God on Wheels: Disability and Jewish Feminist Theology

“Ezekiel’s vision split open my own imagination,” the author writes. “I think of the delight I take in my own chair … the way wheels set me free and open up my spirit.” {title}Whirlwheel{/title} by Olivia Wise. Credit: Olivia Wise {link url=http://www.oliviawisestudio.com}(oliviawisestudio.com){/link}.

At kiddush one day, I was welcoming a visitor to synagogue when she popped the question. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked as her eyes flicked from my face to my wheels. I’ve been asked this question in an astounding array of inappropriate venues; I didn’t flinch. “I have a disability,” I said, though it was plain she’d already noticed. A firm full stop followed that statement, though I knew full well I didn’t answer her question. I’m more than willing to talk about disability, but I’m disinclined to do so while waiting in the buffet line for my salad.

In truth, my answer was something of a lie. What’s wrong with me has more to do with objectification, pity, and disdain than with honest muscle and bone. The primary problem lies in social attitudes, architectural barriers, and cultural conceptions of normalcy that value certain modes of being over others. In other words, the problem is ableism—a complex set of power relations and structural arrangements that privilege certain bodies or minds as normal while designating others as abnormal and that afford the “able” the right to exercise power and influence over those considered disabled.

The Transgressive Potential of Disability Culture

The disability justice movement has drawn many of us together for activism, artistry, and passionate community. In these circles, disability isn’t a medical diagnosis, but a cultural movement. Approaching disability through the lens of culture allows us to appreciate disability as a dimension of human diversity. This perspective has often been overlooked in religious communities. But like the critical interpretive insights of feminist, queer, womanist, and liberation theologies, disability culture can bring vital, transformative insight to questions of spirit.

I claim disability as a vibrant part of my own identity, as a meaningful way of naming and celebrating the intricate unfolding of my own skin and soul. A student once asked whether it was appropriate for someone with a disability to recite the blessing Asher Yatzar, the blessing that Jews recite to praise the One who creates the body with wisdom.
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One thought on “God on Wheels: Disability and Jewish Feminist Theology

  1. radio613 reviewed this powerful article on it’s November edition. We have a feature conversation with Lauren Tuchman – a 2nd year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Lauren is passionate about building and creating Jewish spaces that are truly and deeply accessible for all. Lauren has taught about disability and Torah in a variety of settings, including most recently as a Hollander Fellow at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute.
    Listen to the show here: http://radio613.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/episode-87-republic-of-love-disability-justice-spirituality/
    or read the transcript here:
    Thank you for your work and writing Rabbi Belser.