Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) is read this week as part of the annual Torah reading cycle in the synagogue. As is the case most years, it is read in conjunction with the parsha or Torah portion which proceeds it—Parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16-18) which is also read on Yom Kippur.
Parashat Kedoshim is a parsha with which I resonate very deeply. These two chapters of Leviticus are commonly referred to by Biblical scholars as the holiness code and they differ in many respects from the material which precede them, the chief concerns of Leviticus having been up to this point matters pertinent to the Kohanim or priests.
The bulk of the parsha concerns itself with interpersonal mitzvot, which allow for a just society for all. According to many classical Jewish commentators, these mitzvot serve as the foundation for all of Torah. Indeed, Rashi, the 12th century CE Biblical commentator par excellence, drawing upon the commentary of Torath Kohanim, an earlier rabbinic work and Vayikra Rabba, a collection of midrash in his commentary to Lev. 19:2 picks up on the fact that the verse states that this portion was taught to the entire assembly or congregation of Israel as a means of demonstrating that it is applicable to each and every person.
Relatedly, it is interesting to note that the Ten Commandments each have their parallel in Chapter 19 of Leviticus. Amongst many of Kedoshim’s interpersonal mitzvot are to honor one’s parents, keep the Shabbat, show deference to the elderly, refrain from idolatry, and agricultural law aimed at protecting the poorest members of society. Indeed, I believe that this week’s parsha’s overarching teaching for us is to care for the weakest of our society just as we care for our own families, friends and communities.
In addition to the groups above who are deserving of an added degree of honor and respect, the Torah teaches, in Leviticus 19:14, that we must not curse a deaf person, nor may we place a stumbling block before the blind. An entire category of rabbinic law, known as Lifnei Eveir—literally, before the blind—bases itself on this mitzvah, which in turn is derived from Rashi’s reading of this verse—a figurative reading, in which the blind are said to encompass those persons who, for whatever reason, are ignorant of a given matter, morally blind, and so forth.
We are forbidden to lead such individuals astray or give them bad advice, advice which we know is not in their best interest. We are also forbidden to allow anyone to enter a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation and when we see someone in such a situation, it is our Torah mandate to help that individual get out of that situation as soon as possible.
This category of Jewish law is applicable in a myriad of circumstances, from the business to the interpersonal spheres. While I most certainly agree with and affirm this reading, I would like to take this opportunity to offer up an entirely different approach to the verse which reads it more literally, a reading which the Jewish tradition, much to my sadness and frustration, has largely ignored.
As someone who just so happens to have a visual impairment, I take a great deal of courage from this verse. The Torah’s injunction not to place a stumbling block before the blind I read as a commandment to do everything in our power to break down the barriers which prevent so many in our communities, regardless of disability from participating fully.
More specifically, I see this as a mandate to ensure that our sanctuaries, houses of study, experiential opportunities, and organizational and civic life are accessible to all who wish to take hold of Torah. Stumbling blocks take numerous forms—structural, economic, social—but perhaps most pervasive and most damaging—attitudinal, which is often the hardest to break down but the first which must be broken down if meaningful relationships and interactions are to occur.
Not placing a stumbling block before a blind person means ensuring that Jewish texts are available in Braille, large print and audio formats, and that Jewish learning to the highest levels is easily attained. It means that when a blind or other person with a disability expresses an interest in Jewish communal life, that our doors are flung open and that they become an integral part of the fabric of our Jewish community. It means that when we have a congregant who expresses the need for an accommodation, that we seek to make this person welcome. It means taking a hard look at our landscape and the state of accessibility and instead of simply taking note of the gaps; we must actively seek to fill them. We may not be able to finish the task, as our rabbis teach us, but neither are we permitted to desist from it.
I take great pride in the fact that tremendous strides are being made. Every February, Jews around the world observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month, in which concerns of people with disabilities and their allies are brought to the fore. The Internet has completely revolutionized access to Jewish texts and traditions in a way never before possible. An increasing number of synagogue buildings are becoming accessible to those with mobility impairments, and there have been many positive strides made on behalf of those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Despite these wonderful victories, we have a long way to go before complete integration is achieved.
I write from a place of tremendous privilege, as it were. I not only have access to individuals and institutions in the Jewish community to which far too few people with disabilities have access, but I am also fortunate enough to have technology which enables my complete participation in Jewish life. A Braille Embosser enables me to emboss the texts I need, and screen reading technology on my computer allows me to read myriads of Jewish resources online.
While screen reading technologies, such as JAWS for Windows, Window Eyes and Non-visual Desktop Access (NVDA) are becoming much more ubiquitous, people are far less likely to own–let alone even have access to–a Braille Embosser. Without this, my access to Jewish texts—and I don’t mean simply the Tanakh, Talmud or Siddur—but also to zemirot, songs sung around the Shabbat table and other similar materials—would be severely curtailed. Wonderful organizations exist which seek to ensure that people who are blind or visually impaired have access to Jewish text, but there are still many gaps to be filled.
More pressing, perhaps, is the fact that what is available isn’t being disseminated as it should, and it has been a bit of an uphill battle, particularly for more contemporary works to be put into Braille. The dismal statistic that a mere ten percent of blind school-aged children are even being taught Braille is often cited as a reason for the decline in Braille production across the board—not simply within a specifically Jewish or more broadly religious context. It is my heartfelt desire that this be changed. As wonderful as electronic and audio texts are, and while I most certainly want to see them being produced continuously, having hard copy Braille has transformed my ability to be a full participant in the life of my community. I deeply affirm the feelings of those who prefer the other formats above as well and feel strongly that it is the decision of each individual as to the appropriate means of access.
To return to our parsha and in conclusion, the Torah teaches each of us as individuals and as a collective whole to remove the stumbling blocks placed before all individuals. While much awareness is being raised—and I delight and am honored by the many opportunities I have been given to do so—the awareness needs to be coupled with tangible action. When we see an inequitable situation, a barrier being placed before another, let us all challenge ourselves and our communities—whatever those communities may be—to remove that stumbling block.