a non-kosher institution, and placed where she will not be exposed to forbidden things, and this is the responsibility of the community and its leadership, that is, the Kehillah (the organized Jewish community) of the city. Here, again, is an even stronger trumpet note of inclusion. Furthermore, the idea of shoteh is limited to the unresponsive.

There are many other responsibilities that the community and individuals face with regard to people with disabilities. When possible the community and family must work to their utmost to help people with disabilities avoid institutional care. This is clearly a quality of life issue, as the sources seem plainly aware that institutionalization is known to reduce quality and length of life. Further, Judaism does not expect that the family will bear this often unbearable burden of cost and logistics alone. According to Rabbi Moshe Sofer, care for the physically and intellectualy disabled among the community is the responsibility of the whole community. They are classified with the poor as financially and physically sustained by society. This burden relates as well to accessible Jewish facilities.

A specific subset of these facilities that is particularly important are the educational facilities. Where possible, any supports necessary for disabled people to pray and be educated with the community should be purchased or hired, up to and including private teaching for those students unable to attend school. Lest anyone think that this is merely modern sensibilities intruding upon Jewish values, let us take a moment to look back at the Babylonian Talmud. The following story comes from Eruvin 54b. Rabbi Preida had a student to whom he had to repeat each lesson four hundred times before he understood it. One day R. Preida was required to leave and attend a certain matter involving a mitzvah. Before leaving, he taught the student as usual four hundred times but he still did not grasp the concept. R. Preida asked him “why is today different?” He answered him “From the very moment that they told my master that there is a mitzvah matter that he must attend to, my attention was diverted, because every moment I thought that now the master will get up and leave, now the master will get up and leave.” R. Preida said to him “Pay attention, and I will teach you.” He taught him another four hundred times. Clearly, the student had a learning disability and yet this Rabbi set forth in action the ideals that the modern Rabbis relate in modern terms.

It is clear that the Rabbis applied this concern to all elements of human life including purity issues such as are involved in reproduction. The sources make it clear that it is especially important that mikvehs be made accessible. When necessary to provide help, a husband may accompany a women and a blind woman should have help with the bedikah (examination) cloth. Not only is the disabled person the responsibility of society in supplying these opportunities, but society must help to support them even so far as taking care of children that they produce but are unable to care for. Abortion must be avoided even if it means other Jews must step up, adopt and care for the child.

A proper summation of this section is pretty easy to make. Very simply, Jews are responsible to do whatever they can to make sure that the conditions of their fellow Jews disable them as possible. People with disabilities are to be taught whatever they can learn, given the best quality of life available, and allowed to grow to their full potential. To today’s listener, these may have the ring of truisms. Yet, these ethical imperatives were revolutionary to American society little more than three decades ago, and have not yet achieved their full realization. Interestingly, they grow seamlessly and in an easily foreseeable fashion from a tradition spanning thousands of years.

Specific Imperatives for Persons with Disabilities

A disability often comes with special implications for the life of the person with disabilities. Jewish law has adapted and evolved as a result of these special needs and has created specific rulings for the practice of people with specific disabilities. In this section we will discuss several different kinds of rulings. First, we will look at rulings germane to a wide range of people with different disabilities. Next, we will look at rulings most applicable in questions of orthopedic disabilities. This will be followed with a discussion of guidelines specifically for the deaf and hard of hearing, and finally, with a discussion of rulings for blind or partially sighted people. These could be the cheresh and the iver of the Rabbinic rulings.


Most of the next few sections will be peppered with specific rulings relating people with disabilities to different halachic imperatives. It is an interesting overall statement, therefore, that Jewish law does not hold responsible people unable to fulfill commandments because of disability and specifically frees them from guilt. According to Rabbi Moshe Tendler and Dr. Fred Rosner, this affirms “that the basic worth and spirituality of the disabled is not diminished in any way.” This does not imply a freedom from halachah, merely a freedom from the guilt that may be associated with being unable to achieve the impossible. According to Rosner and Tendler, halachah “urges them to achieve their fullest potential as Jews, while exhorting society to assist them in making their religious observance possible.” This means that in general, a person with a disability should fulfill all of the commandments as best as they are able.

