I am an adult woman with a developmental disorder (autism/asperger's Syndrome). I have two young adult children who both also have this disorder. It is genetic in our family. What does the Torah/Talmud say (if anything) about such disabilities and how disabled people should be treated?
Disabilities of all sorts are not new to Jewish tradition. Some of our greatest leaders were described as having significant differences. Moses suffered from a speech impediment, Jacob walked with a limp, and several Talmudic rabbis were blind. Judaism’s core value of recognizing the divinity within each person always reminds us to see God’s reflection within every face.
Jewish tradition has not always been kind to those who have differences. In parts of the Talmud, Deaf individuals are told they cannot do certain things. People with mental disorders might be kept from transferring property, marrying, or testifying in a religious court. They are considered to be second class in certain parts of Jewish tradition. Although the torah includes a precept that we shouldn’t taunt people with disabilities, it offers little in the way of proactive inclusion.
That said, Jewish tradition continues to evolve and now understands disabilities with a very different light. Many Jewish communities are welcoming and inclusive environments for families who have unique needs across the spectrum. Resources for parents who have autistic children or who are autistic themselves continue to grow, and contemporary writings from rabbis and scholars in our tradition demand that we open our tent wide to include everyone who is looking for a spiritual home.
New halahic works, like Mishaneh Habriyot from the USCJ, and Jewish organizations like Yachad, are raising up awareness and helping communities struggle with inclusion in ways we never considered during the time of the Talmud. While I respect the question of how the Talmud might encourage us to treat you and your family, I also want to speak to where the Jewish community is now – and that feels like quite a different place.
I encourage you to find a community that welcomes and nurtures your family. Our tradition teaches us that we must reach out and care for one another. When the Israelites left Egypt – a midrash teaches that everyone left together. Young and old, men and women – everyone went out together. And we all discerned God’s presence at Sinai – each in our own way. With that as our kavanah, I encourage you to find a community that you can join in their journey, and that will help you and your family discern God’s presence in your own life.
I have had a number of children in my classroom who were on the autistic spectrum (asperger’s) who did very well academically and socially. There were some students who had both academic and social difficulties. I am not aware of our Tradition suggesting that we treat such individuals any differently than anyone else. The issue of autism except in extreme cases does not meet the Talmudic criteria of mental illness, which would require almost schizophrenic behavior.
However, this does not mean that we should be insensitive to someone with specific issues. The Tanach (Bible) teaches, “Chanoch Hanaar Ahl Pe Darko” ( One should teach a child according to his/her, ie. the child’s, style of learning) which would mean that we should have special interventions for children with disabilities. Unfortunately, without government aid it bcomes impossiible for many day schools anhd yeshivot to provide the services necessary. There are special schools and programs in the Jewish Academic world, but outside of major metropolitan areas they are few and hard to find.
I’m not really sure I understand your question. Most certainly, if you or your children have beem subjected to derision or prejudice, you have experienced attitudes that our Torah finds an anathema. Since “Kol Yisraelim Areivim Zeh L’Zeh (every Jew is the countersign for every other Jew)”, one person’s pain should be everyone’s pain. When the foot is hurt, the mouth screams. Needless to say, this approach of sensitivity and unity is the Torah goal. Unfortunately, it has not yet been attained, and it is our job to continue to work toward that goal.
There is a growing awareness of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome in Jewish communities, and programs aimed at raising awareness and encouraging inclusion are being developed and put into action. Part of our heightening awareness is the understanding that there are great variations in the life experience of people with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.Some folks on the spectrum have a hard time finding their place within our systems, whether it is in school, in social settings, in work settings or in religious communities.Others find their way more easily.Some systems are more flexible.Others are more rigid.
Although Torah excluded physically disabled priests from certain parts of ritual service in the Sanctuary, the Torah also teaches us: “Lifnei Iver lo ti’ten michshol [You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person]” (Leviticus 19:14).We are to exercise special care to create safe space for disabled people within our midst.This same teaching may also be interpreted as encouraging us to make efforts to create safe social space within our communities.
In rabbinic literature, people who were considered unable to understand enough to live independent lives were exempt from some ritual and civil obligations.So, for instance, blind or deaf people were excluded from testifying in Jewish courts of law or from certain ritual honors in the synagogue.As our understanding of various disabilities changes and as technology enables disabled people to become more independent, Jewish tradition is opening doors for greater inclusion and participation.For greater detail, see the Chapter “Individuals with Disabilities” written by Edward M. Friedman, in the book, The Observant Life, edited by Martin S. Cohen.
