Disability and God Talk

An earlier version of this piece was published here.

I am passionate about creating truly inclusive and accessible Jewish communities in which all Jews can find a spiritual home, and in which we can all bring our full selves to bear on the life of our community. I want to create communities in which the perspectives and lived experiences of all of us, particularly those of us who find ourselves on the margins, bring added depth and richness. I’m also the first blind woman, as far as I know, to attend a rabbinical school.

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 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 (blessing) 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.” In addition, thorny issues of power imbalance and consent come to the fore. Agency is removed from the one over whom the bracha is being made, and assumptions that the dominant group holds come to define the individual, whose consent isn’t sought in this wholly one-sided encounter.

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 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.

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 re-imagining what our world could look like begin to emerge.

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3 thoughts on “Disability and God Talk

  1. Thank you for sharing this incredibly important perspective! Be-tzelem Elohim and tikkun olam are such beautiful theologies. I love how you have woven them together.

    In Unitarian Universalism we strive to uphold the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Your reflections reminded me of the importance of these principles in my own faith.

  2. I so appreciate your work, Lauren, thank you! You said: “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” and I immediately thought of parallels in racial justice work. There is often an unspoken assumption/foundation to blessings in praise of racial diversity in my church (UCC) that reinforce circles of exclusion/inclusion. The grammar and structure of blessings assumes that those uttering the blessings are dominant (white) and that the other has the “diversity” that we bless. I often wonder if the net result of such blessings is to actually reinforce dominance rather than to challenge it. I think simple questions about the pronouns we use, from “who is the ‘we’ in this sentence?” to “who isn’t included in the ‘us'” can be helpful.

  3. Good thoughts. How would you modify some of these bracha traditions that we currently find problematic, even offensive, such as what you have just mentioned, the men’s prayer of thankfulness in not being made a woman, a gentile or a slave…?

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