We are taught that disabled people should have a bar mitzvah and do as much as they are able, if they cannot get to synagogue the miynan should be brought to their house. Also, a disabled person, if not intellectualy disabled, is part of a minyan and, a disabled person may testify as a witness in a legal proceeding. The overarching statement implied from these individual rulings is both simple and profound. In essence, to whatever degree they are able, people with disabilities are allowed to demonstrate their acceptance of the responsibilities of adulthood. Furthermore, more than a demonstration, they are allowed, as long as they have the ability to participate as a full adult with all rights and privileges in Jewish civil and spiritual society. I personally think that this melds directly with the Talmudic ruling that a person with a disability can serve as a shaliach tzibor, a prayer leader, as long as that disability is not distracting to the congregation. This, of course, must be understood with the caveat that not disrupting the community’s ability to concentrate on prayer is a qualification for the job of shaliach tzibor.

Perhaps the most astounding statement of inherent equality and value for persons with disabilities as living, contributing members of the community is the following quote from Rosner and Tendler. “A disabled person has the same rights, privileges [sic] and obligations applicable to all Jews regarding ritual family purity, marriage, and procreation.” This quote is followed by the following further statements on Jews with disabilities and procreation. Unless a disabled person is unable to care for a child, he or she is obligated to procreate. Relatedly, birth control or sterilization in the case of mental retardation is not condoned unless experts agree it is absolutely necessary.

This warrants some discussion. Why would anyone even bring this up? Unfortunately, less than 30 years ago, there were still states in this country that mandated sterilization for people with certain kinds of intellectual disabilities. Jewish law rejects this “eugenics” for the heinous crime that it is. So why mention birth control at all. People with certain disabilities cannot produce viable offspring. In allowing the consideration of birth control for these people, Judaism is acknowledging that which so many religions shy away from but of which it has never been afraid. Sexual relations are healthy part of life for its own sake. If it is unjust to have a person with disabilities procreate, but they are able to engage in marriage and sexual relations, he or she should do so in whatever way is possible. Similarly, a disability is not considered grounds not to have children. Raising children is a mitzvah and many people with disabilities who cannot procreate can still give love and support and give some child a good upbringing and a meaningful life. Thus Jewish scholars say that, if a disabled couple cannot have children they are encouraged to adopt. I think that this is the greatest statement of worth and value that a tradition can give to a population. Not only are they expected and encouraged to contribute offspring, one of the most sacred of the Jewish and obligations, their value as people is so far recognized that they are encouraged to raise children even if they cannot create them. How different in timber this is from the society in which we live that still tries to take the children of disabled mothers.

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Judaism and Disability 2 of 4: Ancient Words, Modern Sensibilities: Disability and the Talmud

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, largely unmodified from my undergraduate submission: The rabbis in their texts, the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and both Talmuds, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, gave shape to Judaism, framing this discussion and many others. Before proceeding, I again feel the need to give credit where credit is due. I have neither the knowledge of Rabbinic texts, nor the familiarity with them, to have located the forthcoming citations on my own. While the blog format required the removal of footnotes and bibliography, I am in debt almost entirely to secondary authors. I am happy to provide footnoted text with bibliography upon request.

Except for the broad umbrella of overall themes found within the Mishnah, I have failed to come up with a true ordering scheme for the passages cited. As such, save for a little bit of thematic breakdown, this section follows roughly the order of the Mishnah. Talmud and Tosefta will be ordered with the Mishnah in such way as they best explain the Mishnah, as some would argue was their original intent. After that will come independent bits of Talmud.


