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rabbi resources: sermon: disability: Special Needs in Jewish

SPECIAL NEEDS IN THE JEWISH TRADITION

From Lenore Layman, MA, in “Opening the Gates of Torah: Including People with Disabilities in the Jewish Community”

Before we begin to explore specific ways that we can say “hello” and 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 and teachers in the Bible are thought to have 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 also became blind. Our matriarchs were also not portrayed as being perfect; Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel were all 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.”

God encourages Moses to be successful in leading the people of Israel, even with his disability, a powerful example of how individuals with disabilities can not only be included but can make significant contributions to our community.

These are just a few of the many Biblical references which serve to highlight God’s positive attitude toward people with disabilities. They emphasize that a great leader does not need to be seen as physically perfect.

In addition to the many examples of Biblical leaders with disabilities, 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 each other.7 These texts speak to the value of respecting, accepting and empowering people with disabilities. The message is clear - our tradition emphasizes that the barriers of architecture, communication and attitude must all be broken down for real change in the area of inclusion to occur.

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. An example of this can be seen concerning the validity of a person who is deaf reciting the Shema. “If one recites the Shema without hearing what he says, he has fulfilled his obligation. Rabbi Yosi says he has not fulfilled it.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 15a). The discussion in the Talmud which follows this statement provides a counter argument by Rabbi Meir which focuses on the phrase, “And these words shall be on your heart.”(Deuteronomy 6:6) 

The Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Arukh both reach the conclusion that one who can speak but not hear can recite the Shema: “One must hear what one says when he recites (Shema), but if he did not hear, he has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation.”10 “One must hear with one’s ears what one utters with one’s mouth, but if one did not hear, he still fulfills the obligation as long as his lips utter [the words].”(Shulchan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, Hilkhot K'riyat Shema 62:2) However the interpretation only goes so far, since the conclusion is that one who is both deaf and unable to speak, and one who is simply unable to speak are exempt from reciting the Shema.

Another interesting example involves shehitah, ritual slaughtering, in which an animal must be cut firmly and quickly. The Mishnah prohibits the heresh (the person who can not hear or speak) and the shoteh (the person who has an intellectual impairment) from slaughtering because of the fact that they might make some type of mistake which would cause the animal to be non-kosher. However, the Rabbinic literature reflects some leniency. “All may slaughter, and their slaughtering is valid, except a heresh, a shoteh or a minor, lest they invalidate their slaughtering.

But if any of these slaughtered while others are watching them, the slaughtering is valid.”12 A third example relating to someone who is blind and reading from the Torah is interesting to examine. The Talmud states, “The written Torah must not be recited from heart.”(Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 60b) Based on this, the Shulhan Arukh forbade a person who is blind from reading the Torah: “A person who is blind may not read (from the Torah) because it is forbidden to read even one letter by heart.” (Shulchan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, Hilkot K'riyat Sefer Torah 139:4) After the custom changed to have people read directly from the Torah and others be called up to the Torah for aliyot, a more lenient position was adopted, which allowed people who are blind to have aliyot. In a responsum adopted by the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards in 2003, Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins has now concluded that Jews who are blind may lead the congregation in prayer, receive an aliyah and chant a haftarah.

Because the law is explicit in stating that the Torah must be read for the congregation directly from a Torah scroll and not from a printed text or from memory, Jews who are blind may do one of three things: read the maftir in Braille since it has already been chanted from the Torah scroll, receive an aliyah and then chant the Torah portion softly after the reader or serve as a verse by verse translator of a section of the Torah portion.

Finally, let us take a brief look at what the Rabbis had to say about disabilities 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:

The birth of Isaac was a happy event, and not just in the house of Abraham. The whole world rejoiced, for God remembered all barren women at the same time with Sarah; they all bore children. At that time all those who were blind were made to see, all those who could not use their legs were made whole, the ones who were nonverbal were made to speak, and the intellectually impaired were restored to reason.”


Others believed that those who had disabilities were to be pitied for their plight in life, though elsewhere the literature highlights the value of individuals beyond their disability and displays both compassion and understanding. Following is a beautiful Midrash about sensitivity to the blind:

A blind man came to the city of R Eliezer ben Ya’akov. [Rabbi Eliezer b Ya’akov invited him to dinner,] and he sat him in a position at the table even more honored than his own. The people of the city said, “This must be a great man, or R Eliezer would not have placed him above himself at the table.” They awarded him a considerable sum. “To what do I owe this?” the man asked them. They replied, “Because R Eliezer placed you above himself at the table.” Then the man prayed for him as follows: “You have shown loving kindness to him who is seen, but cannot see, May the One who sees you but cannot be seen receive your graciousness, and show loving-kindness to you.”

​Despite the varied Rabbinic opinions and attitudes towards disabilities that can be found throughout Midrashic literature, 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.