Exploring And Interpreting Disability In The Bible: Clearly And Comprehensively, Part II
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Exploring And Interpreting Disability In The Bible: Clearly And Comprehensively, Part II

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.

In Part I of Exploring and Interpreting Disability in the Bible, a "wide-angle" perspective showed that the Bible does not often segregate the disabled. If biblical models encourage integration, why are many of us with disabilities still segregated?

The cause is "spectacles": outdated beliefs and assumptions which obscure what the Bible reveals about disability.

The Bible Doesn't Support Overprotection

We who are disabled are not (as some imagine) constantly sad, overwhelmed and helpless. We (both children and adults) shouldn't be shielded from all uncertainty, risk, responsibility, disappointment or failure.

The uncertainty inherent in daily life helps us mature spiritually. "Faith is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty," writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Insulating a child with a disability against the "hard knocks of life" leaves her unprepared for tough times on the job. If a disabled teenager is always a "taker," how can he become a selfless and giving spouse?

Risk is part of life. A mother who believes (because of stereotypical assumptions) that marriage is too dangerous for her daughter with a mild intellectual impairment may prevent her from seeking a soulmate. The young woman will not experience the sanctity and love that marriage and children bring.


RELATED: Exploring And Interpreting Disability In The Bible: Clearly And Comprehensively Part I


"Special Needs" is not a Biblical or Rabbinic Term

If your spectacles see us only as "special needs people," you ignore the unique personality that each of us possesses. Too many of us are unnecessarily relegated to "special" segregated schools, camps and social programs. Removing physical, communications and attitudinal barriers
enables many of us to be "ordinary Jews" in integrated environments where there are more opportunities for study, worship, friendship and employment.

Who Defines What Is "Impossible?"

Moses cites his speech impediment as disqualifying him from confronting Pharaoh's enslavement of the Israelites and leading them to freedom. God, who fashions both disabled and non-disabled human beings, reminds Moses that a person with a disability must still fulfill his life's mission {Exodus 4: 10-13}.

To broaden our conception of what is possible, we must, as it were, wear God's spectacles. Additionally, advances in technology and medicine can change this year's "impossible" into next year's reality.

People who have almost no functioning muscles can still operate a computer, using head movements, eyeblinks and "sip and puff" mechanisms to access Judaica databases. "The Jerusalem Post" and the "Forward" can be accessed in real time via the telephone.

New Spectacles-Hillel's Trifocals

The sage Hillel lived more than a thousand years after the revelation of the Torah. One of his sayings contains three ideas, which can serve as "trifocals," guiding us towards greater integration:

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"

We who are disabled need to "tell our own story." This becomes difficult when some organizations imply that they speak for all disabled Jews, even though we never consented to be represented by them. When people interact directly with us as unique individuals, they gain a clearer understanding of our capabilities and aspirations.

"If I (exist) only for myself, what am I?"

Those of us who are blessed with meaningful productive lives in our Jewish communities have a responsibility to help empower others with disabilities. We can remind them that they need not accept the labels that are sometimes thrust upon them, and that they can set life goals and make choices that lead to those goals. On an organizational level, we can find common ground from which to pursue integration together.

"If Not Now, When?"

This question underlies any disability-related discussion. Disability awareness proclamations and articles expressing diverse opinions have their place. However, the "bottom line question" remains: what actual improvement will they bring about in the lives of Jews with disabilities?

The upcoming holiday of Shavuot (June 12-14) commemorates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. May the day come soon when all Jews have equal access to the "sea of Torah," explore it with unbiased spectacles and, through its models of integration, work towards better lives for the disabled and non-disabled alike.

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.

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