What Happens When Jewish Law Hampers the Disabled?

Orthodox Rabbinical Students Grapple with Dilemmas

Blind Faith: Rabbi Michael Levy, right, who is blind, chats with yeshiva students about the halachic challenges of incorporating Jews with disabilities into traditional rites.
Anne Cohen
Blind Faith: Rabbi Michael Levy, right, who is blind, chats with yeshiva students about the halachic challenges of incorporating Jews with disabilities into traditional rites.

By Anne Cohen

Published February 01, 2013, issue of February 08, 2013.
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About 10 years ago, Jason Lieberman stopped wearing tefillin. This was not an act of rebellion — Lieberman’s cerebral palsy simply made it too difficult for him to put them on.

Seven years later, Lieberman, 34, who serves as treasurer of Matan, which provides Jewish education programs to special needs children, sought help from his extensive network in the Jewish community: Where could he find an occupational therapist who had experience in training disabled Jews to put on their own tefillin?

The answers disappointed him. Two rabbis offered to give him a heter — a dispensation — so that he wouldn’t have to wear tefillin at all. Another suggested that he get someone else to put them on for him.

That was exactly what he was trying to avoid. “I know I have the skills to do it,” Lieberman told a rapt audience of rabbinical students January 22 at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in New York. “I just need someone who understands how my body works, to teach me how to do it.”

Now, imagine that you, dear reader, are a rabbi, and a deaf congregant of yours dies. During a shiva visit you attend, several of the deceased’s friends and family members who are also deaf take part in the mourning minyan; so do two Hasidic-looking men from the neighborhood, who are kind enough to come at the last minute to ensure the 10-man quorum a minyan requires.

Suddenly, the alarmed Hasids notice that two of the other men are signing to each other. According to their strict interpretation of traditional Jewish law, or Halacha, this service is not kosher: Deaf men cannot be counted. They remain silent when the other worshippers respond to the dead man’s sons during their recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, preparing to leave instead. But that would bring the number of worshippers down to eight, meaning the mourners could not recite the required prayers comunally, something that can only be done with a minyan.

You are this family’s rabbi. What do you do?

Click here to read “You’re the Rabbi; What Would You Do?

Those two types of presentations — the voices of disabled individuals themselves, and hypotheticals on the disability-related dilemmas that Orthodox rabbis must be ready to face — highlighted a recent four-day training program for rabbinic students, sponsored by YCT and its sister school for female scholars, Yeshivat Maharat.

From January 22 through January 25, the students grappled with these issues, including the thorny hypotheticals, which they discussed in small study groups during the course of the week. But even after hearing from disabled Jews themselves, some students, when required to present their conclusions on the hypotheticals to a panel of experts on the last day, focused solely on the halachic implications of their assigned question.


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