This week, we are once again reading Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27). Biblical scholars commonly refer to these two chapters of Leviticus as the holiness code due to the numerous interpersonal commandments (mitzvot) that are found within. These mitzvot form the foundation of Torah and are applicable to everyone. In addition to loving our neighbor as ourselves and showing deference to the elderly in our communities, we are also commanded, in Leviticus 19:14 neither to curse a deaf person, nor to place a stumbling block before a blind person. In reference to the latter commandment, an entire category of halakhah (Jewish law) has been developed, known as Lifnei Iver—before the blind. This category of halakhah is derived from the figurative reading of this commandment by the medieval French Biblical commentator par excellence, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki—better known as Rashi—who sees the blind referred to here as a figurative, rather than a literal class of people. Those who are blind, according to this reading, are those who are ignorant of a given matter. We cannot, therefore, lead people astray, take advantage of them or give advice which we know instinctively is bad advice—all good things and all things I wholeheartedly support. However, from my perspective, Rashi’s figurative reading and the laws which grew up from it, have, for all intents and purposes, written those with a visual impairment out of this text entirely. I imagine that the very thought that someone might place a physical stumbling block in the path of a blind person was seen as so abominable that it was taken for granted that we don’t need a commandment to prohibit people from acting so insensitively. I have always found the emphasis on Rashi’s reading deeply frustrating as someone who is in fact blind. I wish to take this opportunity to explore this verse from the pshat or literal perspective. I speak for myself alone and cannot claim to represent all blind people, let alone all people with disabilities.
When the Torah commands us to refrain from placing a stumbling block before a blind person, what, in fact, is the Torah commanding? Are we commanded to refrain from purposely placing an obstacle in the way of a blind person? Somehow, I do not think that the Torah was commanding such a simple reading.
Stumbling blocks exist in numerous forms—structural, societal, attitudinal and economic—which make it exceedingly difficult for people with disabilities to be fully integrated into the larger community. I wish to argue that one of the most substantial of these is society’s subconscious view of disability, which is imbedded into our language and the way in which we view the world around us.
Jewish tradition teaches that all human beings are created B’tzelem Elokim—in the image of G-d, and henceforth, we all have inherent worth and dignity merely by being human, irrespective of a disability. Every life is inherently deserving of respect, every human life is precious, and every human being belongs in our communities. We truly need a societal paradigm shift. Instead of looking at people with disabilities as expensive, burdensome, difficult, or the last people we should think about because they are marginal, we need to look at every person as equally deserving of acceptance. Disability accommodation ought not be an afterthought, and in far too many spaces and in far too many instances, it has been.
It is my personal belief that the way to change attitudes is to get to know people for who they are and allow them to speak about and for themselves. I know in my own life, encountering people from communities I had only heard about or perceived to be marginal has allowed me to educate myself and expand my perspective. Just because I am blind does not mean that I am well educated about other disability groups, nor does my blindness exempt me from ableist prejudice. It is very difficult to truly look within at our own preconceived notions about other people and work to combat them, and I am trying mightily to work on combating those within myself. We are all human, we all make mistakes, and that is ok–the important thing is to try to be mindful of how we carry ourselves in the world and how we speak about and with others.
When we actively accept disability, we are affirming the total worth of every individual, not implicitly or explicitly asking people with disabilities and members of other marginalized groups to fit into society’s conception of what normal is. There tends to be a binary view of disability–either one deals with the tyranny of low expectations or feels as though one must be a super crip. Instead of these, we can embrace people with disabilities’ right to be themselves and not hold on to a one-size-fits-all model of disability which often does a great deal of damage.
In my view, barriers in the way of full integration of blind folks are the lack of accessible texts, and the barriers that are often erected in the way of achieving equality in this regard. Accessible formats include large print, Braille, electronic and audio materials. Although I generally prefer Braille, every blind or visually impaired person has their own preference for what works for them. There’s no one right way to access text, just as there are no single set of needed accommodations. People may also be unsure of how to ask a blind person if they need help for fear of doing the wrong thing, a fear I understand. Establishing productive dialogue in this regard is so important. If you see a blind person at an event, I would encourage you to come up to the person, welcome them to your community and let them know you are available if they need anything, but let them do the asking. Because totally blind people cannot establish eye contact, it is harder for us to join conversations happening around us, unless we recognize the participants. As a result, we can often be left feeling unintentionally excluded. Many people fear asking for help either because they don’t want to be seen as a burden or because they are embarrassed and are fearful of how their request will be perceived.
We live in a time in which the needs of people with disabilities and their gifts and talents are being better understood, but we have a long road ahead of us. We have made significant progress. As the Talmudic adage states: “We may not finish the task, but we are not free to desist from it” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:16).