Finding Access to Each Other: Jewish Disability Inclusion

Did you see or hear Stevie Wonder present an award at the Grammy broadcast last week?  He opens the envelope.  Then with everyone on the edge of their seats to hear the winner of that category, he turns his opened envelope towards the audience, to show us all the braille, as he chants with a smile, “You can’t read it; you can’t read braille, ah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!”  And he takes another second to relish the moment when, he could access information, that the seeing-audience, could not.  Stevie Wonder follows with the statement: “We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.”

Does Stevie Wonder know that February was Jewish Disability Inclusion Awareness month?  Perhaps not.  Last month, designed to bring more awareness to disability inclusion in the Jewish community serves as a nice excuse to shed light on some challenges and opportunities we see in our spiritual life here at Rodeph Shalom.

Last week, I attended Learning in Pairs, a monthly Jewish text study program offered by the Center City Kehillah — the network of Jewish congregations and organizations in Center City.  One of the instructors taught a commentary from the Mishnah, a 2nd century text, that places the deaf-mute, the imbecile, and the minor into the same category.  The text teaches that the deaf-mute, the imbecile and the minor are in a status of people who cannot lead prayer for others.  Of course, this collection offends our sensibilities today.

But the teacher, Rabbi Joel Seltzer encouraged us just to try to understand what the text was saying.  The person they call the deaf-mute cannot hear or speak.  The person they call the imbecile has some kind of cognitive disability.  And the minor is a child.  For the ancient rabbis, what do these three kinds of people have in common that would prevent them from certain mitzvot, such as leading prayer?  In the mind of the sages, the person who leads prayer must have da-at: deep knowledge and understanding.

To the ancient sage with a different understanding of disability, the deaf-mute or imbecile lacks the da-at, the deep knowledge.  The ancient sage does not understand that just because the deaf-mute does not communicate in a way that sage can understand, does not mean the deaf-mute lacks knowledge.  We understand: just because the person with a cognitive or neurological disability does not express him or herself in a way the sage can comprehend, does not mean that such a person lacks knowledge.  Rabbi Seltzer teaches: the da-at is there.

In today’s world, we have begun to understand more about different abilities and about striving to help to, as Stevie Wonder says, make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.

But I particularly like Stevie Wonder’s first profound sentiment: “You can’t read it; you can’t read braille, ah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!”  Stevie Wonder flips it all on its head.  We often think about making the world or community or synagogue, more accessible. Stevie Wonder reminds us that there are all kinds of da-at and that it’s so often the typical people, the ones without that particular disability, who do not have the access.  We don’t have access– to the braille, or to the ideas of the woman whose disability keeps her isolated at home, or to the ideas of the boy whose disability keeps his words locked up in his mind.

So, yes, we want to create a world where people with disabilities have access to every single thing.  But it’s not one way.  We also want to create a world where all of us, no matter our ability or disability, have access to the minds, ideas and spirit of every person with a disability.  Real accessibility does not involve one group, offering to another group.  I suggest that real accessibility is in the relationship.  When we have access to each other’s da-at.

Early in the Book of Exodus, as Moses doubts his ability to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom, he says: I am a man of impeded speech.  His description is often understood as a speech impediment such as a stutter. The Hebrew literally says aral sifatayim — Moses is “closed of lips.” The same term can be used for uncircumcised; so our medieval commentator, Rashi, teaches aral sifatayim means “closed off.”  Isn’t it the case that so often, when we encounter someone of different ability, we can be closed off from that person.  And for many people, perhaps even for Moses as a young man, disability can close a person off from life’s connections, can isolate a person.

In our congregation, we are driven to enable every member to move beyond isolation and to create profound connections.  By no means have we achieved the gold standards of inclusion.  But with the help of special education teachers in Berkman Mercaz Limud, thoughtful designers of our building’s expansion, and congregants who share their experience and wisdom, we strive to be an accessible community.  A place where not only wheelchairs are accessible, but relationships are accessible.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, finds Moses far from the early days when he doubted his leadership.  By the end of this week’s portion, this formerly closed man shines forth light.  The text says: Keren od panav, his face was radiant.

The 20th century philosopher Martin Buber said: Every person born into this world represents something new; something that never existed before, something original and unique.  Every one of us brings something unique; every person we encounter, something original.  It’s our to access, or it’s ours to miss.

May we find access to each other’s unique da-at.

May we find each other’s radiance.