Celebrating Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month
At many synagogues after the Torah has been read and is in the process of being wrapped (known as gelila),the congregation sings a little ditty, what we usually think of a children’s song. The words, which are taken from Deuteronomy read: Torah tsivah lanu Moshe, morashah kehillat Yaakov — the Torah that is commanded to us by Moses is an inheritance to the congregation of Jacob (i.e., the Jewish people).
The idea of this sentence is that the Torah’s gifts are not intended only for an elite few, but rather for all of Israel. Why do I mention this today? It is because one of the passions that has animated my own teaching and Jewish communal service over the years is ensuring that the gift of Torah is shared by all students, irrespective of learning differences or disabilities. The month of February has been designated Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, and so I thought it would be an appropriate time to take a look at a few texts that speak to different aspects of disability, and how they relate to our educational model at MWJDS.
Judaism, it can be argued, was among the first and most progressive religions when it came to the treatment of the disenfranchised or vulnerable. In addition to the widow, the orphan and the stranger (common biblical exemplars of those requiring society’s protection), the Torah also mandates careful treatment of those individuals with disability. I’d like to start by looking at perhaps the most famous halachic injunction having to do with individuals with disabilities:
You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Rather, fear your God, I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:14)
In the legal codes of Judaism, this verse is interpreted as referring primarily to a legal principle, that is requiring that we avoid legal rulings which might cause those who don’t understand a law to violate it accidentally. But let’s consider this verse in its original form. Why are we told not to insult the deaf or to put a stumbling block before the blind?
The obvious answer is that those are bad things to do. But why are they particularly bad? They are particularly bad ,to my mind, because they are cowardly acts. They harm the victim, and the perpetrator remains anonymous, at least to the victim. They are also acts which by their natures cannot be defended against by the victim. That is, the deaf victim may not know that he has even been insulted, but there will be an effect felt, perhaps harming his character. Or in the case of the blind, the victim will not know that something has been purposely placed in her path to harm her. She may just think she was clumsy, thus damaging her self-image as well as her body. And again, she can’t defend herself against an unseen offender.
However the verse warns that although the victims may not know who caused them harm, God certainly does. We are told therefore not to commit these acts, but rather fear God, the one who sees and hears all things.
At MWJDS, we try not to leave the monitoring of moral behavior to God alone (although we’ll take whatever help we can get). Rather, we instill in our students the feeling that each of them is responsible for the establishment, maintenance and improvement of a social atmosphere that is sensitive to individual needs and reflective of communal standards.
In thinking about our students, many examples of this sensitivity and communal self-monitoring come to mind. I remember the student who came to my office to tell me that another student was using bad language around our kindergarten students and she was concerned about them hearing and modeling this language. Another time I heard about a student who made an unkind remark that purposely excluded a new student from a game at school; all the other students rallied around the new student saying that “we don’t play that way here.” In those moments, the all-seeing eye of God was replaced by our in situ witnesses. That’s when I knew we had largely succeeded in removing stumbling blocks.
Rav-Hazzan Scott M. Sokol, PhD
Head of School, MetroWest Jewish Day School