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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“I’m a little blown away by this,” said Shelley Cohen, one of the panelists, to a group of such students. Cohen and her husband, Ruvan Cohen, funded the initiative, which takes place every two years, in memory of their son Nathaniel, who was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy at the age of 6 and died five and a half years ago, at age 21. Speaking to one group bogged down in the minutiae of Jewish law, she exclaimed, “This is a Jew who wants to be a part of a community!”

That is the core idea that YCT’s dean, Rabbi Dov Linzer, and his colleagues want their students to have absorbed by the time they enter rabbinic life. These are not just abstract concepts; they affect real people who are often in pain, and embarrassed.

The students confronted concrete and practical questions, some of which explored the tensions between halachic strictures and contemporary ethics from a pastoral perspective:

Can a non-Jew be hired to caption a Sabbath service that is to be projected on a screen for hearing-impaired worshippers? What about a system that would do this automatically for words spoken into the system’s microphone?

What do you tell a disabled Jew who is concerned that the cane she needs in order to walk to synagogue during the Sabbath violates the prohibition on carrying items? What about a wheelchair? And can her husband push it without violating the proscription against work? If that’s a problem, what if the wheelchair is motorized with a pre-charged battery? Will she be violating the Sabbath ban on electricity?

What do you tell a yeshiva graduate who served in Afghanistan and lost his left arm to a landmine when he asks you: “Rabbi, I want to put tefillin on again. What do I do?” As a right-handed person, he is ordinarily obliged to wrap the tefillin straps on his left arm and hand. But even more fundamentally, as a one-armed man, how does he put them on at all?

Haggai Resnikoff, a student grappling with one of the hypotheticals — a blind woman who brings her seeing-eye dog to the sanctuary on the Sabbath, upsetting some of the other congregants — said succinctly, “You need to be considerate of her needs before even considering the halachic issues.”

One way of doing this is to get the community involved, said Esther Altmann, a Manhattan psychologist who sat on the panel of experts that heard the students’ presentations. “Anything that’s different will make people retreat into, ‘This isn’t how it’s supposed to be done,’” Altmann said. The important thing, she stressed, is to press on. “The conversation has to shift to, ‘Of course there’s a way we can figure this out.’”

Halachic legal issues aside, there are daunting physical obstacles, too. Including the disabled in synagogues, schools and camps involves issues that those who are not disabled often fail even to see.

“The problem is barriers,” said Rabbi Michael Levy, a founding member of Yad HaChazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, who is blind. “Architectural, transportational, communicational and attitudinal.”

Levy was one of three speakers with disabilities who sought to convey to the students their experiences in the Orthodox community. Rachelle Landau, who is deaf, spoke of the dearth of interpreters of American Sign Language in synagogues. “I have been told that there is no money for an interpreter,” said Landau, who works for Our Way for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a program of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.


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