Judaism, Ability and Disability

When we think about disability, or any concept for that matter, it is from our own personal experience and perspective. For most people, that would be as an able person whose knowledge will come from others. Those others we learn from may or may not be people living as dis-abled persons. My experience of growing up as an able person, becoming an adult living with disability, and then recovering (more or less – now I’ve become a Senior Citizen!) has allowed me to see and speak from both an abled and disabled perspective.

It has also allowed me to be that much more fully present with people of all abilities, in my role as Spiritual Care provider.

A few weeks ago, the weekly Torah readings touched upon the role of the Israelite priests in great detail. The emphasis is on how the priests are intermediaries between the people and God and therefore must be free of blemish, as well as abide by certain codes of dress and spiritual focus. In the context of their era and locale, it was understood that whether it was the King or the Priest who stood as intermediary, they had to meet high standards. In some ancient societies, the king was required to perform feats of strength and endurance, and if he did not succeed, he was killed and replaced, believing that a weak king could, for example, cause the ceremonies to bring rain to fail, disastrous for the people as a whole.

The intermediary had to be a blemish-free vessel through which the Goodness of the Divine could flow and sustain the people, unhindered.

Of course, conceptual drift also takes place.

What was once a selection for leaders and divine intermediaries based upon observed purity from amongst a priestly or royal lineage, drifted towards and reinforcing a basic evolutionary and instinctive fear of ‘the other’.

This fear is not just a human artifact; other creatures have it, too. Think of the mating season battles that go on between pairs of horned rams, tooth-and-clawed lions, primates, spurred roosters (‘cock o’the walk’), the winner being the one who will sire the most vigorous offspring. Imperfect flowers may not succeed in becoming pollinated, and a queen bee emanating the wrong pheromone to her workers will be torn to bits and replaced by them.

Conceptual drifts can lose their anchoring connection with Torah and bring in their wake other disasters, as well. People who have nothing to do with priestly duties, and are different in appearance, are often shunned if not at least marginalized: they may appear different due to a dis-ability; or due to a heritage or racial difference. I think of the excuses for genocide that targets ‘others’ over the ages, such as the Nazi quest for ‘Aryan Purity’.

Social Darwinism in the 1920′ and ’30’s spawned the eugenics movement in the United States, which focused on eliminating undesirable traits from the population. Proponents of the eugenics movement reasoned the best way to do this was by preventing “unfit” individuals from having children. During the first part of the twentieth century, 32 U.S. states passed laws that resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 64,000 Americans including immigrants, people of color, unmarried mothers and the mentally ill.*

When we read in our sacred texts, “Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm;…” we see how qualified and specific the instruction is, as to what and when the limitations are to be applied.

This is not a global condemnation of people who are ‘other’ or different: it is a specific and limited separation, bound by time and duty. Outside of these parameters, differences are not a limiting factor. In Torah, Aaron’s offspring could be High Priests regardless of physical differences, with a wide range of duties they could perform.

I do hope this brief discourse sparks new ideas, interest, curiosity and a desire learn more about disability, how we go about our everyday life, our beliefs, and about Torah and Jewish learning.


** Leviticus 21:17-23