Review of “Guide to Jewish Values and Disability Rights”

JFN INclusion guideBy Rabbi Dov Linzer

We – the Jewish community – have made some progress in recent years in the area of disabilities rights, but there is still a long ways to go. It is not like our tradition lacks for mitzvot and mandates in this regard. The problem, rather, is twofold: one, that we have a long history of sidelining our ethical mandates in favor of our more “religious” ones (c.f. Isaiah chs. 1 and 58) and two, that we have a culture that prizes the learning of Torah, academic excellence, and professional achievement, and we tend to measure people not by who they are but by what they can do and what they have achieved. Synagogues and schools are also often concerned about image and losing congregants and students, all of which reflects and refracts where the values of the community lie. Claims of lack of sufficient resources often betray lack of sufficient commitment; there is always the means to accomplish those things that we value most.

Advocacy, education, targeted philanthropy, synagogue-based initiatives, school-based initiatives, and rabbinic training in the area of disabilities (a field that I am deeply involved in), have all been critical factors in helping us get closer to where we need to be, although so far the progress has been more localized than systemic.

Now, the Jewish Funders Network is working to bring this issue to the attention of all Jewish-based philanthropies through their newly released Guide to Jewish Values and Disability Rights. As Andres Spokoiny writes in the introduction to the guide: “In fact, all philanthropies are already active in this area.[…] The only question is whether they’re working actively to include people who have disabilities or whether they’re unwittingly perpetuating exclusion.” Activists in the field of Jewish disabilities have good reason to be excited about this initiative. If the Jewish Funders Network can succeed in making disabilities inclusion a priority for our Jewish philanthropies, then there is reason to hope that our institutional priorities and values will shift accordingly and we will begin to witness true systemic change.

The Guide, authored by Julia Watts Belser, itself is masterfully done. It is the opposite of a heavy, academic treatment of the subject (those interested in such a treatment should see, among others, Disability in Jewish Law, by Tzvi Marx; Disability in the Hebrew Bible by Saul Olyan, and Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli, by Judith Z. Abrams). Its purpose is to highlight the most relevant Jewish values that speak to the issue of disabilities and inclusion and to offer concrete suggestions towards creating more inclusive communities.

The guide consists of an introduction which provides necessary background on disability rights and terminology, and four chapters, each one focusing on a different cluster of Jewish values and obligations: tzelem E-lohim and the infinite value of each individual; areyvut and communal responsibility; kavod and respecting agency and promoting dignity; and tzedek and tikkun olam. Each chapter makes good selective use of Jewish texts, not overwhelming the reader or delving into too much detail, and avoiding technical halakhic discussions; it remains focused on its goal of showing how these concepts can speak to the issues at hand.

The guide is selective in another way as well: it acknowledges, to its credit, that there are sources in our tradition that reflect an ethos that is not as inclusive, and by and large it chooses to not engage these sources. It does select two areas of exclusion – the deaf-mute and the priest with blemishes – to highlight the “long legacy of stigma and exclusion that has shaped the lives of many people with disabilities” and to show how these exclusions were tempered over time. The guide does not attempt to persuade the reader that its approach is the only one to be found within the tradition (although I think it is fair to say that it is the dominant one); rather, it provides the reader with the Jewish sources and values that advocate and mandate such an approach.

The layout of the guide is engaging, with good use of white space and with pullout quotes from disabilities advocates and people with disabilities. These quotes play a critical function; they allow the reader to hear directly from those who have worked in the trenches and made real progress, and they give voice to those who have been excluded and silenced until now.

I do have a critique on this latter point – the degree to which those who with disabilities are being engaged as partners in the effort. The guide does an excellent job raising awareness of language issues in its introduction, contrasting the “person-first” language (“a person with autism”) to the “identity-first language” (“an autistic child”), and discussing the problematics of the term “special.” What is not problematized, however, is the term “inclusion,” a word which suggests that someone is on the outside and that the community is making space to include him or her. More properly, we should be speaking about our obligation to not exclude those who are in the community; to recognize that the community is made up of diverse people and that all must be accommodated; to speak in terms of “we” rather than “us” and “them.” There is no question that the guide advocates this ethos, but a discussion of the term “inclusion” would have been welcome. More significantly, there is not nearly enough quotes from people with disabilities, and little emphasis on the need to include those with disabilities in the decision making process around these issues. This point appears briefly in the last chapter, on social justice, but it should have appeared earlier, and at much greater length, in the chapter on respecting agency and promoting dignity.

The use of the term “disability rights” – a term that is used dozens of times throughout the guide and in the very title of the guide itself – should likewise have been problematized. The concept of rights is an Enlightenment concept and is one of the foundation stones of modern democracy. Jewish tradition, in contrast, speaks about obligations that we have towards others, not rights that others have that cannot be violated. The guide could have fruitfully explored the differences of attitude and behavior that emerge from these two approaches, and how the two could complement one another. Not doing so was a missed opportunity.

The guide is not only about ideas and awareness; it is interested in concrete steps. The body of the text contains “Tips for Best Practice” and “Resource” sections, and an extensive list of print and internet resources appears at the end of the guide. The suggestions here are first-rate, including sensitivity to language, availability of accommodations, and the importance of forging alliances. I would have liked to have seen more, however. There is very little here about how an institution can work to educate its members and how to handle possible opposition or budgetary concerns. The guide also seems to be directed primarily at synagogues and similar institutions, and almost completely ignores the Jewish day schools, where the problems are more complicated and more formidable, although these things are probably too much to ask for from a guide of this size.

This guide is a highly engaging and accessible resource, which can make a significant contribution in establishing the framework, a shared language, a grounding in Jewish values sources for our discussions around disabilities, along with providing critical steps to begin to create a community that is true to the Torah and its values: a community that recognizes all its members in all their diversity.

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and the primary architect of its curriculum of Torah, Halakha, pastoral counseling and professional training. Rabbi Linzer has been a leading rabbinic voice in the Modern Orthodox community for over 20 years, and teaches a Daf Yomi shiur which is available on Youtube and iTunes.