Sacred Texts On Everyone’s Terms
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Sacred Texts On Everyone’s Terms

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.

The Misunderstood Schoolgirl

As an advocate helping Brooklynites to obtain social security, I once assisted a woman whose learning disability was quite severe. Her school records from the year 1958 labeled her as “lazy” and “emotionally disturbed.”

The misunderstood schoolgirl came to mind during Simchat Torah, when we completed the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy and on the very same day began the cycle again with Genesis. I believe that our tradition obliges us to understand the differences in how people read and requires us to provide everyone with access to sacred texts on their terms.

A Call To Literacy — God Commands Moses and Joshua

“So now, write …. this poem, and teach it to the Israelites, let them recite it….” [Deuteronomy 31, 19]. Our sages explained that while “poem” literally refers to Deuteronomy Chapter 32, it should be understood to apply to the entire Torah. They obligated every Jew who could do so to write a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) in order to study it.

With the invention of printing, a supplemental interpretation arose. One could substitute the purchase of Jewish sacred texts for the actual writing of a Sefer Torah. The goal remained the same: imparting sacred knowledge to as many individuals as possible.

Inventors and Educators Lend a Hand

Nearly two hundred years ago, Louis Braille invented a reading-by-touch system of dots that bears his name. Rabbi Harry Brevis applied the system to Hebrew in the 1930s.

The phonograph (I think it was Edison’s favorite invention) was not just an amusing toy. It eventually brought texts to listeners with vision and learning impairments.

The pace of innovation has accelerated. Any computerized text can now be heard with a voice synthesizer, presented vocally and visually to help those with a variety of reading disabilities, and even accessed by individuals who can only blink an eye or puff and sip with a straw.

Selecting the Best “Reading Option”

There is no one right path when it comes to accessing sacred texts. Recommendations of clergy and educators are valuable, but I would urge all “print-disabled” individuals to simultaneously keep abreast of the latest developments in technology and educational techniques. I have met people who are blind who use touch screens on smart phones, devices that have plenty of “Torah applications.” If access to studying means finding your way to a synagogue, some cognitively disabled individuals can benefit from Google Maps and similar applications.

In the spirit of Chasidic creativity, some individuals may forge a connection to Judaism through pictures and songs that make prayers, narratives and commandments come alive for them. They themselves and those who know them well should not hesitate to use God-given talent and sensitivity to craft creative gateways to our Jewish heritage.

The Sacred Circle

When we dance on Simchat Torah, we not only circle the Torah to honor it. We also are affirming that anyone who wishes to access Jewish knowledge should have the opportunity to join the “sacred circle of our Jewish textual heritage,” which surrounds our lives and lends meaning to them.

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, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him.

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