[Blog] Judaism and Accessibility

24 November 2022 – 30 Heshvan 5783

By Annie Talbot

Religious perspectives on disability have often been confusing, conflicting, and complicated. Whilst each religion has a unique approach to understanding disability, there are often contradictions within a single religion’s approach to disability – conflicting messages within religious texts, or different interpretations of disability by scholars. Whilst these issues are not unique to Judaism, it is important to recognise and understand the past’s prevalent views to help us inform how we can improve in the future.

As current estimates of disability prevalence suggest that around 14.6 million of the UK’s population are disabled, coupled with greater disability advocacy for inclusiveness, it is crucial to ensure disabled people are provided with accessibility. Furthermore, as Liberal Judaism pushes for the reinterpretation of Jewish values with a modern perspective, the following essay seeks to demonstrate the importance of accessibility in Judaism, whilst suggesting ways Jewish life could become more accessible.

Unfortunately, the idea that disabled people are ‘less than’ non-disabled people has been perpetuated within Judaism at times. Various perspectives on disability within Jewish religious texts exist, and perhaps the most damaging is the view that disability is a punishment from God. This is most notably demonstrated in Deuteronomy 28:28 in which it is stated that “God will strike you with madness, blindness, and dismay,” in response to someone who would disobey His commandments. This quote implies that disability is somehow a punishment or moral failing on behalf of the disabled person, by implying that being disabled is an inherent flaw. Whilst disabilities, especially ones that can cause daily physical pain or mental anguish, can be difficult and upsetting for an individual to navigate, the association that being disabled is inherently awful can be very stigmatising for disabled people.

Therefore, this interpretation of disability within Torah which paints disability in this negative light is incompatible with many disabled people’s perceptions of their disability.

In addition to this view, there are also moments in religious texts where disabled people are excluded from aspects of practice in Judaism. This is shown in Leviticus 21:16-24 where it is stated that Aharon’s descendants that have a ‘defect’ are unable to “offer up his God’s food.” Many examples are highlighted in this section in which it states “No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes.” This highlights how disabled people were excluded in circumstances on the basis of disability. This exclusion promotes further stigmatisation of disability within the Torah as it suggests that those who are disabled should be treated differently to those around them. Perpetuating this view can lead to further isolation and exclusion for disabled people, which would lead to a reduction of accessibility. It is therefore important that this mindset and viewpoints, even within religious texts are challenged, to ensure that disabled people are continuously included in Jewish spaces.

Despite the stigmatising and exclusionary views of disability that can be seen with the Torah, the opposite can also be seen. Leviticus 19:14 reminds that “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.” This passage promotes the idea of being tolerant and accepting of differences. This promotes inclusion and accessibility for disabled people, as it tells people to be accepting and not attempt to make disabled people’s lives more difficult. Perhaps more subtly, the Torah states in Genesis 1:27 that “God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God — creating them male and female,” demonstrating that disabled people are created in the image of God and indicating that they should not be seen as inferior to those who are not disabled.

Perhaps the most interesting argument for disability inclusion and accessibility comes from the story of Moses. Many scholars have interpreted Moses to have a stutter, as he describes himself in Exodus 4:10 as being “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” In response to Moses’ hesitancy, God asks Moses: “Who gave man a mouth, or who [is it that] makes one mute or deaf or open-eyed or blind? Is it not I?” This response indicates that God intentionally created disabilities, and that he does not view this to be something to be ashamed of. This is an important sentiment that should be reflected in all aspects of Judaism – disability is nothing to be ashamed of. Additionally, if this interpretation is to be believed, it would mean that the Torah’s most important figure was someone who had a disability.

Furthermore, God can be seen giving Moses the means to communicate by stating that Aharon may act as Moses’ mouthpiece to communicate the word of God amongst others. This can be interpreted as God making adjustments for Moses, to help him in areas in which he would otherwise struggle – similar to how communication adjustments can be made in contemporary life for communication difficulties. This demonstrates how people are valued by God regardless of whether they are disabled or not, and rather than ignoring his difficulties, God provides Moses with a solution to help him carry out God’s wishes. This story demonstrates that how even the smallest of changes can make the biggest of differences for disabled people, as without Aharon acting as Moses’ mouthpiece, it may have been that no one received God’s message beyond Moses himself.