The most basic teachings of Torah remind us that all people are created in God’s image and that obligations and responsibilities should appropriately take into account our abilities, our capabilities, and our disabilities.
There is a wonderful Midrash that explains why Torah teaches us that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve. It is so that no one human being can claim: “My father is greater than yours”. It is to teach us that no matter who we are, we are all God’s children.
While inclusion is a goal, in any particular case, there might also be competing goals and obligations that must be considered. For example, Jewish tradition has sought to balance the needs of the public with the needs of the individual.We navigate in this complex world trying to find the best solution for all. None of us is perfect. Yet we tend to categorize, generalize, cater to what we see as the norm.
By telling us the story of Moses, who became our greatest teacher and leader in ancient times despite his own perception that his stammer would hold him back, the Torah is encouraging us to see people with disabilities as potential leaders, as sources of blessing, and as people who can be in powerful relationship with God and with community.
Another important insight is found in the Bible in Proverbs 22:6:“Chanoch la’na’ar al-pi darko [Teach a youth in a way that is appropriate for him/her].”Ideally, education and values should be communicated to each of us, taking into account our particular abilities, capabilities and disabilties, in a way that will be meaningful to us.
Finally, our rabbis created a special blessing: “….Meshaneh HaBeriyot [Praised is God, ruler of the Universe,who Fashions People in Various Ways] to be recited when we encounter a person whose appearance reminds us that God created human beings in a variety of ways.This blessing is not only a reminder that we are all created in the image of God, it is also an expression of wonder and awe at the diversity that exists within the world of human beings that God created.
All in all, Torah teaches us to be aware and to be helpful.
Question: I am an adult woman with a developmental disorder (autism/Asperger's Syndrome). I have two young adult children who both also have this disorder. It is genetic in our family. What does the Torah/Talmud say (if anything) about such disabilities and how disabled people should be treated?
I am glad you raised this question. It is a clear example of the need to review – in every age – the approach to the subjects covered by our texts. I say this because the development of Jewish law over the last 2,000+ years has not always kept pace with what we know through science, philosophy, and rational thinking. If we were to search the texts of our sages for solutions to modern problems, we would be unable to find them. Who would have thought that someone with a developmental challenge should be handled differently today, than someone who - in ancient times - might have been seen as being affected by God? Hence we must re-evaluate contemporary situations using not only the words on our pages, but also through the lens of the human values of justice and compassion. It is then that we will find the correct answer for our day.
When it comes to various developmental disorders, the Torah is mute when considering the lives of normal people. For members of the Priestly family, the Cohanim, they would be barred from serving in their traditional priestly roles in the Temple; their physical disabilities disqualify them. That is the intention of the book of Leviticus, when it says,
“God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him: If there is a descendent of yours that has a blemish, for all generations, then he shall not come near to sacrifice the food of his Lord. Every man that is blemished shall not draw near, if he is blind or lame, or flat-nosed or long-limbed. Neither shall he who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or else is hunchbacked, dwarfish, has a blemish in his eye, boil-scars, scurvy, or crushed testicles. Any man who has a blemish from among the descendents of Aaron the priest shall not draw near to sacrifice the fire-offerings of God, for he has a blemish and therefore shall not draw near to sacrifice the food of his Eternal. But the food of his God, even from the holy of holies and of course from the holy, he shall eat. But he shall not come near to the dividing curtain nor approach the altar for he has a blemish, and he shall not desecrate My holy precincts, for I am God who sanctifies them. Moses spoke these things to Aaron and to his sons and to all of the people of Israel (Leviticus 21:16-24).”
In her book “Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach to the Bavli” (Galludet University Press, 2002, page 123), Rabbi Judith Abrams argues that the ancient Rabbinic concern was not that a disabled person was shunned because of being unable to serve in the Temple; there was no Temple in the Rabbinic period to worry about. Rather, she asserts that a person was required to participate in the transmission of Jewish laws and values: if one’s disability prohibits one from doing that, then that person’s disability is a serious one that prohibits him/her from normal social intercourse.
In modern times, recognition of one’s talents and utilizing them despite challenges, is much more the norm in the Jewish community. Organizations such as the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism have dedicated staff members, speaking to congressional officials, to ensure that the disabled are not shoved aside whether in fair employment practices or in the social life of our country. These attitudes remind us not to be fearful of those who have different skills than we do, and not to allow such prejudices to rule one’s logic when encountering those with problems to solve in their lives.
Each person in the world needs to be sensitive to the needs of the disabled, to be patient when dealing with those who have life challenges, and to advocate on behalf of all of God’s children, however differently made.
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