Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical Student Lauren Tuchman was recognized as one of The Jewish Week’s 2017 “36 Under 36” young leaders for her work as a disability advocate.

Earlier this month, Tuchman’s powerful ELI Talk We Were ALL At Sinai: The Transformative Power Of Inclusive Torah went live. In the talk, Tuchman explores the radical ways that Judaism teaches us to think about inclusion and disability.

New Normal Editor Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer spoke with Lauren Tuchman about We Were ALL At Sinai and what members of the Jewish community can take away from her talk.

GKM: I love your talk so much—you share some very powerful Torah. At the beginning of your talk, you mention that at times you feel like you are being treated like a guest in the Jewish community or being marginalized because of your disability—can you describe more about that experience?

LT: Feeling like a guest for me is very much connected to the unintended ways in which the experiences and perspectives of people with disabilities are not accounted for. There is an assumption that we simply are not present, and I believe we must assume that, though the disability may not be apparent or visible, there are people with disabilities present and that our perspectives and voices matter and need to be as much a part of the conversation as anyone else’s. A person may feel themselves to be a guest if they feel that their experiences are “othered” or not considered the norm.

GKM: Your talk is called “We were ALL at Sinai” and you share about a midrash that says that all Jews—past, present and future–were together when the Torah was given at Sinai. Why is that text important to you? Why did you choose it to frame your talk?

LT: This midrash means so much to me because of the idea of revelation. Revelation is how we became a nation and everyone was present for the revelation at Sinai. This is why the idea that the Torah has seventy faces is so tremendously rich and powerful. Ours is a collective revelation. We, as a people, all received the Torah together—we all own it. It’s ours to take hold of.

One of the greatest joys for me as a rabbinical student is when I am engaging with a fellow Jew who assumed that the Torah was not theirs, for whatever reason—and when they discover that they are able to engage with it. It’s transformative.

Each one of us is on our own path but together we create a diverse tapestry of Torah. If we leave some people out, we don’t get to bring as much Torah into the world.

GKM: In your talk, you mention that sometimes when people approach you at shul and ask about your braille siddur it feels “othering.” Can you talk about that feeling…and what you would prefer people to do if they are curious about your siddur?

LT: I think that the “othering” comes from someone’s tone—more than the question that they are asking. Some people approach me and don’t take the time to introduce themselves. I understand that people may be asking because they are curious—but I would like them to think about my experience. I’ve answered questions about my siddur hundreds of time—sometimes I just want to be someone in synagogue davening. There is an inherent tention between the person who just wants to get on with their day and the person who might be thinking that this is their only opportunity to learn something new. The key here is not to try to tamp down our natural curiosity but instead to learn how to channel that appropriately…e.g,: don’t approach someone at Kiddush and start asking them a series of questions. You might try asking the person if they would be willing to answer some questions at a later date, and it is particularly useful if you can provide some context for your questioning; for example, do you have a student for whom you’re trying to get resources, a congregant, etc. Contextualizing makes so much difference and it feels a lot less othering.

Being blind is just one part of my identity and it’s easy to tell if people are interested in getting to know me, in developing a relationship—or in just getting to ask their question.

I really think that building relationships is essential. Relationship-building with people who are different from us is a practical step that everyone can take.

GKM: Another moment that really stayed with me from your talk is when you mention humility—and that it takes some humility to understand people who are different from us in some way. Can you say more about what you mean by humility?

LT: Humility isn’t about being small, it means that there is joy in knowing what I don’t know, knowing that I can become wiser as I learn more. My knowledge of different kinds of disability has grown exponentially since I’ve become part of a disability justice community–I have the opportunity to engage and learn from many different people who have different life experiences from mine.

Disability is our normal. It’s a multifaceted normal. Disability is usually viewed as something to be overcome or avoided.

I think the spiritual underpinning of disability justice is really important. In Jewish tradition, we say that we are all partners with God in renewing creation; that we are co-creators with God. All human beings have inherent value.