Jewish Perspectives on Theology and the Human Experience of Disability

By Butler, Mary | New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Jewish Perspectives on Theology and the Human Experience of Disability


Butler, Mary, New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy


Jewish Perspectives on Theology and the Human Experience of Disability

Rabbi Judith Z Abrams & William C. Gaventa, eds. 2006, Haworth Pastoral P: New York, paperback

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Jewish Perspectives on Theology and the Human Experience of Disability provides a collection of essays that address the theology, history and practical experience of disability. These are consistently easy reading, and give an accessible foray into rabbinical theological debates, the practical implementation of religious beliefs and the genuine experience of disability in the Jewish community. The book is an international and multi-denominational anthology including contributors from the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements of Judaism who are from Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. It is interesting not so much because of the differences between traditions, but because of the depth of interpretations that have been carried forward over the centuries. It also provides a precedent for an epistemology based on sacred texts, which can inform a human response to disability.

Artson's opening contemplation describes the impulse to inclusiveness within the Jewish tradition: "Perhaps what the Torah is reminding us, then, is an insistence on a community that includes all of its members--that makes none of them invisible, that asks none of them to step outside. Perhaps only that community is a community fit to offer a sacrifice that God will accept" (p.8). Several essays go on to reflect aspects of the intuition that all humans are imperfect and people with disability have an important contribution to make, in spite of their imperfections. Theologically only God is perfect, and Artson reminds us that human wholeness does not come from perfection but from a radical act of taking hold of our imperfections and offering even them.

Clearly disability was never an impediment to God's capacity to speak to his people. Wallace Green's contribution ("Jewish theological approaches to the human experience of disability") describes how Jacob limped his way into greatness and how Moses spoke with a speech impediment and was a slow learner. Moses took up the leadership role that was thrust upon him when he was not able to persuade God that his brother Aaron, a skilled orator, would be the better choice. This offers guidance to the person with disability, since they have been made in God's image they are obliged to act ethically, to be righteous and to give what they can to the world. The tradition reaches right to the core in its teaching that Jewish people are a living Torah, and every living Jew is one of the letters. This means that each individual must play their role in perfecting the world, an ethical responsibility that extends to those with disability.

Melinda Jones brings a wise and compassionate disability rights consciousness to the study of Jewish theology in her essay: "Judaism, Theology and the Human Rights of People with Disabilities". She draws parallels between the human rights movement and selected theological principles. These include: social responsibility, which describes the duty to act and the fact that Judaism does not entertain the notion of the innocent bystander in the following verse: "do not stand by while your neighbour's blood is shed"); justice not charity, which describes the highest level of giving as that which ensures the self-sufficiency and independence of the person being helped; acts of loving kindness, which are dealt with in the laws governing hospitality for those who cannot fend for themselves and visiting the sick. …

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