The core of any legal system are the rights and responsibilities of those within the system, and the Jewish system is no exception. Since this is the core concern, the Talmudic discussions impacting the rights and responsibilities of Jews with disabilities give us a clear insight as to an overall Jewish approach to disability. Numerous mishnayot and Talmudic passages provide insight on this point. Let us consider the following passage from Mishnah tractate Terumot. There are five that may not give the heave offering, and if they do so their heave offering is not valid: a deaf mute, an imbecile, a minor, he that gives heave offering from what is not his own; and a Gentile who gives heave offering from what belongs to an Israelite -- even if it was with his consent his heave offering is not valid. He that is not dumb but [only] deaf may not give heave offering, but if he does so his heave offering is valid. The cheresh of which the sages have spoken is always one that is both deaf and dumb. If a minor has not yet produced two hairs, Rabbi Judah says: his heave offering is valid. Rabbi Jose says: if [he gave heave offering] before he reached an age when his vows are valid, his heave offering is not valid. (Terumot 1:1-3)

This raises an interesting question. Are the deaf mute and the imbecile unable to make valid vows? If so, why? Is it an implication of their then believed lack of cognition, or is it something else? Some light is shed by the second sentence. A verbal deaf man, as opposed to one who is mute, is not obligated, but should he make an offering, it is valid. It is possible that this distinction, which in the Mishnaic times was the distinction pre and post lingual hearing loss, reflects that culture’s inability to teach the deaf. Simply put, it was not fair to obligate those who could not be taught, yet, if one demonstrated knowledge, it was not invalid.

The Tosefta contradicts the logic of the Mishnah that one who is both deaf and mute cannot give valid heave offering. In Tosefta Terumot 1:1 we read the following. Rabbi Judah says, “a deaf mute who separated heave offering -- that which he has separated is valid heave offering” said Rabbi Judah, M’SH B: the sons of Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgada were deaf mutes, and in Jerusalem all of the foods requiring preparation in purity were prepared under their supervision.” They said to him, “is that proof [that a deaf mute may separate heave offerings]? For foods requiring preparation in purity do not require [preparation with] intention and [therefore] may be prepared under the supervision of a deaf mute, imbecile, or minor. [But] heave offering and tithes require [separation with] intention [and therefore may not be separated by such individuals).” Rabbi Isaac says in the name of Rabbi Eleazar, “that which has been separated as heave offering by a deaf mute does not enter the status of unconsecrated food [even though it is not valid heave offering] because it is a matter of doubt whether or not he has understanding. A first read at this passage might bring a modern disability rights activist into a state of outrage. I encourage the reader to abandon for a moment the modern world view where a quality and inclusion have acquired normative significance, and our ability to communicate with and engage the cognition of people whose disabilities render them nonverbal has reached unprecedented heights. Consider instead that within the understandings of the culture from which these rulings come, this is in fact a very inclusion centered decision. Before standardized systems of sign language, before Helen Keller, and before modern science, rabbis had no way of knowing whether one who could not communicate could learn or think. They did not know whether the root cause of the inability to speak was physical or cognitive, or even that such categories existed. This middle road was as fair as they could be, given that issues of intent were central to their worldview. Simply put, Mitzvah performed without the requisite intent is per se invalid.

It is evident in the later description in 1:2 and 1:3, which takes as broad as possible a view of who is a deaf mute without intent, that the rabbis did not wish to exclude anyone unnecessarily. This idea finds ultimate clarity in the Yerushalmi. In Terumot 1:1 II A., it is said: “Now the deed [of a deaf mute, imbecile, or minor whose separates heave offering] should indicate that he gave [proper] thought [to separating it], so that the separation is valid, [contrary to Mishnah Terumot 1:1]”. This enjoys great facial similarity to the logic in the Bavli. In fact the same idea is operating. The beauty of the Yerushalmi is that it then proceeds to give a whole section on what proves intent, and therefore cognition, thus making a widely applicable principle. As the Yerushalmi applies intent and cognition to activities such as judging, the author Judith Abrams points out their importance in questions of community leadership. Not just intent, but decorum was a big concern for the rabbis. The common sensibilities, i.e. what will offend the populace become the litmus test on whether those such as the blind or ill-dressed can lead, lest they disrupt or distract the public intent. Without intent, and cognition, ritual becomes meaningless. Abrams mentions that this idea, which comes to its ultimate fruition in Ben Sirah and other Judaic literature, makes lack of cognition the ultimate form of valuelessness. This becomes a strong strike against all disability because of the equation of deformed body and deformed mind in this literature.

