Who Can Be Commanded?: Disability in Jewish Thought and Culture

Recently two dear friends asked me to advise them about their pregnant daughter, who just discovered that her fetus has Noonan syndrome, a genetic condition that can result in heart defects, unusual facial features, short stature, and learning problems. The pregnant daughter wanted to keep the child, but her husband was afraid that the child would have a difficult life and was concerned about possible consequences for the rest of the family. My friends presented the possibility of abortion in this case as a Jewish legal question. May a person, they asked, decide over life and death? What is our responsibility to act on this, and where are the limits?

My reply:

Though such children have a difficult path to follow, yet it is a life with many possibilities for fulfilment. When in doubt, choose for life. The concern about discomfort to the other children is not a relevant consideration. The prime and only issue is the potential of this child to live a life of reasonable quality. This fetus should be allowed to be born.

I start with this story to make the point that, however much we may theorize over the issues of impairment and handicap, an actual lived encounter with impairment touches one’s emotions more deeply and makes one especially mindful of how precious life is—including lives that some may deem “limited.” This incident also reveals how consequential our interpretations of religious law can be: in this case, a life-or-death decision hinged in part upon an interpretation of Halachah (Jewish religious law).

In a religion that values divine commandment, exemptions from religious obligations carry high stakes. Moses’s speech impediment did not obviate his responsibility to lead the people of Israel out of slavery. {title}Follow Me{/title} by Shoshanna Bauer. Credit: {title}Follow Me{/title} © 2010 Shoshanna Bauer {link url="http://shoshannabauer.com"}(shoshannabauer.com){/link}. All Rights Reserved.

Conflicting Messages Within Judaism

Judaism stands strongly against the exploitation of those with disabilities, which are described in Hebrew as moom (blemish, impairment, disability, or handicap). Nevertheless, Jewish law also poses religious obstacles to the full integration of people with disabilities into the Jewish community.

Judaism’s concern for people with disabilities is evidenced in the teaching of Leviticus: “Do not curse the deaf and do not put a stumbling block before the blind” (19:13–14). Another Jewish reference to disability occurs in the Book of Commandments (Precept #317) by the Torah scholar Maimonides, who defines the primary meaning of “the blind” in Leviticus to include anyone who is blind to anything. Visual blindness is only one of many kinds of blindness, he argues, and we all share in the experience of blindness because each of us is inexpert or blind in some area of life. This interpretation indicates an inclusive strategy that establishes a continuum of ability/disability.

There are other claims within the Jewish tradition, however, which seem to chafe with that inclusive strategy. One example occurs in the talmudic dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir regarding a blind person’s ability to bear the responsibility for carrying out mitzvot (religious injunctions). Should people who are blind be included and participate in the community’s religious practices? Rabbi Yehuda seeks to disqualify people who are blind for the most part. Rabbi Meir’s view, on the other hand, is consistent with Lavonna Lovern’s assertion in this Fall 2014 issue of Tikkun that “a difference or damage in the body does not indicate damage to the spirit.”
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