Friday, May 29, 2015

Disability Dignity and Judaism - Emor

 Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney co-founded the
Accessible Icon project, designing the new icon
 to display an active, engaged image with focus
 on the person with disability.
"If someone is blind, has a sunken nose, long eyebrows, or crushed testicles among other “blemishes”, the Torah states that they are disqualified from certain religious worship (1)in the temple’. We have not had a temple for 2000 years so this particular law is theoretical, but I still felt uncomfortable when I read this in the Torah portion last week. In this post I explore how Judaism deals with disability.

The Torah is explicit about overt disrespect toward and unfair treatment of the blind and deaf. “Do not curse the deaf” and “do not put a stumbling block before the blind (2)”. The Torah, more generally, forbids discrimination against anyone with less power than others, such as the stranger (3), and this surely should apply to many people with disabilities. Included in the commandment to love others like ourselves is the requirement that we must treat others as we would want to be treated, that is to be included, and to have one’s dignity and wishes considered by others.

We must avoid hurtful speculation about links between physical conditions and virtue. Unfortunately, one commentator suggests that Aaron could not possibly have any physical blemishes at any time in his life because “he was holy to God, all of him beautiful, there will not be a blemish in him (4)”. What does that imply about people with disabilities?! Another commentary states that “One who accepts bribes will eventually become blind… one that has an “arrogant foot” will eventually come to have a broken leg… (5)” However, our tradition insists that we cannot understand why things happen in this world, e.g. neither the “suffering of the righteous, nor the tranquillity of the wicked (6)” because the ways of God are a mystery.  In the Torah at least three of our heroes had imperfections.  Both Isaac and Jacob were affected by degrees of blindness late in their lives, while Moses had a speech impediment. None of these conditions are presented as punishment!

Representations (7) are an important part of positioning people in terms how others relate to them. Dr. Ruth Calderon offers an insightful analysis of the contrasting attitudes toward disability in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds (8). Calderon discusses the representations of blind people in the Jerusalem Talmud. In a story, the blind person is anonymous and his character remains static rather than develops. He is not the hero of the story. He is merely there to support the main sighted character whose name we are told, Rabbi Hoshia the great. This Rabbi Hoshia would normally have a daily meal with his child’s blind teacher, but one day he fails to invite the blind man because “he didn’t want to embarrass him(9)”. He apologises to the blind man who prays for him.  The blind person is the weak party who the sighted person must be careful not to hurt.  

Calderon contrasts this kind of representation with the powerful vibrant characters we encounter in the Babylonian Talmud.  One of these is Rav Sheshes. “Rav Sheshes was blind. Everyone was going to see the king. He went with them. He met up with a Sadducee, who said "we take intact vessels to draw water” (and not broken vessels! Why did you come? You will not see anything’(10)). Rav Sheshes replied: You will see that I know more than you do. A throng passed. When it became noisy, the Sadducee said "the king is coming!" Rav Sheshes said, he is not coming [yet]. A second throng passed. When it became noisy, the Sadducee said "the king is coming!" Rav Sheshes said, he is not coming. A third throng passed. When it became quiet, Rav Sheshes said "surely, now the king is coming!" The Sadducee: How do you know? Rav Sheshes replied: Earthly kings are a semblance of the Heavenly King… When the king came, Rav Sheshes blessed him. The Sadducee (continued to mock him): Do you bless someone you do not see?!  What happened to the Sadducee?... Rav Sheshes put his eyes on him and he became a pile of bones (11)”.

These differences in the kinds of stories that are told are consistent with approaches to participation. While in the Babylonian Talmud Rav Sheshes is a full participant in many debates and is regarded as a significant authority, his very credibility is questioned in the Jerusalem Talmud. The argument put forward is that for someone’s teachings to be credible they need to be a sighted person so that they can see the person from whom they hear the tradition(12)”.

Associations made between physical perfection or ‘blemishes’ and degrees of worth are of concern to me. One approach locates the problem with the blemished priest, in the man himself. The exclusion of a blemished priest is justified by comparing it to the situation in which someone would not dare to offer damaged goods as a gift to a political figure one was seeking to ingratiate oneself with (13).  Another approach locates the problem in the (flawed) inclination of people who see the priest in his service to react with “disgust” toward the worship itself if it is carried out by someone with a deformity (14). The former approach I think devalues the person with a physical variation; the latter is a concession to human superficiality. The subjective approach is used to create a dispensation that would permit a priest who is blind in one eye whose community is familiar with him to perform the priestly blessings because they are unlikely to be distracted by his condition (15).

While text is important, the most important question is what is happening in practice. At a conference to grapple with challenges of people with disabilities relating to Judaism (16), questions were raised about access to places of worship and support for people with disabilities who wish to perform rituals. One of my most cherished moment of my Rabbinical career was the Bat Mitzvah of someone I will call Cara. She was the first person with cerebral palsy I ever met. Her mother approached me about Cara having the opportunity to participate in a Bat Mitzvah ceremony just as her twin sister was planning to. I said yes, we would do it. Thanks to a young teacher whose name I don’t remember and Rebbetzin Fruma Schapiro of Chabad House North Shore, Cara was able to celebrate and feel no less than her twin. Cara’s demeanour communicated “Dignity and pride”. As Jews, commanded to treat others as we wish for ourselves, we dare not settle for anything less.

