The first blind female rabbi is making sure she won’t be the last
I met Rabbi Lauren Tuchman at a Shabbat lunch, a year or two ago; I arrived late, missing half the meal and all of the introductions. I was still figuring out who everyone was when Tuchman began to lead the table in Shabbat songs from a binder filled with Braille pages.
Tuchman, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2018, is a true educator who whips out Torah passages from memory. She works independently, teaching classes at a variety of institutions such as Applied Jewish Spirituality, and offering workshops to synagogues and other Jewish organizations. She also serves on the board of JOIN for Justice, which trains Jews in advocacy, and is the Ruach Rabbi in Residence at Avodah.
While much of her work revolves around social justice and advocacy, she is deeply grounded in traditional text. She teaches on Hasidic masters just as much as feminist Jewish writers, and her artistry lies in the way she brings the two together, using even some of the more troublesome texts in the Torah to help bring insight to modern-day issues of inclusion.
I talked to Tuchman over the phone, and our conversation changed my understanding of accessibility. She strives to make her courses not merely accessible but actively welcoming to all, taking into consideration not only those with disabilities and those with minority identities, but also those who have kids to get home to or who work odd hours. To her, accessibility is a value statement about a larger culture of inclusion.
It’s not always comfortable to read Jewish texts on issues of disability or feminism; in fact, the Torah is overtly exclusionary to women and disabled people. But Tuchman knows how to make space for herself; she has had to do it all her life, including making her way through rabbinical school when few texts she needed were available in an accessible format.
“I’ve got a personality that says, like, I’m going to do what I need to do, you know?” she said. But she hopes that, in making space for herself, she has also paved a path for others, whether in her advocacy for accessibility or in her Torah interpretation.
Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
I saw something you wrote, early in the pandemic, about the way that a lot of accessibility has improved, but that it’s frustrating that it happened so quickly for a pandemic when you’ve been fighting for it forever.
At the time, basically, my point was that it’s really amazing how accessible Jewish learning has become overnight, and it’s really amazing how many prayer books were put online, how many siddurim, when we have been fighting for this forever. Publications that were previously not electronically available suddenly became electronically available when need was great for the majority.
I have not learned so much as I have in this past year. It’s been incredible. The resources that are available, the places I can learn from the comfort of my desk — or maybe the comfort of my armchair — it’s amazing.
And I want that to remain. I have made it a point to make sure that I continue online teaching. Of course, I cannot wait to be back in person, and at the same time, I’m not going to stop teaching online, because I know that has made things more accessible.
When you were teaching in person, how did you bring inclusivity and accessibility into your own classrooms or lessons?
I will say that’s a growing point for me, as it is for everybody. Because I’m a very auditory teacher, I try to make sure that I slow down, that I repeat things as needed. I would also really try, if I was giving a drash somewhere, to write that out ahead of time and make sure people got a copy. I’m actually much better teaching extemporaneously, so this has been a real push for me. I also try to translate the word I’m using in Hebrew, which I consider an accessibility issue as well.
I also consider there to be an accessibility need around teaching timing. For example, the last class I taught in person was on a Wednesday night from 7 to 9, and I would really try to get it over by 8:30 because I consider that an accessibility need when it gets dark, to make sure that people can get home safely. I want them to learn Torah, not be thinking, “How am I going to get home after this class?”
It’s unique how you talk about accessibility because you have such a wide lens on the topic, like believing accessibility should also include getting home safely at night. How do you think we should be approaching accessibility?
This is actually a values question. If we think about putting a particular book into Braille, that’s going to meet the needs of a small population. But if I know there is a Braille siddur, even if I didn’t read Braille, the message that sends is that we’re welcoming of all people here. To me, that’s a values statement. I want my community to be as inclusive as it can be.
Getting there is messy, it’s very hard work. You can’t wave a magic wand. But we have to think outside the box. That’s something that people with disabilities are good at, because we have to be. When systems don’t work for you, you have to learn to be innovative.
I also think about collaboration all the time. There’s no way that I, as a rabbi, could do any of what I do without colleagues. Why do we expect synagogues to be islands? Why do I assume that it is on me to do everything or to reinvent the wheel?
A big part of your teaching and some of your disability advocacy is rooted in looking to the Torah, and stories, such as Moses’s speech impediment. I’m wondering how that frames your work.
We see people talking about Moses’s speech impediment in disability justice spaces all the time. It’s like, “Moses is one of us! Yay!” But also another way to think about it is, what is tradition telling us about inclusion through the experience between God and Moses? I want to say, OK, what is the underlying value? Let’s take a look at what is actually going on beneath the fact that Moses has a speech impediment. How is God responding to that?
In Leviticus 21, there is a list of visible characteristics, among which are blindness and limb length discrepancy, and if a Kohen [a member of the biblical priestly class] has any of those, then they are not eligible to serve in the temple, which can be an extremely painful passage.
What’s going on here? Why are these physical characteristics present? Deafness is not on the list, for example.
The rabbis say that it’s really because people are distracted by difference. That’s a human thing — people get distracted. And it’s not on the disabled person, the rabbis say this in the mishnah, it’s actually on the townspeople to get used to that difference. Because they say that after 30 days, that Kohen can actually serve because people are no longer “distracted” by the difference.
That doesn’t make it easier to read the Torah passage. But it makes it easier to think about it in context, and see how the tradition took it. I’m as interested in what the text says as I am in how people have read it over time.
There is a tendency that people often look at the Torah and think, wow, this is a really awful law, thank God that we don’t live in that world anymore. And I think, when we do that, we actually do not allow ourselves to be honest about how progressive we are and how progressive we are not. So I actually think the Torah is challenging us to look at ourselves.
Right, because Judaism is an evolving tradition, which I think is one of the most beautiful things about Judaism — that it’s not static. What are ways you hope to see the tradition evolve going forward?
I want more readings by women, I want more readings by trans folks, of a variety of perspectives. Because there’s no women’s perspective on anything — there’s 20 trillion women’s perspectives, right? I’m only one blind Jew, there are plenty of others with very different perspectives than mine, and those perspectives are no less valid than mine.
What I want is for us to constantly be expanding, but to not cancel out the traditional texts. I think there’s this tendency to be like, “Everything has been so male, for so long!” — so let’s start over. And that is a valid perspective to hold.
But what I want is to continue evolving, so that women are part of the conversation from the get go, and it’s just expected that we’ll be reading commentaries by women alongside the traditional commentaries.
Do you feel that this title of first female blind rabbi to be weighty? Like you don’t always want to talk about that, you have other Torah to share.
It is really weighty. I don’t want to speak for the entire community — I can’t. I can only speak for me and my own experiences. And when you’re the first, it means that everything is an experiment because it’s never been done before. There is a spiritual cost to that. I want to be the first and not the last.
If we actually want to live in a world in which more voices can be heard and more teachers can be brought into the community, then we need to really examine where our resources are going and think about what Jewish continuity means. There are lots of people I talk to who might be interested in rabbinical school, but aren’t sure if they can because of a disability or other marginalized identity.
I’m not the only committed blind Jew out there. I happen to have a platform, but I only represent myself. Yet, because of who I am, I represent so much more than that.