“Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli” by Judith Z. Abrams— Rereading Our Holy Texts

Abrams, Judith Z. “Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli”, Gallaudet University Press, 1998.

Rereading Our Holy Texts

Amos Lassen

With this review, I am breaking my tradition of reviewing new books and am going back to 1998 to have a look at one of the major studies of Judaism and disability. I am an active member of my temple’s inclusion and disability committee and after hearing an illuminating and education talk from my rabbi on the subject, I decided that I personally want to know more on the subject. “Judaism and Disability” looks into all of the ancient texts and their explications, (the Tanach, the Mishnah, considered the foundation of rabbinic literature, and the Bavli or the Babylonian Talmud) to see just what they have to say. Rabbi Judith Abrams does not use modern consciousness and interpretation of the texts. She prefers to look at the archaic works that compose the canon of Jewish learning and tradition. Her research is amazing and it allows us to understand why they expressed the sensibilities that they did regarding disability.

Our religion has an almost uninterrupted record of scripture and commentary that goes all the way back to the year 1,000 B.C.E. (B.C.), portions of which allow us to read and document attitudes toward disabled people in the earliest centuries of this ancient culture. There are many surprises here that I am sure most of us have never really thought about and since I am writing this during National Disability month, I found myself learning and able to teach some of what is said here. We become aware of the mentally ill, the mentally backwards, deaf, blind, and other disabled people of what our holy canon has to tell us. What is so interesting is the sharp contrast that these writings present especially when we look at them as compared to the Jewish and biblical ideal of perfection The concept of perfection was embodied in a person who is male, free, unblemished, and who can cognitively communicate and who is learned. As Judaism moved away from the ideal transformed from the bodily perfection of the priest, we see a tendency toward intellectual prowess in the Diaspora. Parallel changes of attitudes toward disabled persons occurred gradually. As time progressed the emphasis upon physical perfection as a prerequisite for a relationship with God helped to bring about the enfranchisement of some disabled people and other minorities.

While this book is already almost twenty yeas old, it is still relevant and will likely remain so as a powerful and classic study of disability. Abrams has divided her book into seven sections—Introduction, Priestly perfection, Persons with disabilities, symbolism and collective Israel, Disabilities, atonement, individuals, and body, soul and society. The main focus here is to see how disability affected Cohanim (priests) and their function in the Temple and how disabled persons became symbols of collective Israel. We also read about how individual life stories became literally object lessons in theology, how persons with disability were looked upon in Judaism and surrounding cultures and how the person with disability was categorized.

A major and fundamental principle here is da’at (knowledge, understanding, intellect, cognition or consciousness). In order to perform the duties of dais person will have to have this in order to perform duties in Judaism, one will have to be able to act upon his da’at and to put it into action in the context of the society. All disabilities that are considered minor or “katan” and in most cases this refers to those who are physically disabled. The “shoteh” are the major mentally disabled (the mental ill, the intellectually disabled, the fool). There fall into the category of those who, because of disability are unable to perform a lot of duties in Judaism. Rabbi Judith Abrams and wonderfully brings into harmony the many voices Jewish voices that address the theology, history, and practical experience of disability. The time has come to move past seeing those with disabilities as needy people but as those who have needs.

Interdependency is a central characteristic of life and society”. Rabbi Abrams celebrates the interdependency of the Jewish community in action. Her book reminds us on seemingly every page that action is totally associated with theory because of the primacy of justice in the Torah. We begin to see a change in the way we react to those who are disabled that is accord with the Torah and practical human justice.


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