Last week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, opens with Moses’ gathering the entirety of the Jewish people together. After reiterating the singular importance of Shabbat observance, specifically focusing on the prohibition of lighting a fire, Moses instructs the people regarding the completion of the Mishkan, or tabernacle, commanding them to bring gifts for this purpose. The people obliged, bringing a surplus of gifts such that they were asked to cease doing so.
The gifts the people brought all went towards the completion of the Mishkan, and each individual brought what was within their means to. From amidst a seemingly mind-numbing Torah portion which outlines the precise delineations and requirements for the Mishkan’s instruction, this opening piece speaks volumes.
Throughout the month of February, Jewish communities around North America have been observing Jewish Disability Awareness Month, in which the importance of including Jews with disabilities is spoken about from bimahs and various communities present programming on this theme. As a blind rabbinical student who is passionate about affirming all Jews in our sacred conversations and spaces, I am simultaneously gladdened, indeed heartened by the progress that my community continues to make with regards to the inclusion of all and deeply mindful of the incredible amount of work still left to do.
Creating welcoming communities has become something of a buzzword in certain circles. Affirming texts are used as the basis for sermons on the importance of disability awareness; articles about initiatives designed to include folks with disabilities are put in the spotlight. But when March begins, as it will very shortly, what tangible progress can we say we have made? Does February merely present us with an opportunity to congratulate ourselves for the work we have done without taking the time to look critically inward? Are we so sure that ours is the right lens through which to look at disability that we may unintentionally close our minds and hearts off to other points of view? Where are the folks with disabilities in the conversation? Do we look at them as beneficiaries, or do we look at them as multi-dimensional human beings yearning for a sense of community just like everyone else? Indeed, are we willing to listen to their voices, to hold their experiences, or if their experiences or views don’t accord with ours, do we ignore them?
My thinking on centering marginal voices has undergone tremendous linguistic and paradigm shifts over the past several years, and it is my hope that I will have the tremendous privilege of continuing this sacred work as an integral part of my rabbinate. Though much of my writing of late has centered on disability, I am of the firmly held opinion that inclusion of one historically marginalized group cannot be done in a vacuum or at the expense of another. Put another way, people with disabilities should not be reduced to our impairments because we inhabit many other identities which also must be affirmed wholly in our sacred communities if we are to feel truly welcomed. Welcoming communities, in my view, are not those which merely speak about how affirming and inclusive they are of all of their members but are instead communities in which inclusion is seamless.
Providing literature in which a community outlines its inclusive and affirming positions is a critical and important first step. Without stating explicitly that yours is a welcoming community, folks who have had difficult experiences in Jewish or other faith-based spaces in the past may be hesitant to enter yours. As important as written affirmation of all is how the community operates on a day-to-day basis. Welcoming is as much about action as it is about speech. I can speak about the importance of centering marginal voices in religious communities and discourse all I want, but if I don’t take my Torah to the streets, as it were, and begin to live out my values on the ground, what difference will I have made? To that end, critical self check-ins have become an integral part of my own inner work as I embark upon this journey. It is important to emphasize that none of us are perfect, nor should we be. Indeed, the very last thing anyone would wish for is that people are too afraid of saying the wrong thing and as a result refrain from engaging in conversation or relationship-building with those who are different for fear of offending. We all have had the experience of and have experienced misplaced comments. What is important is how we act in their aftermath that can either open up avenues of dialogue and understanding or close them. In a society that is seemingly more interested in the 30-second soundbite and shouting over each other, active and wholehearted listening is more important than ever. Indeed, the mere act of listening with one’s whole self to the experiences of another can do wonders for that person’s sense of belonging.
We are losing much Torah when we create spaces that do not affirm the worth and dignity of all of us, and I am deeply saddened when I think of the numerous perspectives that remain silenced and unnoticed, the Torah that I am not able to learn because it has not yet found an avenue to be made manifest. I want to learn that Torah! And I firmly believe that as our sacred table of communal leadership continues to widen and become more diverse, which I pray will continue unabated for years to come; all of us will be able to bring our sacred gifts to our communities. I draw strength from those who have come before me. May I live up to their wise example. May the day come when the centering of marginal voices is integral and not a mere afterthought. Just as the Jewish people gave and gave of all they had towards the creation of their sacred space, may the sacred gifts, voices and experiences of all of those who feel marginal or unwanted in their communities be employed towards the transformation of our sacred spaces.