.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?
6 thoughts on “It Was Very Good: Judaism and Disability Rights”
Most likely you are already aware of this amazing website but On1Foot is a great resource for text sources on disability and other social justice/ tikkun olam issues.
Yes! I love that website! For anyone else reading this, you can find it at http://www.on1foot.org/
Your post today connected for me for a few reasons. I have had my moments, where I have not known what to say or how to even approach someone who was different in abilities from myself. Personal fears, reticence to tread new territory or be intrusive, have been the barriers. But, better behaviors in this regard do not just happen without some direction, practice, and/or intention. And, this notion caused me to contemplate the direction,practice and intention that I have learned, from being on the other end of a leash.
My dog Cassie and I are a therapy/assistance dog team and have been working for four years in an elementary school, doing a program where the children read to Cassie. Through the interactions with Cassie, and her open affection and patience, I have seen her reach, engage and respect children who otherwise would be ignored or worse. I am on the other end of the leash, keeping an open heart, mind and ear. Cassie is loved and trusted by some 800 people in this school. Why? The steady, trustworthiness,,,sure. But it is more. It is that all are equal in her eyes and she gives big doses of loving kindness at every turn. No ego. No judgement. And, as a team, we are not self-conscious but rather openly there for everyone.
Thanks for writing, Teme – you’re right, dogs like Cassie can teach us a lot. What a beautiful creature! That sounds like a wonderful program, too – innovative and I would imagine, very effective.
Thanks for your response, Rabbi Adar. I thought you might like to see a youtube video that the school system produced last year, in their volunteer spotlight series:
The little boy who appears at the beginning, middle, and end of this clip has been reading with Cassie for 3 years. He has multiple mental health issues and in the time we have known him, he has come a very long way. His teachers say that Cassie is his best medicine. At the very end, he is ‘teaching’ Cassie how to crawl!