In recognising the importance of accessibility in Judaism, it is important to see how accessibility is already a key feature in Jewish observance. For example, those with illnesses, or disabilities, are not expected to make themselves unwell by participating in the Yom Kippur fast. Instead, it is heavily emphasised within Judaism, that no mitzvah is more important than another person’s life (Pikuach Nefesh). Whilst interpretations of how far Pikuach Nefesh extends and in what circumstances differ, many Jewish people take the approach of putting a person’s wellbeing and health above the following of a mitzvah. For example, allowing the consumption of non-kosher products if it will prevent a person from becoming sick. This patience, understanding, and flexibility with observance could allow disabled people to participate within Jewish communities without feeling judged, and would prevent them from being excluded if they otherwise would not have been able to participate.

In addition to mitzvot, accessibility can be incorporated into Jewish communities, especially within synagogues. For example, for people with vision loss, providing signs around synagogues in Braille can be useful, or providing large-print copies of services that can be read with more ease. Similarly, providing services on different coloured paper or providing overlays may help members who are dyslexic. It can be useful to ensure that those with guide dogs are supported in entering synagogues, and that assistance in available to those who may need it.

For those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, it may be useful to include BSL interpreters in services. Or if this is unavailable, it may be useful to use live caption functions that are available to turn on in Zoom, so that those who require it, would be able to follow along more easily as services would be subtitled. This function could also benefit those with auditory processing issues who may struggle to follow conversations and may find it easier to read what is being said.

For people with learning difficulties, or those for which understanding written language is difficult, providing pictures alongside signs within a synagogue can be valuable. For autistic people, even simple changes can make a large impact, such as having someone explain how services are structured prior to visiting or allowing a person to visit the synagogue before joining a service for the first time, which could be potentially overwhelming for autistic people, or those with social anxiety.

More substantial changes, that could be important for communities to consider is wheelchair accessibility and access for those with limited mobility. However, if this is not immediately available to communities, making services available remotely can ensure that people are still able to be included and valued members of congregations. There are many creative and innovative ways that can be explored to ensure accessibility is prioritised in Jewish communities and it may be important for communities to come together to explore what would work best for them. Additionally, events or discussions where awareness and acceptance of disabled people is spoken about positively, could dispel some unconscious bias and make communities feel even more welcoming for disabled people who often face severe discrimination daily.

Open, constructive and creative ideas are key when prioritising accessibility, and this was particularly evident to many religious communities during the Covid-19 Pandemic. As families were separated, workplaces closed their doors, and daily life changed drastically, people were forced to find new ways to communicate and stay in touch with their loved ones. For many, access to hobbies and communities became something that initially seemed impossible, but with the introduction of technology and services people found a way to stay connected even in the bleakest of periods.

Livestreaming of services was introduced on a widespread scale so that communities could continue to observe and participate in services, albeit a little differently. However, despite the limitations of meeting online compared to in-person, it meant that many people were able to become involved in a time where isolation from others was at an all-time high. Whilst this accessibility was necessary for communities to survive Covid, these changes also improved accessibility for people with physical disabilities or limited movements. The value of livestreaming for congregations was recognised as so valuable that many communities adopted a “hybrid approach” in which services that take place in person are still livestreamed to members at home.

Accessibility, whilst vital for disabled people, is also positive and important for the wider Jewish community. The opportunity to join services online allows Jewish people from remote areas, or those in which transport poses an obstacle, to connect with and join a community from their home. The impact of services becoming more available online also led to an increase in new people exploring Judaism. Some Liberal Jewish communities found that during Covid, there was a large increase in the number of people who became interested in converting. This means that accessibility helps to ensure that Judaism remains a home for vibrant and diverse Jewish communities to thrive. It can also ensure that if a person suddenly finds themself unable to attend physically, they still have the option of joining remotely and participating in their much-loved communities.

Overall, whilst there are harmful and stigmatising views expressed about disability within Jewish religious texts, there are also great examples that disabled people should have access to Jewish life and participate fully within Jewish communities. Communities in particular have a responsibility to improve accessibility for disabled members, which can simultaneously provide benefits for the entire community.

In Liberal Judaism, it is encouraged to reinterpret Judaism for a contemporary society, so whilst there may be differences in how disability has been treated in the past, there must be an effort to strive for inclusion and equality in a forward-thinking, progressive modern world.

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