Moving on to tractate Megillah, we are confronted with another limiting passage. In Megillah 2: 4, we read, “All are eligible to read the scroll excepting one that is deaf or an imbecile or a minor.” This immediately raises the question of why the deaf person? Oftentimes, the cheresh is excluded because of a perceived intellectual deficiency. This passage separately mentions the imbecile, however. The Yerushalmi takes up this question in 2:5. In section 1:1, we read, “Said R. Mattenah, this represents the view of R. Yose [in excluding the deaf mute,] in the theory that the reader must hear what he is saying.” R. Hisda disagrees, feeling that the opinion of R. Yose applied specifically to the Shema, which begins with the statement, “Hear O Israel”. Hisda’s opinion is that since the deaf person is so often included with minors and imbeciles that there was a mistake in the recitation of the passage and deaf was not meant to be there. While one cannot discount the possibility, the fact that this combination was so common that it was an understandable possibility that it was said by mistake itself tells us something very interesting about the rabbinic conception of disability of deafness. Clearly, it immediately associated one with the margins of society.

Further of interest is the fact that the question of why occurs to the rabbis of old, and that at least one is willing to brand it a mistake. This means that thousands of years ago, the notion of excluding a deaf person simply because they were deaf was regarded as bizarre or inappropriate by the rabbis. From here, as from sources discussed later, one can infer that the default standard was the greatest inclusion possible.

Moving on through the sources in the Mishnah, tractate Megillah, chapter 4:6-7 says the following: He that is blind may recite the Shema with its benedictions and interpret. Rabbi Judah says: he that has never seen the light may not recite the Shema with its benedictions. This may relate to the benediction involving light. If a priest has blemishes in his hands, he may not raise his hands [in the Benediction of the Priests]. Rabbi Judah says: moreover one whose hands are died with woad or madder he may not lift his hands because the people would gaze on him. Immediately these passages raise questions, but the best answers are perhaps in the Talmud, and indeed, the Talmud on the subject is rich. This passage is discussed in Bavli 24b. The issue of most interest to the rabbis is why a blind man should be allowed to repeat the blessings in his heart, including praising the creator of light. First, the analogy is drawn to those Rabbinic concepts, such as the chariot of Ezekiel, which are impossible to comprehend except by insight. Furthermore, they find that the blind man can gain benefit even from those things that cannot be seen by them. It is written: Rabbi Jose said: I was long perplexed by this verse, ‘and you shall grope at noonday as the blind gropes in darkness’. Now what difference [I asked] does it make to blind man whether it is dark or light? [Nor did I find the answer] until the following incident occurred. I was once walking on a pitch black night when I saw a blind man walking in the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him, my son, why do you carry this torch? He replied: as long as I have this torch in my hand, people see me and save me from the holes and thorns and briars. (Megillah 24b) The idea here is that there is some benefit to the blind man saying the prayer for light. The question that this explanation raises is whether a blind man benefits from his own action, or that like the torch, his words allow those who hear him to grow and learn and thus to better help him. One implies inherent value in the actions of the blind man. The other makes the blind man the torch bearer, a vehicle by which others learn things that they can then use to help him.

