It takes a sensitivity to both the words of Torah and the lives of its major characters to describe familiar figures like Isaac and Joseph, Moses and Samson, in current clinical terms, as people with disabilities and personality disorders. That’s what Ora Horn Prouser does in “Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those with Special Needs” (Ben Yehuda Press). The executive vice president of The Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, Prouser, who has served as an educational consultant on Bible curricula for more than 20 years, writes of attention disorders, mental retardation and depression in an ancient setting, descriptions that are certain to upset some readers of the Torah.
Focusing on “individuals who somehow did not seem to fit the mold,” she explains the acts of the Torah’s major characters “through the lens of disability awareness.”
Jewish Week: What led you to look at Torah from such a unique perspective?
Ora Horn Prouser: I have always enjoyed approaching the biblical text with different “lenses,” and seeing how they shed new light on our sacred text. Then, when I happened to be doing some reading about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, I heard a lecturer speak about Esau as impulsive. I put the two pieces together, and I began to think about Esau as someone with ADHD. It all started from that moment.
Is “Esau’s Blessing” primarily a Torah commentary or inspiration for families of special needs individuals?
On one level it is a very serious analysis of biblical text, using clear methodological reading that I would use in any biblical analysis. I was very conscious that the readings in the book should be peshat, or contextual readings of the biblical text. As is always the case, everyone may not agree with the reading, but I would hope that they would see how the reading is being supported through very careful reading of the Bible. At the same time, the book also provides a level of meaning and inspiration for those dealing with, or who think about, issues of special needs. The more biblical study you have done, the more you will understand how my readings work.
Did your “disability studies” exploration of Torah strengthen or weaken your faith?
I find tremendous spiritual meaning in the fact that there is nothing that I have experienced in my life that I can’t relate to the Bible. That only heightens my love of and spiritual relationship to the Bible. I can give you a personal example. I have struggled with a physical disability for a fair amount of my life. During that time, I have sometimes struggled emotionally with the need to use a cane. Reading the Bible through the lens of disability studies, however, opened up a new meaning of Psalm 23. When we say that God’s “rod and staff comfort me” we think of it as a shepherd’s staff. However, the word for staff, mishenet, literally means “a leaning stick,” which could be a cane. What a powerful image that God uses a cane. And, as the Psalm states, I was comforted by the image of God using a cane, and by the thought that my need to use a cane places me very much in God’s image.
“The King’s Speech,” last year’s Oscar-winning film, showed George VI overcoming his stuttering-induced fear of public speaking. How does his experience reflect how people in the Torah dealt with the challenges you describe?
It is significant that in the movie George VI deals with his challenges, and heroically forces himself to speak despite his fear. I don’t think that he overcame his fear of public speaking. Similarly, the biblical characters that I deal with in the book struggle with their challenges, and many heroically force themselves to act in ways that scare them or that are simply less natural. For example, Esau, who is a very impulsive character, manages to restrain his impulsive desire for revenge against his brother due, at least at first, to his great love of his father.
Jonah, on the other hand, whom I see as having a learning disability, does not seem to get past his lack of understanding of God’s role in the world, despite repeated attempts to teach him using many different modalities. I would not judge people, or their strength and success, however, by whether they are able to overcome their fears or not.
You depict Judaism’s revered biblical figures as physically and mentally challenged — do any religious authorities buttress your innovative (some might say heretical) assertions?
The Bible itself portrays biblical characters as facing challenges. Moses, perhaps our most significant leader in the Bible, has a speech difficulty. Jacob, perhaps our most significant patriarch, is forced to limp. We don’t need to look to later rabbinic sources to find support for reading the Bible through the lens of disability studies.
If someone — like Esau, whom you picture as having attention deficit issues — can explain his or her behavior through various infirmities, does that negate responsibility of free will? In other words, is there no such thing as evil if you can blame pathology?
Let me start with the premise of your question. I don’t believe that Esau was an evil man, or that he committed any evil acts. I think that when you look at him through the lens of the Bible, and not through that of later biblical commentaries, there are just no evil actions there. Esau is often misunderstood by later commentators, and that misunderstanding leads some readers and interpreters to characterize him as evil. It is an unfortunate misconception that allowing for a better understanding of those with special needs would lead to a removal of responsibility for actions in our lives.
In traditional Judaism, a deaf person is exempt from the performance of many mitzvot. Based on your book’s perspective, how would you change this?
You are addressing a matter of Jewish law that it is up to rabbis and rabbinical groups to deal with. My book does not address Jewish law. That being said, however, I think that the ability to see our sacred literature as very open to the idea of special needs, and to the individual value of those who face disabling challenges, speaks to openness in our tradition that we would be wise to pay attention to.
What is the practical application of your insights? That is, how does it help a parent with an ADHD or mentally retarded child?
The idea of thinking of a biblical hero like Isaac, as facing the challenge of mental retardation and then seeing the beauty of Isaac as an individual, and emphasizing his unique and praiseworthy strengths, will hopefully add spiritual support to those facing similar challenges, as well as to their loved ones. I would hope that our ability to see God as a master teacher, and our teachers as working in the divine image would also add to our communal understanding that the need to serve our special-needs population is not only a strong responsibility, but that those who do this work are working b’tzelem elohim.
How can schools — especially Jewish ones — employ your findings to design their curricula or other programs for special needs students?
I think that making these types of readings part of Bible curricula for all students, not only for those with special needs, can help lead to better understanding of others, and more openness to those who are different from oneself. I have found through many years of teaching Bible that all readers wants to find themselves in the Bible, in one way or another. It is a deep-seated need, whether people realize it consciously or not. I hope that my book can provide further openings in that area for those with special needs, and further understanding of others to all who read it.