It Was Very Good: Judaism and Disability Rights

February 23, 2014
Two activists, two rabbis: all "very good."

Two activists, two rabbis: all “very good.”

 .וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

These words from Genesis 1 are simple and eloquent:

God saw ALL that God made, and behold, it was VERY GOOD.

This little line is key to many areas of Jewish thought, but none more so than in the arena of human rights. Human beings are all equal, whatever our race, whatever our gender, whatever our abilities, whatever our sexual orientation, we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we are part of creation, which is tov me’od, very good.

This is especially important in the realm of disability rights. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of racism or sexism, and there’s general agreement that those are wrong. But then we look at a person in a wheelchair, or a person with a hearing loss, or a person with developmental, mental, or emotional disabilities, and we forget that they, too, are “very good” just as they are. This is “ableism” and it is pernicious.

Ableism whispers that the women in the wheelchair whose speech is slurred has nothing important to say. Ableism suggests that the developmentally disabled man who makes us uncomfortable should not be visible in our congregation. Ableism suggests that when accommodating a person is “too expensive” or “too much trouble” or “too uncomfortable” we can write it off with a shrug. Ableism suggests that some people’s feelings are less important, that their lives are less important, and that it is OK to write off certain human beings because gee, they are a lot of trouble.

Ableism is wrong from a Jewish point of view because it flies directly in the face of our core belief that all human beings are equal, and all creation is very good.

Jewish tradition has a rocky history around issues of disability rights. While in Leviticus 19:14 we are commanded “not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind,” two chapters later we read  Leviticus 21: 16-21, which outlines physical requirements for the priests who will lead public worship. The priests who lift their hands in worship and participate in the sacrifices must be physically perfect. Maimonides explains this rule by writing “most people do not estimate a person by his true form, but by his limbs and his clothing, and the Temple should be held in the highest regard” (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:45.)  In other words, people are ableist, and this requirement is in place because of our shortcomings, not because there’s anything wrong with the person with a disability.

Ableism is as bad as racism, as bad as sexism, as bad as homophobia, as bad as ageism, as bad as any other “-ism.” We can learn better. Just as we can fight racism and other prejudices in our hearts and in our behavior, we can fight ableism. We can change. We can demand change in our institutions and in our communities.

God saw what God had made, and behold it was very good. Isn’t it time we took God’s word for it?


Living on the Mitzvah Plan

February 21, 2014
To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.

To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.

Depression is an old companion of mine. It doesn’t run my life, but it shows up periodically and moves into the guest room of my mind, helping itself to my energy and attention.  In almost 59 years of living, I’ve acquired a lot of strategies for dealing with it (therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, etc) but one of the most powerful is something I call the Mitzvah Plan.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that. I keep doing mitzvot until I feel better. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to enjoy it, I just need to do a mitzvah.

I came up with this back in rabbinical school, during a particularly bad stretch of depression, when the words we say at morning prayer jumped out at me:

These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the world to come, and these are they: . . .early attendance at the house of study morning and evening . . .Shabbat 127a

My Hebrew was still pretty bad at that point, and I translated the bolded phrase above as “sit in the house of study morning and evening.” It was a mistranslation, but a blessing nonetheless. I decided that even in the depths of depression, I could manage to sit my tuchus in the chair at school. So I chose to focus on the fact that I was doing that mitzvah, and give myself credit. One mitzvah leads to another, the sages tell us, and I found that if I kept my mind focused on looking for the next mitzvah, my mind had a harder time getting stuck in dark places. By the time I realized my mistake with the original Hebrew phrase, the Mitzvah Plan was in place and working for me.

[Mind you, I was also seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants, too. The Mitzvah Plan is not a “cure.” It’s a spiritual discipline I’ve found helpful in fighting depression. If depression is an issue for you I encourage you to ask for competent help.]

The Mitzvah Plan isn’t just for depression. Bored? Do a mitzvah. Frustrated? Do a mitzvah. Insomnia? Do a mitzvah. What, you did it and you are still bored, frustrated or awake? Do another mitzvah. And another. Keep doing mitzvot until you feel better or the world changes. Then do another mitzvah.

Sometimes it helps by taking me outside of myself to notice someone else’s troubles. Sometimes it helps by making me feel a bit better about myself. Sometimes it helps by just keeping me busy. But at least I’m not wasting my life thinking black thoughts or doing something I’ll regret later.

Where to find mitzvot? They are all around:

  • Are there thank you notes that need writing?
  • Give tzedakah. Very small amounts are still tzedakah.
  • What time of day is it? So say the prayers for that time of day.
  • Recycle something.
  • Write or call a mourner and tell them you’re thinking of them.
  • Do something kind for someone else.
  • Take care of your body: wash or exercise or brush your teeth.
  • Pay bills. (Did you know that paying workers on time is a mitzvah?)
  • Study some Torah.