In explaining the discolored or deformed hands, the rabbis give the following interesting answer. They include in the group anyone who would distract those who were praying, including foreign accents. They added the disclaimer that for any of these limitations, if the townspeople were accustomed and would therefore not be distracted, then the prohibition was lifted. This seems to return us to the earlier question of distracting another’s intent. Clearly, a person with whom you are familiar, no matter how visually unusual, is a person who will not distract you.

The next important passage is in Hagigah 1:1. The Mishnah says the following. All are subject to the command to appear before the Lord excepting a deaf-mute, an imbecile, a child, one of doubtful sex, one of double sex, women, slaves that have not been freed, a man that is lame or blind or sick or aged, and one who cannot go up [to Jerusalem] on his feet. Immediately, we see two apparent sets of characters, the marginalized or marginal in identity, and those who do not have the capacity to fulfill the command. Of those who cannot fulfill the command, the exemption is not only understandable, but bespeaks a gentleness and consideration that seems to inform many such commands. For the marginals, we must look at each one and wonder why. Assuming that children are actually excluded for lack of physical capacity, (the later part of the same Mishnah establishes that a child is one too young to ride on his father’s shoulders) we can remove cognition as a qualifier, as presumably a child too young to understand could still fulfill such a command. Yet, if we presume for a moment that a child will one day be able to accept responsibility and fulfill the command, we separate them from the “imbecile” and the slave who has not been freed. They are in a different set for consideration, as they cannot make their own choices, and may never be able to.

Let’s explore for a moment the troubling concept that our translations referred to as an “imbecile”, or shoteh. To understand the rabbinic concept of an imbecile, we must try to avoid all of the modern stigma of the word and focus on the notion of one who truly lacks cognition and understanding. On this point, the remarks of Judith Abrams again are enlightening as to what we see as the developing Rabbinic logic. Noting that children are often grouped with the disabled, she correlates them with the factor of da’at, which a simple translation would render knowledge or cognition. For Abrams, however, it connotes intention, consent, opinion, knowledge, and maturity. From this springs the concept of the shoteh. In Abrams opinion, the shoteh can be anyone without da’at. This need not result from and is not a foregone conclusion to be a result of cognitive disability. A person without a disability could lack da’at, and a person with an intellectual disability could still have da’at.

According to her, da’at is necessary to be a part of the Rabbis’ system. Their system is dependent upon learning, hearing, thinking, and then, only with proper intent, doing. The groups we have, shoteh, katan, and cheresh, are presumably lacking the ability to engage in that process. At the very least, they have yet to develop it or their ability it is in doubt. This is why they are marginalized and why so much effort is put into their categorization. The best that can be said of these groups is that sometimes, in their innocence, they serve as vessels for the will of God. This system is given some proof in that for most things, visual and physical disabilities do not make one liminal, only disabilities of cognition and sexual ambiguity.

If we accept that a woman was free of such obligations because of gender issues beyond the scope of this post, we can understand that the androgynous person and the hermaphrodite are excluded because their gender is uncertain. Explanation is provided by the Bavli. In Bavli tractate Sanhedrin folio 66a, we find the following explanation, at least of our suppositions about those of indistinct gender.

