Maimonides teaches in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Berakhot 10:12:
“One who sees…people with disfigured faces or limbs, recites the blessing, “Blessed are You, Holy One our God, Majesty of the universe, who makes people different.” One who sees a person who is blind or lame, or who is covered with sores and white pustules recites the blessing, “Blessed are You, Holy One our God, Majesty of the universe, who is a true judge.” But if they were born that way one says, “…who makes people different.”
Why is it that our Jewish tradition, which affirms social justice, inclusiveness and the obligation to treat all people with respect, singles out individuals with disabilities in such a way? How can it be that Judaism teaches that we are to highlight differences between human beings in a negative manner by saying these two blessings?
As we think carefully about these two blessings, we may struggle to find the positive messages in these words. Our tradition teaches that the purpose of saying berakhot is to help us, on a regular basis, to step back and appreciate all that God has created. The first blessing, “…who makes people different” is easier to interpret in a positive way. Being aware that this blessing is an integral part of our tradition creates the opportunity for us to appreciate differences among people.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches that, “A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the Holy Blessing One strikes us from the mold of the first human, and yet each one of us is unique.” This well- known teaching highlights the fact that God created differences. It is our responsibility as a community to both celebrate these differences and to welcome those with differences into our midst.
But what about the second blessing? It is traditionally recited when we hear that someone has died, and has traditionally been interpreted as an acceptance of God allowing suffering to happen. Why would Judaism guide us to feel pain when we see someone with a disability? Can we discern the mandate of respect and welcoming at first glance when we look at this text?
Perhaps, though, we can incorporate both these blessings into our world today in the following way. The first blessing can remind us that as Jews, we always need to be thinking about ways in which we can create caring communities, so that all people will be valued and part of our spiritual families, despite their differences. The second can serve as a call to action: it can remind us that individuals who are included in an integral way in our school communities, synagogue communities and Jewish community organizations will no longer be seen as “suffering” but instead will have an opportunity to play a central role in the growth of our Jewish community….
…An inclusive community includes both an understanding of who people with disabilities are, and an understanding of how to talk about and communicate with someone that has a disability. It is important to realize that anyone can become a person with a disability. Some people are born with disabilities, while others acquire one later in life….
….Many of our great leaders and teachers in the Bible are thought to have had various disabilities. Isaac became blind in his later years – “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” . Jacob had difficulty walking and also became blind. Our matriarchs were also not portrayed as being perfect; Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel were all barren and Leah is described as having had weak eyes. Even Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, is portrayed as having some type of speech disability:
Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that you have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
In the next verse God answers him: Who gives man speech? Who makes him unable to speak or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, The Holy One? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and will instruct you what to say.”
God encourages Moses to be successful in leading the people of Israel, even with his disability, a powerful example of how individuals with disabilities can not only be included but can make significant contributions to our community. These are just a few of the many Biblical references which serve to highlight God’s positive attitude toward people with disabilities. They emphasize that a great leader does not need to be seen as physically perfect…..
…Having synagogues, schools and agencies participate in Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month on a yearly basis can make all of us more aware… Adult education programs can be planned to focus on text study of biblical and rabbinical literature in this area. …Synagogues can establish a disability taskforce or inclusion committee that can be made up of staff members of the synagogues, people with disabilities, family members of people with disabilities and professionals in the field to assess the congregation’s current
level of accessibility including programmatic and attitudinal areas and to focus their efforts in taking concrete steps to become more welcoming and accommodating. …An example of such a statement can be found on the website of Adath Israel, a Conservative congregation in New Jersey:
Adath Israel is especially committed to being an innovative and “open congregation” accessible to all. Facilities are on a single floor, special education needs are addressed in our educational system; we have an
augmented sound system for the hearing impaired, a wheelchair seating area, a ramp to access the bimah, and large-print and Braille prayerbooks.
What other concrete steps can your synagogue take to make your community accessible to all Jews? Include information about accommodations that your synagogue can provide on each piece of literature that is sent out to the congregation. Place second mezuzot at wheelchair height on doorways throughout the synagogue. Have a preschool or religious school class lead and sign a prayer that they have learned with the help of a qualified interpreter at a Shabbat service. Have teens and pre-teens serve as buddies to youngsters with disabilities in the congregation….
Mishaneh Ha-Briyyot: A New Jewish Approach to Disabilities
by Rabbi Elliot Dorff
I want to suggest a virtual Copernican revolution in how the Jewish tradition, and Jews along with it, should understand and treat disabilities…. the idea struck me because of what a disabled person told me long ago – namely, that from the point of view of the disabled, all the rest of us are “temporarily abled”! How do you like that description of yourself? But we all know, of course, that they are right: Even Olympic athletes will, in the course of life, most likely lose at least some of their vision and hearing, and even the most nimble and those who exercise regularly will not escape the slowing down and the aches and pains that age inevitably brings. We nervously joke about it, but even our mental processes may dull; you do not have to have full-blown Alzheimer’s to become increasingly forgetful — and yes, often more crotchety — as time goes on….Second, one is not just abled or disabled; there are degrees of disability. I, for example, have worn glasses since I was 17, and it was also during that year that I had my first asthma attack. Ever since then I have lived with these disabilities. The asthma, in particular, prevents me from engaging in fast sports…. I mention these things not to seek your sympathy, but just to indicate that each one of us is disabled in some ways — physical, mental, interpersonal, or all of the above — and even if we learn to cope with these problems, they do change our image of ourselves and what we can do….In such a world, then, in which the norm is being disabled and the unusual thing is to have full control of one’s physical and mental faculties and full ability to interact socially with people without any psychological problems whatsoever, how would we want Judaism to treat disabilities? I guarantee you that our whole attitude would change. Instead of thinking about humane treatment for the disabled as being motivated by our own compassion or God’s commandment, we would see it as simply caring for ourselves – much as we see any of the services that we Americans expect the government or others to provide for us.
Inclusion of People with Disabilities
Our Jewish values teach us that each of us is created in God’s image and each of us is to be valued. The United Synagogue’s Commission on Inclusion of People with Disabilities’ mission is to sensitize and educate professional and lay leadership to the profoundly important responsibility of ensuring that the synagogue and all its programs are accessible to those who would otherwise be denied the opportunity to participate in all aspects of synagogue life, and to assist congregations in meeting the needs of members with disabilities by creating an inclusive and welcoming environment. Inclusion of People with Disabilities USCJ
Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, 4:3:
“Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.”
“… Who Makes People Different: Jewish Perspectives on the Disabled”
By Carl Astor, with Stephen Garfinkel
The title of the book refers to a Jewish blessing over a person with a handicap or disfigurement. “This tefila has been viewed by some to be a negative assessment of those with disabilities. However, the wording, taken from the blessing recited upon seeing someone with a disability, is neutral. Being different is inherently neither good nor bad. The very nature of the topic, considering Jewish attitudes toward those with disabilities, is a complicated matter.”
” If our modern sensitivities sometimes differ from the attitudes or definitions assumed by early Jewish literature such as the Talmud, how do we react to it, and how can we apply the principles of our tradition to our current views and actions? Rabbi Carl Astor provides a wealth of material from a wide spectrum of sources. No one chapter of this volume stands on its own; together they contribute to our overall understanding of the topic.”
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