Do the dis­abled get a raw deal in the To­rah?

How do we ex­plain bib­li­cal laws which ap­pear to dis­crim­i­nate against peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, asks Joseph Mintz

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

WHEN I was 18, some 20 years ago, I worked for a sum­mer do­ing Camp Amer­ica in the Catskill Moun­tains of New York State. But this was a camp with a dif­fer­ence: it was run by an Or­tho­dox Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tion which catered for chil­dren with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties and learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties (or “men­tal re­tar­da­tion” as it was re­ferred to at the time).

It was a well-run, car­ing en­vi­ron­ment in which the chil­dren flour­ished and gen­er­ally had a great time. I re­mem­ber, though, what the camp di­rec­tor told us fresh-faced new coun­sel­lors, straight out of high school, at the start of our ori­en­ta­tion pro­gramme: “Ev­ery one of th­ese chil­dren here rep­re­sents a tragedy for their par­ents, never for­get that, but also an op­por­tu­nity for us to do good in the world.”

It seemed to make sense to me then. But now, af­ter spending over a decade work­ing in ed­u­ca­tion, I have ques­tions. In the 21st cen­tury, ac­cepted sec­u­lar wis­dom is that we no longer re­gard those with dis­abil­i­ties or spe­cial ed­u­ca­tional needs as tragedies: the only tragedy lies in so­ci­ety’s un­will­ing­ness to adapt it­self to their needs. As anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws in­di­cate, so­ci­ety has an obli­ga­tion to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where what used to be called “deficits” are now re­garded as just man­i­fes­ta­tions of hu­man dif­fer­ence, if any­thing to be cel­e­brated.

Yet nor­ma­tive Ju­daism seems, on the face of it, to en­dorse the idea of “deficits”. For ex­am­ple, a per­son who is blind or deaf-mute can­not act as a wit­ness in a Jewish court of law. Not only that, the pres­ence of any sig­nif­i­cant phys­i­cal de­fect in a Co­hen pre­cludes them from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Tem­ple ser­vice.

Sim­i­larly, only an an­i­mal free of phys­i­cal blem­ish can it­self be brought as a sac­ri­fice. This seems a far cry from mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties: we don’t read in the To­rah about mak­ing rea­son­able ad­just­ments to the ramp lead­ing up to the al­tar for priests with walk­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. Many writ­ers on dis­abil­ity have used th­ese pas­sages to sup­port their cri­tique of a Ju­daeo-Cris­tian tra­di­tion which, they say, sees dis­abled peo­ple as be­ing of less value than the able-bod­ied.

The re­al­ity, though, is much more com­plex than that. We know, for ex­am­ple, that med­i­cal ex­per­tise in Is­rael in cer­tain ge­netic con­di­tions far sur­passes that else­where. Why? Be­cause it’s only in Is­rael that the large Or­tho­dox com­mu­nity re­fuses to have the screen­ing tests that lead to most car­ri­ers of th­ese con­di­tions be­ing aborted in other coun­tries. The call to care for the “widow, the or­phan…” has, in our tra­di­tion, al­ways been ex­tended to the dis­abled. When the an­cient Greeks were leav­ing chil­dren with ab­nor­mal­i­ties to die ex­posed to the el­e­ments, Jews were stand­ing up for the sanc­tity of all hu­man life.

So is it true that the tra­di­tional Jewish ap­proach fails to deal ad­e­quately with dis­abil­ity? There are, in­deed, tra­di­tional sources whose in­ter­pre­ta­tion seems more in line with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties. Thus the Midrash Vayikra Rab­bah com­pares a Co­hen in the Tem­ple to a ham­mer used to build a house. Both are just ves­sels that per­form a par­tic­u­lar func­tion, and just as you wouldn’t use a bro­ken ham­mer so God would not use a “de­fec­tive” Co­hen.

No con­clu­sions about hu­man value are to be drawn from th­ese laws. In­deed, the pres­ence of a blem­ish in a Co­hen does not dis­qual­ify them tak­ing their share from the sac­ri­fice along­side other Co­hanim who did serve: their place as part of the com­mu­nity was un­af­fected. Per­haps even more trou­bled by the ap­par­ent in­jus­tice of the dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion is the anony­mous Se­fer Hach­in­uch. Here it is ar­gued that the rea­son a Co­hen can­not serve is that the peo­ples’ sen­si­bil­i­ties are not de­vel­oped enough for them not to be dis­tracted by the ab­nor­mal ap­pear­ance of a dis­abled priest car­ry­ing out the ser­vice on their be­half. Thus the bur­den of “fault” is shifted, per­haps more jus­ti­fi­ably in mod­ern terms, to the so­ci­ety rather than the in­di­vid­ual.

Yet I still won­der about my camp di­rec­tor’s com­ment and the al­most in­audi­ble ring of truth I still sense lies be­hind it. Mod­ern at­ti­tudes to dis­abil­ity, by sug­gest­ing that the very ex­is­tence of dis­abil­ity is a con­se­quence of so­cial at­ti­tudes, are based on the idea that so­ci­ety and its at­ti­tudes are change­able. They sug­gest that as we as hu­man be­ings have the power to re­ar­range so­ci­ety, even to the ex­tent of dis­solv­ing dis­abil­ity and the suf­fer­ing that it en­tails. There is no place for an ex­ter­nal au­thor­ity that sets the rules or for the pos­si­bil­ity that suf­fer­ing and tragedy can have any mean­ing as any­thing but ran­dom events in the phys­i­cal world.

Yet this is not our tra­di­tion. We hold that we have been given, in the To­rah, a frame­work for how so­ci­ety should be. Also, al­though we can never in hu­man terms fully un­der­stand suf­fer­ing, we ac­cept that noth­ing is by chance, that God’s hand is ac­tive in the world. So when we have a dis­abled child, it is a tragedy. It is some­how less than what things might have been. Yet at the same time, the most im­por­tant as­pect of their hu­man­ity, their iden­tity as a be­ing made in the im­age of God, re­mains un­changed. Their value within the com­mu­nity is no less.

Prob­a­bly now and in the past we have not al­ways have lived up to this ideal. I like to think though, that my old camp di­rec­tor had it about right. There is some ab­so­lute re­al­ity to dis­abil­ity and suf­fer­ing and there is in the end no pur­pose to deny­ing this, but the au­then­tic Jewish re­sponse is the one that he ex­em­pli­fied — ded­i­cat­ing his life to bring­ing sup­port and de­vel­op­ment to the chil­dren of his com­mu­nity. Joseph Mintz lec­tures on ed­u­ca­tion at Lon­don’s South Bank Uni­ver­sity

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