Our rabbis taught: [“For any man that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death: his father and his mother he has cursed; his blood shall be upon him”. Now, the Scripture could have said] A man [ish]; what is taught by any man [ish ish]? -- the inclusion of a daughter, one of indeterminate sex, and a hermaphrodite [as being subject to the law]. This exception helps prove the rule that gender uncertainty was one of importance for both legal obligation and legal penalty. Even as women were held to different standards because they were not men, so were people of indeterminate sex usually excluded. Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:1 VI-VIII has an in-depth discussion of this which absolutely and clearly indicates that the question was one of the ability to determine gender. This we know because it is said that if the gender becomes determined, and it is male, than he is obligated. We are still left with the question from this passage of a blind man or a deaf mute, the iver and cheresh of the Bible. The question of the blind man is expanded upon in the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 2a. In commenting on the word “all”, the rabbis say the following: what does “all” come to include? -- it comes to include a man who is blind in one eye; and it is contrary to the opinion of the following Tanna.... a man who is blind in one eye is exempt from appearing [at the Temple] as it is said, “he will see; he will be seen”. This logic of the rejected Tanna does explain why a fully blind man is not included. Assuming that his mistake was assuming that having only one eye precluded seeing and being seen, such would nonetheless be impossible for a blind man. In Tosefta Hagigah 1:1 the logic of seeing and being seen excluding the blind man is repeated, leading one to believe that this is from whence the Tanna is cited. The Tosefta calls this the opinion of Rabbi Judah, while the opposing opinion is included as the opinion of Rabbi. From a Rabbinic perspective, the deaf mute can be fit under a cognition rubric. Bavli Hagigah 2b supports the logic of cognition saying directly that the imbecile, the minor, and the cheresh are excluded for lack of understanding. Later, in 3a, there is further discussion of the nature of cognition, and that of obligation, of people with disabilities. First, there is a story of a Rabbi who taught those who could hear but not speak. When God granted them the ability to speak, it was found that they had learned, proving their intelligence. Still later in 3a, one who is deaf in one ear is exempted from an obligatory appearance because of the admonition, “so they may hear”. The editor of the Soncino Talmud in English feels that this is to remove the stigma of an inability to learn from the commandment, thus bringing it into line with the prior discussion.

People of liminal status are not without protection. In Mishnah tractate Baba Kamma 8: 4 we read the following admonition. It is an ill thing to knock against a deaf mute, an imbecile, or a minor: he that wounds them is culpable, but if they wound others they are not culpable. It is an ill thing to knock against a bondman or a woman: he that wounds them is culpable but if they wound others they are not culpable; yet they may need to make restitution afterwards -- if the woman was divorced or the bondman freed they are liable to make restitution. This passage teaches that one who is not responsible for their own actions, not in control of their own actions, or is under the guidance of someone else, cannot be charged restitution. The fact that upon becoming responsible for themselves, i.e. a freed bondman or divorced woman, these same individuals become responsible for their actions, proves this point very clearly. The deaf mute, the imbecile, and the minor represent a class of people believed unable to take responsibility for their own actions. There exemption from liability represents two principles in Mishnaic law, one laudable, the other questionable. First, those who cannot control their own actions are not culpable for the consequences. With this, however is pared the unfortunate idea that deafness implies inability to control one’s actions.

The Tosefta seems more confused on the same issue. In Baba Kamma 9:13 we have the following exchange: (I have removed the translator’s outline formatting to avoid confusion) He who inflicts injury on a deaf mute, idiot, or minor, is liable in four counts, but exempt on the count of indignity, because they are not subject to indignity. Rabbi says: “I maintain concerning the deaf mute that he most certainly is subject to indignity. As to a minor, he is most certainly not subject to indignity. As to an idiot, sometimes he is subject to indignity, and sometimes he is not subject to indignity.” As to a blind man, Rabbi Judah says, “he is not subject to compensation on the count of indignity.” And sages say, “he is subject to compensation on the count of indignity.” Clearly, there is some disagreement here. As this is the Tosefta not the a law book, it is difficult to say what became law. The unattributed statement voices a low opinion of the intelligence of described categories of people. Yet, the rabbis disagreed on this point. Rabbi and the sages understand that there is a certain dignity accorded to the blind and the deaf. Rabbi Judah withholds that dignity from the blind, and, since in the ancients’ hierarchy the blind were granted higher dignity than the deaf mutes, we can assume it was withheld from the deaf as well. Again, since neither offers proof text or rationale, it’s impossible to see whether this evidences a coherent view on disabilities, or whether this is simply a disagreement based on opinions of people with disabilities. Though the Tosefta does not shape halachah, this nonetheless shaped Rabbinic opinion on both sides of the debate.