I know, some of these do not sound  very “spiritual.” But in the Jewish tradition, they are mitzvot; they are acts that will make us holy if we do them with intent.

And I can say, from experience, that one mitzvah leads to another, that they can form a ladder on which to climb out of some pretty bad places. That’s life on the Mitzvah Plan.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by VWJ


Reframing Privilege

December 24, 2013

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 


Update: Welcoming New Habits

December 9, 2013
Assembling the Shelves

Assembling the Shelves

I took the leap into my new home with two projects in mind:

1. Radical Hospitality – I’m going to “do Jewish” here regularly and often, with many different people. That includes Shabbat afternoon hang-outs, Shabbat dinners, and other celebrations or ordinary times.

2. Asking for and accepting help – My body doesn’t allow me to play the Lone Ranger anymore, doing everything for myself. I tried dealing with that by isolating a lot, and the result was that I lived in a half-moved-into apartment for five years. Now I’m going to do it differently: asking for help, accepting help, being gracious and when I can, combining that with being Jewishly hospitable.

Hospitality, so far, has begun with a bang. I think I’ve had more guests in my house in the past 12 days than I had in the previous 3 years. Most of it was holiday related, and not at all routine, but I am not a hermit anymore. This is good. Also, I’m enjoying it. I like having people over. I like doing Jewish with old and new friends.

Asking for and accepting help has also been a success, but that one is really giving me a spiritual workout. Two of my students and one other friend were here Saturday night, assembling bookshelves for me. I am so grateful to them – my back and knees won’t permit me to do any of the stuff they were doing – but oh my goodness, I am uncomfortable watching people do things for me! The alternative, though, is (1) do without or (2) hire people. For years now I have worked with a combination of those two, and frankly it was not life-enhancing, especially since after a while of muddling through, I didn’t want to have anyone in, friend or hired, because of the clutter.  So I am faced with a choice: learn to accept the goodness of others, or be isolated.

So last night I accepted the generosity of three people who did not owe me anything, and it didn’t kill me. No one is going to hold it over my head, or take it out somehow later. It’s OK. And I look forward to giving back with things I have to give: Jewish learning, food, warmth, and so on. I am not “less” for needing their help, nor am I in some sort of mysterious trouble for accepting it.

Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh: “All Jews are responsible for one another.” I have always taken that as a challenge to look for others that I can help. Being on the giving side has become easy for me. Being on the receiving side is a new lesson to learn.


Making A Sacred Connection

December 5, 2013
Conversation

Conversation (Photo credit: Rohit Rath)

Judaism teaches us that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We strive to honor that spark of the Divine in every person, but that is not usually instinctive. It requires learning.

The philosopher and theologian Martin Buber taught that God is present between two human beings when we make what he called the “I-Thou” connection, a real and sacred awareness between two people, a true sharing and meeting of the souls. This can only happen when we are open to the other, when we are aware of each other without objectification or distance. It is a truly sacred moment.

I would like to introduce my readers to a remarkable young woman who is willing to teach us how to communicate and connect with a person with aphasia, damage to the part of the brain involved in language. I first heard of Laura Cobb because I went to high school with her mother: a photo of Laura riding her tricycle as a very little girl was on my refrigerator for years. Laura was hit by a drunk driver in September 2008, was in a coma for three weeks, suffered a stroke, and now has aphasia. She is a highly intelligent 27 year old with a lively sense of humor.

The aphasia has presented her with challenges in conversation with both friends and strangers. Laura took the remarkable step of creating a video to assist the rest of us in learning how to communicate effectively with people with aphasia. That video has gone viral, because it’s very, very good.

If you’d like to learn how to speak and how to listen to someone with aphasia, here is the video, in the context of a Huffington Post article about Laura. Much of what she suggests is also helpful for speaking with persons who have auditory processing difficulties and other language issues as well. If you are trying to talk with someone, and you get the feeling that language is a barrier, these are things to try.

This is a video that teaches important Torah, the art of connecting with another human being. Enjoy.


The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 2

November 18, 2013

I read a great blog post on PunkTorah.org last week on the issue of Jewish legitimacy. Rabbi Patrick Aleph held an event at OneShul in Atlanta where they wrestled with the idea of Jewish legitimacy, and it emerged that each individual felt that he or she lacked legitimacy relative to “everyone else.” Rabbi Aleph concluded:

The bottom line is simple: we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life. We are terrified that someone is going to call us out for doing things wrong, that for some of us it’s easier to hide in the corner and do nothing.

But I’m here to tell you something: hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die.

This was the point at which the lightbulb went on over my head; I have become a rather stubborn cuss when it comes to my legitimacy as a Jew, but I’ve struggled with legitimacy and disability. Now I see that they are the same issue: it’s the old “I’m not worthy” thing, the fear of being called out as a fraud.