For further discussion of this issue, See which discusses changes in the reality of deaf people for example and how this impacts Halacha about their status and degree of inclusion, the inclusion of blind people in being called to the Torah by overcoming technical/legal concerns,  and more.


1)       Leviticus 21:17-23
2)       Leviticus 19:14
3)       This commandment is repeated several times in the Torah, the link to power is made by Ibn Ezra on Exodus, Sidra Mishpatim
4)       Ramban on Leviticus 21:17
5)        Klei Yakar, on Leviticus 21:17
6)       Pirkey Avot 4:15
7)       Hall, S. (1979)  in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices
8)       Calderon, R, Doctoral Thesis, send to me in a private message via Facebook 1/05/2014
9)       , ירושלמי פאה פ"ח ה"חJerusalem Talmud, Peah, Chapter 8, Halacha 8, cited in Calderon, 
10)    Translation and explanation mostly from
11)    Babylonian Talmud, Berachot, 58a, בבלי ברכות פרק ט' נח' ע"א
12)    ירושלמי שבת פ"א ה"ב ג"א Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat Chapter 1, Halacha 2, cited in Calderon
13)    Rashi, referring to Malachi 1
14)    Abarbanel
15)    Maimonides, Yad Hachazakah, book of Love, Laws of Prayers and Lifting the Hands 15:2, Furthermore, based on the custom today is for the community not to look at the Cohanim/Priests as they perform the blessings there is no risk of distraction based on blemishes and therefore blemishes should not be a reason to exclude anyone according to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 128. See also, Lau, Rabbi who brings further sources regarding this law and others regarding the blind and deaf

Friday, May 1, 2015

Thou Shalt Not Hate…! Emotions on command? Kedoshim

Photo by Anita Sarkeesian,
reprinted under Creative Commons License Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic
I feel unmotivated, resentment, anger and even despair sometimes.  ‘I shouldn’t feel like this’ is one thought that appears in my mind. I should be positive and forgiving (toward everyone other than me) is one approach.  But surely that is unreasonable. I feel how I feel and I can’t change it. 

The Torah’s prohibition against hate (1) suggests otherwise.  Clearly, ‘to hate is a choice!’ is implied.

Perhaps, it is not. One scholar reinterpreted the commandment against hate to mean something more concrete, “do not speak smoothly with your mouth” while you hate them in your hearts (2). This fits a pattern of mundane applications of emotional commandments. Love your fellow like yourself is applied as an instruction about not marrying without first seeing your prospective spouse because of the risk that eventually the husband might see something ugly and this would cause her to be despised  (3). Another application is not to do to your fellow what you dislike (4). I think there is great wisdom in this approach because it recognises that in a sense our emotions are involuntary responses to the world around us and that sometimes we cannot be instructed what to feel. Similarly, many would argue that people cannot be told what they are allowed to think. 

On the other hand, the Torah suggests, that our feelings are significantly influenced by our thoughts (5).  We are therefore legitimately called to guide our thoughts to be loving rather than hateful. 

Here is an example. I flew on a fairly empty flight from Dallas to Sydney recently. There was a devout Arabic Muslim couple with a baby seated in the row of four seats in front of me.  They sat on either end of the row. I heard a baby crying for a while and I noticed that the husband/father remained sitting comfortably in his seat, presumably leaving his wife to deal with the baby by herself. I had heard from women in the Arabic Muslim community about some men who are sexist. Immediately a judgmental thought popped into my mind. What is wrong with this man? Why is he so selfish and chauvinistic? Then I noticed the thoughts in my mind and asked myself if I was stereotyping? “I don’t know this man!”. I then checked and found that his baby was actually sleeping soundly on the seats between them and the crying was coming from someone else’s baby. 

A great rationalist commentator on the Torah, Ibn Ezra, states that there are three types of commandments including one that governs what people think in their minds (6). He argues that through our thinking, we can control the impulse to covet another man’s wife. He argues that just as a villager would not covet a princess regardless of how beautiful she is because he knows this is not realistic. Surely then what God has forbidden to one person because it is the possession of another should be even less likely to arouse envy. A great theory, but if this was the case pedophilia would never involve religious people, tragically it does.  

Both approaches reflect part of the truth. It is true that we are commanded to love and think good thoughts and we can some of the time. It is equally true that this is impractical at least some of the time. Self-compassion is in order, accepting that some circumstances will reasonably elicit emotions like anger, or fear and this is ok. Yet we aspire to comply with the commands not to hate but to love instead, by being aware of our thoughts (7) and choosing to think other thoughts, sometimes.

1)    Leviticus 19:17, I acknowledge that this law is specifically when the potential hatred is directed against “your brother, which is disappointing for me because I would love to see a broader directive against all hate
2)    Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
3)    Talmud, Kidushin 41a
4)    Lekach Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima on Leviticus 1918, p.69
5)    Maimonides, Yad Hachazah, Laws of Teshuva 10:6, Tanya
6)    Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:2, also cited in Lebovitz, N. New Studies in Vayikra, p. 344
7)    My coleauge Donna Jacobs Sife has taught be that to counter prejudice in ourselves requires vigilance to our thoughts. Thank you Donna for this valuable insight.