In Yerushalmi tractate Peah, the idea is again brought up that provides special protection to those with disabilities. In fact, as a corollary, the idea is brought up that generosity to people with disabilities is repaid by generosity from God and is in fact tantamount to honoring God. Also, failure to assist brings Divine punishment.

Complimenting the discussion of responsibilities, and what rights can from there be gleaned, there is also very direct discussions of the rights of individuals with disabilities. In Mishnah Sanhedrin 8: 4 when speaking of the putting to death of a rebellious child, the following is said. If either of them was maimed in the hand, or lame or dumb or blind or deaf, he cannot be condemned as a stubborn and rebellious son, for it is written, “then shall has mother and his father lay hold on him” -- so they were not maimed in the hand; “and bring him out” -- so they were not lame; “and they shall say “-- so they were not dumb; this is our son -- so they were not blind; “he will not obey our voice” -- so they were not deaf.

The most common analyses of this passage within the tradition are laudatory. Most commonly, this passage is quoted to indicate the extreme lengths to which the rabbis would go to avoid enforcement of an admittedly grisly biblical idea. Lost, often within that analysis is an acknowledgment of the willingness to treat people with disabilities differently. This line of thought within the tradition goes on to create requirements that no human set of parents could meet before they could punish the rebellious son. One must ask, therefore, why it was necessary to single out people with disabilities as of the first to be excluded from this parental right or obligation, and what unfortunate lessons this provides to someone who, when wrestling with a question of halachah, looks to the rabbinic guidance in one situation to learn that the act in another.

Unfortunately, the themes that one can glean from this ruling create terrible precedent. The questions and issues are as follows. First and foremost, there is no mention of accommodation; a rebellious son appears to become unpunishable if his parents have a disability. Further troubling is the notion, buried within the text, that a blind person would not know his or her own son. In a clear example of the slippery slope concern raised above, this concept is expanded upon in the Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 8: 5 and extended to the qualifications of judges to judge, since similar language involving actions is utilized. This creates a danger that every biblical text using this language to define a physical task, a literal interpretation will prevail, and hence disqualify people with disabilities from all manner of participation in society.

The limitation of rights of Jews with disabilities finds its most profound expression in temple service. In Bekhoroth chapter 7, there is a discussion of who among the priests can serve in the Temple. There is an incredible list of disqualifying blemishes, some to do with head shape, others with shape, size, or functionality of various other body parts. The list only seems to have one guiding principle, that of aesthetic functional perfection. This seems to build on Abrams’ earlier concept, that the priest must be a perfect receptacle. Clearly, the rabbis’ view of perfection was particularly physical. The word unsightly is used at least once as justification. Towards the end of chapter 7, we find a discussion of true physical ability, but this is clearly not first and foremost in the analysis.


In the Jewish world, it is said that “all is in the hands of heaven save for the fear of heaven.” The most important meaning to take from this aphorism is of course that our attitude is all that is within our control. More important for our purposes here, however, is the understanding that all of life unfolds according to the divine will. If this is the case, then disabilities are not accidental, but for good or ill, are a part of the divine plan. We saw this discussed a little bit above, but the concept of disabilities being given by God returns with stark clarity in Bavli Niddah 31a. The passage is as follows: and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, gives him the spirit and the breath, beauty of features, eyesight, the power of hearing and the ability to speak and to walk, understanding and discernment.

Harder perhaps that acknowledging the easy fact of the divine nature of disability is trying to figure out why disabilities are part of the divine plan, a topic on which rabbinic thought appears conflicted. First, Nedarim 20a, lists defects caused by various forms of sexual misconduct. Examples include lameness for physical misconduct in sexuality, muteness for oral misconduct, and blindness for visual misconduct. This tends to place to blame squarely on the parents, as well as strongly regulating sexuality. Contrasting with this, 20b discusses the sexual conduct of Rabbi Elazer ben Hyrkanos, noting certain irregularities enhance the beauty of the children. In the end, the issue is not resolved, because the halachah says simply, “a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife [at intercourse].”

