Torah Heroes Had Special Needs
Before we begin to explore specific ways we can fully welcome people with disabilities into our Jewish communities, let us take a brief look at how our tradition has viewed people with disabilities in the Tanakh, in Jewish law and in Midrashic literature.
Many of our great leaders had various disabilities.
Isaac became blind in his later years — “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see ….” Jacob had difficulty walking and became blind. Our matriarchs also were not portrayed as perfect; Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel were barren, and Leah is described as having had weak eyes.
Even Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, is portrayed as having some type of speech disability: “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.” In the next verse God answers him:
“Who gives man speech? Who makes him unable to speak or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, The Holy One? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and will instruct you what to say.”
In the Babylonian Talmud … [t]hese texts speak to the value of respecting, accepting and empowering people with disabilities.
God encourages Moses to be successful in leading the people of Israel, even with his disability, providing a powerful example of how individuals with disabilities can not only be included but can make significant contributions to our community.
A great leader does not need to be physically perfect.
There are also textual examples guiding the community of Israel to treat people with disabilities in a respectful way. “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am The Holy One.” This example provides textual support for the critical importance of making our schools, congregations and Jewish communal institutions physically accessible to those with disabilities.
Modifying our physical environments with ramps, and making accommodations for those with visual and hearing impairments are important paths to take when approaching the inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life. A further verse in Leviticus states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis emphasize that all Jews are responsible for one another. These texts speak to the value of respecting, accepting and empowering people with disabilities.
Many of the examples about the status of people with disabilities in rabbinic legal literature portray the conflict that the rabbis might have had between strictly interpreting certain aspects of Jewish law and taking into consideration the possibility of being more lenient in other instances.
Finally, in Midrashic literature we find that, as today, the rabbis had differing opinions and attitudes about people with disabilities. Some offered interpretations pointing to the fact that disabilities were part of God’s overall plan, focusing on the ultimate justice of God. It was also believed that certain righteous individuals could intercede and change the plight of people with disabilities. We can see that the rabbis of the time struggled to understand the causes of various disabilities and to find meaning in what they interpreted as the suffering of people with disabilities.
Excerpted from a presentation by Lenore Layman, “Opening the Gates of Torah: Including People with Disabilities in the Jewish Community,” which originated at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.