Disability and God Talk

Lauren Tuchman

As such, I believe myself to be uniquely placed to help to lift up and center the perspectives of our fellow Jews who have often not found their communities receptive or welcoming and who, as a result, feel alienated from Jewish life. Though much of my work has centered around the experiences of Jews with disabilities, I am deeply invested in this work from an intersectional lens—in other words, across identity categories, and with the full understanding that there is multivocality in every community, including the disability community.

My way of experiencing the world and my thoughts on how best to center the voices of the marginalized is mine alone and is not representative of anyone other than myself. I humbly offer my thoughts and reflections on the critically important question of teaching about God, and do so from the perspective of celebrating the diversity that is within our midst. I believe that the sooner children learn to honor the beauty that is our diverse human family, the better, and the more accepting they will be of difference in their community, family and the wider world.

At the heart of my thinking is Judaism’s beautiful teaching, found in Genesis 1:27, that human beings are created be-tzelem Elohim—in the image of God. In other words, human beings all have a spark of the divine within them, regardless of who one is. The divine spark that we all always carry is indicative of the fact that God does not place arbitrary value or differing social classifications onto human beings. We are all, regardless of how human society tends to perceive us, inherently valuable and inherently unique. We are all children of God, and we are partners with God in renewing creation on a daily basis.

Thus, in addition to having inalienable worth merely because we are human beings, our ceaseless partnership with God in the renewal of creation I understand as a broad mandate encompassing how we live in the world and how we do our part to make the world better than we found it. The work of constantly lifting up the divine spark in every human being and even the divine sparks found throughout creation is reflective of the familiar Jewish imperative to do tikkun olam, repair the world.

Being created be-tzelem Elohim is commonly cited as the reason to act rightly in the world in relation to our fellow human beings in the broadest sense, but rarely are the radical implications of this tremendous teaching brought to bear on how we are to do that. Introducing students to this concept at the earliest opportunity would be incredibly transformative, and the most impactful way to do this is by modeling it in classrooms, synagogues and other communal spaces, as well as in the home. In order to do this wholly, it is critical to think deeply about what it would look like if we were to fully actualize the power of this teaching.

Every human being is created in the image of God. Every human being has a spark of the divine within. When people are taught to honor and lift up the divine spark within their fellow human beings, the all-too-common impulse to “make other” or to exoticize those who are different from us begins to give way. As human beings, we tend to categorize, make quick judgments, and place people in boxes as a means of creating order out of the chaotic and constantly changing world around us. This pattern, though apparent across many markers of personal and social identity, is particularly acute and noticeable when it comes to individuals with disabilities. Whether out of a fear we do not know how to articulate or out of a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, we tend to place those with disabilities in a category separate from the norm. If disability is addressed at all, particularly in a religious context, it tends to be used as a vehicle for the continued othering of the individual, even when it appears that it is being used to build bridges.

An example of this in Jewish tradition is the brachah that one is supposed to make upon seeing a “strange” individual: meshaneh habriyot. Blessed are You, God, ruler of the universe, who diversifies or makes different the creatures. On its face, this appears to be a beautifully inclusive brachah, one that we might want to teach our children from the earliest age as a means of honoring the diversity that is humanity. However, for many individuals with disabilities and other visible differences that fall outside of social norms, including myself, this brachah, instead of building bridges and honoring the beauty within our non-normative bodies, instead places us firmly within the category of “other.” When we thank God for diversifying God’s creatures, the inverse of that is that we are thanking God for making us normative in body, normative in appearance.

One can make a similar argument about many of the brachot in Birkhot HaShachar, the blessings we say every morning which thank God for many of the abilities we have been granted. I am profoundly privileged to be in a position of being able to do cutting-edge work involving rethinking and reimagining many of these brachot from a disability justice perspective. Pokeach ivrim and zokef kefufim are two such examples. Our society places tremendous value on the normatively abled body. Even as we might be grateful for the physical abilities we possess, we can encourage our students to think critically about the messages these brachot send about the non-normatively abled body, and to think about alternative ways of thinking about them. An example of a radical rethinking of a brachah that I have seen is matir asurim—who frees the captives. For many people with disabilities who use adaptive equipment in their daily lives, that adaptive equipment levels the playing field.

One exercise that I have seen used successfully when thinking more deeply about meshaneh habriyot is to have people think for several moments about a time when they observed someone noticeably different and a time when they were observed for being noticeably different. Reflecting upon the feelings that arose during either of these encounters is instructive for beginning to shift one’s understanding of the brachah. It is also useful to use these reflective moments as a catalyst for thinking more broadly about the ways society would be transformed if we took the notion that we are all created in the image of God seriously.

Other ways of living out this teaching can be done in service learning trips, in which time is spent volunteering with a disadvantaged group. We tend to situate these encounters as the more privileged group giving back to our community by helping those less fortunate. This places the privileged group in the position of problem-solver, rather than humbly asking how we can be useful. To return to a teaching I brought up earlier in this piece, if we are indeed partners with God in the work of renewing creation daily, this applies to how we treat those whom we see as less fortunate. If children are implicitly or even explicitly taught that their role is to serve and to solve a problem—hunger, by making sandwiches at a homeless shelter, or helping individuals with disabilities by serving as aides of some variety or another as examples, the relationship employs a transactional rather than a relational model. We reinforce the notion that those who are different from us are other. However, if we emphasize a relational encounter, in which we encourage students to ask questions, learn about the groups they are working with and seek to work with those groups as equal partners, learning as much as they teach, truly hearing and absorbing the perspectives of the communities with whom they work, we are living out our radical teaching that we are created in the image of God.

With Birkhot HaShachar, a useful exercise might be to have students reflect deeply upon the brachot individually and collectively. What are we saying communally and individually when we make these brachot? Do we find some of them more resonant than others? A good model for this kind of critical work is the profound discomfort many feel around the she-lo asani brachot, thanking God for not making me a non-Jew, a slave, and a woman. If appropriate, use that discomfort, and the innovations and changes that have been adopted as a result of grappling with this discomfort, to reflect upon new ways of understanding the brachot.

My overarching goal is to instill within all children that we are more alike than we are different, that children with disabilities are peers, not other, not to be feared or pitied, but human beings, created in the divine image. When we begin to truly examine the notion that we are created in the divine image, radical possibilities for reimagining what our world could look like begin to emerge. Though it might be uncomfortable to use a critical lens upon many of our brachot, I think it highly instructive for understanding the messages we send and the ways in which we might alter those assumptions.

Lauren Tuchman is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. [email protected]

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HaYidion The God Issue Spring 2015
The God Issue
Spring 2015