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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Landau, who signed her own talk and used an interpreter to translate it to the audience, told the students that this was just the beginning of the problem. Even when there are interpreters available, “what do you do for separate seating?” she asked. Often, said Landau, she does not attend Orthodox synagogues because she cannot see the interpreter from the women’s balcony. “Would you allow men and women to sit together if there’s no other way?” she asked.

Linzer said the problem is frequently one of awareness. “We don’t realize how many things we’re not doing,” he said.

Lieberman, the man with cerebral palsy who wanted to put on his own tefillin, related a meeting he had with a rabbi who told him he was willing to accommodate disabled people, but said he didn’t have any in his community. Lieberman suggested that this might have something to do with the number of steps leading up to the synagogue door. The rabbi was aghast. “I didn’t even realize there were 25 steps,” he said.

This was an eye-opening experience for Lieberman, who told the audience: “I see one step, and it feels like six steps. It was the first time I realized that people who do steps well don’t realize they’re going up steps.”

Shelley Cohen hopes to bring similar programs to other rabbinical schools through the Jewish Inclusion Project, of which she is the founder and director. “We really need rabbinical leadership,” she explained.

Until now, most of the initiatives for change have come from disabled people themselves, or from their families, said Cohen, who described herself as the “mother of a Jewish person who just happened to be in a wheelchair.” Cohen said she knows firsthand the struggles that people with disabilities and their families face to feel like they are a part of the Jewish community.

YCT, which stands on the left wing of Orthodoxy, has been unusually open to engaging the issue of inclusion, including its halachic challenges.

Agudath Israel of America, on the right wing of the Orthodox spectrum, favors a strict, sometimes less flexible adherence to Halacha. Sometimes, there is no leniency to be had. “There are in fact halachic ‘brick walls’ where what a person might deeply desire simply can’t be obtained,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the Aguda’s director of public affairs.

Shafran did say that if a rabbi knows of opinions within Halacha that differ from his own, that rabbi is obliged to inform the person consulting him and allow that person his own choices.

Rabbi Mordechai Shuchatowitz, rabbi of the Agudath Israel congregation in Greenspring Md., and father of four children who are hearing-impaired, agreed. “Halacha gives us direction to deal with whatever situation we’re in,” he said. “[It] doesn’t always have to be restrictive.”

But in those cases where a request simply isn’t possible, it is up to the rabbi to say no, he said. “We are observant on a consistent basis,” Suchatowitz said. “We are compassionate but we’re not going to change the Halacha for them.”

According to Cohen, one thing these different schools of thought do share is blame for the current situation. “All the denominations share this problem of not doing inclusion properly,” she said. “If we don’t include everyone, we include no one. It says in the Torah, ‘Teach your children.’ There’s no fine print in there that says only the perfect ones.”

Contact Anne Cohen at cohen@forward.com


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