The idea that the punishment of disability fits some sort of crime is a theme found in chapters 3 and 4 of tractate Sotah of the Tosefta. Then, in Tosefta Berachot 6:3, this idea is revisited with a twist. The Tosefta explains that upon seeing various disabilities and deformities, you are to praise God for his manifold creations. In essence, this makes disability an exercise in Divine creativity. Then, the Tosefta goes on to instruct that for other conditions, one should say, “Blessed is the true judge”. This is the traditional Jewish response to tragedy, or death. It indicates that God has a reason for the bad things that befall humanity. This put the level of complexity on the question and might be interpreted to show that it could be either blessing or curse.


While there is certainly more to be learned from the above sources than could fit in numerous papers the size, and it may be most valuable to my readers to lay out the sources and allow them to draw their own conclusions, I would be remiss in not exploring for a moment to central themes that I observe from the above sources. I glean three major themes from the above. 1. Cognition and the importance thereof is central to the halachic treatment of questions of disability; 2. Disability, like everything else, is an expression of the will of God; and 3. God and humanity must partner in the care, support, and the inclusion of people with disabilities.


It is easy, and erroneous to view the rabbis focused on cognition as a prejudice to disregard of individuals with intellectual disabilities. To believe this is to miss the point last intent, in Hebrew kavanah is a critical and foundational piece of the rabbis understanding of the world. It is the intent that gives the action value. In many ancient cultures, ritual, and the exact formulas thereof, had concrete effect on both dieties and the world. These effects were both compulsory and sustaining. Judaism is not a religion of magic and ritual and prayer neither compel nor sustain the Jewish God. Rather, prayer, and a sacrificial rituals that it replaces serve to provide us with a concrete communicative connection to the divine. Without intent, there is nothing to communicate. It would be very much like saying words without knowing what they meant, a phenomenon of modern religion that would shock the ancients. The Hasidim would later theorize that intent could fully overshadow formula. This idea is neither new nor novel. Originally, the form of the prayer service was laid out by theme and the words provided belonged to the individual. Such a system would have been meaningless without intent and cognition.

To emphasize that this is a firmly held value and not an exclusionary prejudice, we should examine the lengths to which the rabbis went to make sure that no one was excluded. Great lengths to determine cognition, as well as great lengths to eliminate the stigma of liminal status were commonplace. Remember, a demonstration of cognition consistently overcame any presumption of exclusion.


I will not belittle the beliefs of many Jews today as many Jews throughout the ages that every detail of the universe is ordered according to the divine will. Rather, I will remind the reader that the texts are ambivalent as to whether having a disability as we define it is even negative, much less punishment. In Judaism, in response to the experiencing tragedy or death, the legislative response was baruch dayan ha-emet, blessed is the true judge. Implicit in this response is the idea that the why of the occurrences of our lives is often beyond our understanding. We accept simply that the happening is God’s will, for good or for ill. To have this as the starting understanding of the origin of disability has the potential to be far less limiting that the prospective of those who would simply lament their ill fortune.


The idea that both God and humanity must partner to promote the well-being of individuals with disabilities, and that this is a holy partnership, dates, as we saw above, all the way back to the book of Leviticus. Consideration and respect for one’s fellow human being is a central idea to Judaism, and is extended whole cloth to people with disabilities.

It is frankly amazing to think that this can be gleaned from Jewish ancient sources when much of premodern and modern society condemned people with disabilities to the streets and the institutions. Judaism understood back in biblical times that caring for the neediest among us was a holy obligation.

It is this very consideration that will inform the discussion of halachah that we will have in the next section. Judaism is at its forefront a legal system, and so the law must be upheld. We see this in the exclusions in the Talmud. Equally strong, however, is the commitment to temper that law with compassion and find ways to minimize any negative impact of these rules.

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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.


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.


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 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.

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