Exploring And Interpreting Disability In The Bible: Clearly And Comprehensively
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Exploring And Interpreting Disability In The Bible: Clearly And Comprehensively

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 recognition of the Shavuot holiday beginning on Saturday night, June 11, we have invited Rabbi Michael Levy to share his perspective on Torah and disability. This is the first of two parts. Rabbi Levy dedicates his writing to the marriage of Motti and Zahava Sturm.

A man from a small rural town visited the west coast. When he returned, he told his neighbors that the Pacific Ocean was nothing special; he had seen rivers in his own state that were more impressive.

It turned out that he had seen an inlet of the Pacific from very far away on a foggy night, wearing his old spectacles. He mistakenly judged the entire Pacific from this one brief murky glimpse.

Exploring the "Sea of Biblical Wisdom."

"It (Torah, the Bible, Wisdom) is wider than the ocean {Job 11:10}." To obtain an accurate and balanced view of disability in the Bible, we must seek what might be called a "wide-angle" perspective. The "belief spectacles" that we wear influence how we interpret what we discover.

The Bible's View of Disability is Overwhelmingly Positive

In Genesis, Isaac and Jacob lose much of their vision in old age. While their children make some negative stereotypical assumptions about their disability, the fathers prove that their powers of perception and prophecy remain strong {Genesis 27: 1-35, 48: 10-19}.

In the majority of Torah laws, we who have disabilities are not singled out or segregated. Like the rest of the community of Israel, we merit reward for our godly deeds and are warned that sin can bring punishment. We have the same obligations as our fellow Jews to act morally and with uprightness, raise families, give Tzedakah (charity), love God and our neighbors, revere parents and elders, pursue truth and peace and shun falsehood and violence. We participate in celebrations, experience uncertainty and God's hidden-ness, receive instruction regarding business and family life, confront temptations and have the opportunity for repentance and
forgiveness. We can certainly build upon this "non-differentiation" as a basis for our integration into all aspects of Jewish life.

Spirituality Versus Physical Prowess

God values our reverence for and hope in Him, not our brute strength {Psalms 147: 10-11}. He teaches the prophet Samuel not to evaluate other human beings based on external appearance {1 Samuel 7: 16}.

Jeremiah prophecies that God will gather in "the blind and the lame" as part of the future return of exiled Jews to the land of Israel {Jeremiah 31:7}. Perhaps God is reminding us that a redeemed Israel must be free of barriers that prevent Jews with disabilities from full participation in their communities.

King David exults "The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief cornerstone {Psalms 118:22}. The words are comforting when facing the prejudice of being judged not as the person who I am, but as the "defective specimen destined for rejection" that some people imagine me to be.

To be sure, there are Torah laws which limit the participation of Jews with disabilities—among them decrees which forbid disabled Kohanim (priests) from offering sacrifices with their fellow Kohanim (priests) {Leviticus 21: 15-21}. Citing only these passages, one might infer that the entire Bible discriminates against the disabled.

I disagree, but will not argue here. Rather, I choose to build a life of integration based on the many instances in which we who are disabled share the same obligations and responsibilities as non-disabled Jews.

In Part Two, we will examine our "spectacles." "Spectacles" are the beliefs and assumptions that we (sometimes unconsciously) bring to our study of Torah and disability.

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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