Tikkun Magazine

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.” Whirlwheel by Olivia Wise. Credit: Olivia Wise (oliviawisestudio.com).

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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Rabbi Julia Watts Belser is assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University. Her book, Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster: Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Source Citation

Julia Watts Belser. 2014. God on Wheels: Disability and Jewish Feminist Theology. Tikkun 29(4): 27.

tags: Gender & Sexuality, Judaism, Queer Spirituality & Politics