I feel legitimate as a Jew, even though I am aware that there are Jews in the world who would disagree. I am not disturbed by that, because when the question comes up, my mind immediately produces evidence of my legitimacy: I think of the rabbi who oversaw my conversion, and certainly I see him as legitimate! I have studied Hebrew, lived in Israel, observed countless mitzvot. I feel legitimate as a Jew, because I am part of a Jewish community. I get feedback from fellow Jews that I’m the real deal enough of the time that I can  discount the ones who don’t agree.

But there was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece.

A supervisor at one of my internships in rabbinical school asked me about my conversion and then indicated that he didn’t recognize it. I went back to my school and asked for guidance. My teachers there bristled to my defense. They saw me as legitimate and saw him as an outsider who was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Their response said to me, “Yes, you’re the real deal. Now act like it.”

Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. They need to hear about it when they do something well, whether it is saying a blessing or helping to set up chairs.

And for me, I need to accept the fact of being a person with disabilities, and continue to build relationships with other people who identify as disabled. My dear friend and study partner in school is deaf, and she was the first to say to me, look, ask for the accommodations you need! Initially I was not sure about this, but her reassurance that she saw me as having legitimate needs helped me to ask for things I needed. Later, another colleague whose disability I recognized as “real” asked me why on earth I didn’t have a handicap placard for the car, when I obviously needed one – and she was right, and I finally accepted it from my doctor.

There will always be critics. But why pay any attention to the jerk at Home Depot who sees me on my scooter and says I wouldn’t need it if I lost 50 lbs? Why am I giving him so much authority? Why give some busybody self-appointed expert the authority to shame me? Because the words are his, but the shame is mine. I can accept it, or I can reject it. It’s just that rejecting shame requires resources: I have to own my situation, and know that my community sees me a particular way to have the gumption say “phooey” to the ignoramus.

The enemy is shame. The cure is community – loving, supportive community, that knows the importance of nurturing the newbies and the shaken.

Hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Part 3 tomorrow.


The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 1

November 17, 2013
On my scooter.

On my scooter.

When I applied to rabbinical school in 2001, they told me to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam.) On the opening screens of the test, it asked demographic questions, including a question about disabilities. I had never used that word to describe myself, and I started to click past. Then I remembered: oh yeah, the learning specialist I saw made me go see an audiologist, and I’m hard of hearing.  OK, I’ll click that.

And as my eye moved on, I realized with shock that I had other boxes to click. Learning disabilities? Uh, yes. That was why I’d seen the learning specialist. Mobility problems? I eyed the cane propped against my chair. Yeah, I guess. I quit reading and clicked to the next screen, where it fed me back my demographic info, including the words “multiple disabilities.” I felt queasy, clicked past, and shoved the whole thing out of my mind to take the test.

That was the first time I admitted to having ONE disability, and I will admit now that I read “multiple disabilities” as “object of pity” which I had no intention of being.  I spent the next year proving I could keep up with my twenty-years-younger peers, in class and out, and by the end of the year I was on antidepressants (for one of the other little issues I hadn’t mentioned) and my body was a wreck. I was deep into chronic pain territory, and determined to deny everything.

Because, you see, I had two problems with this multiple disability thing: first, I looked down on disability, so I couldn’t possibly have one (much less lots of ‘em) and secondly, my disabilities weren’t legitimate. Other people had worse disabilities so I couldn’t possibly take up room in that category. Or something.

It was years before I finally owned the category of “disabled,” thanks to the encouragement of friends whose disabilities I regarded as legitimate. Then, and only then, was I willing to take the blue placard the doctor offered me, which has made life so much more manageable. There were more years, and more isolation, before I was willing to step up and get myself a scooter so that I could go places that required more than 10 minutes of walking or standing. And I must confess that to this day, I spend more energy than I should worrying that someone will think I am using the scooter because I’m fat, and they’ll judge me, and — what? I’ll die? I will eventually grow up and quit worrying about that, too, I hope.

So why am I yammering about this on a Jewish blog? To start, Torah covers all  of life: there is no subject about which there is no Torah. I needed to learn to accept the body I’ve got, to regard it as holy, and I’ve made strides in that direction. But even more, there’s this legitimacy thing.  I was hesitant to accept a handicap placard for the car because I didn’t see myself as legitimately needing it. In the same way, I remember my longing for Jewish legitimacy: the thrill when I stepped out of the mikveh, the struggles I had every time someone questioned my legitimacy as a Jew, because no one questioned it more than me. And then eventually I learned the truth: I would be a real Jew when I acted like one.

So here I am, 100% Jewish and definitely disabled. Also fat, lesbian, Southern by birth, Californian by choice. Pretty smart in some subjects, remedial level in others. A work in progress.

I believe that every human being has a spark of the Divine. I have very little trouble believing that, except when it comes to myself.

I gather a lot of people feel that way. So to all of you (and myself) I will say: Wake up! Life is marvelous, terrifying, a gift we have only for a short time. Figure out how to make the most of yours, and do what you can.

As for legitimacy – well, more about that later. I’m on a roll.


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