Hineinu: Jewish Texts on Disability Inclusion

Jewish tradition teaches us of our obligation to ensure equal access for all people and to help facilitate the full participation of individuals with disabilities in religious and public life. We are taught “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5); accordingly, we must prevent anyone from being separated from the community against their will.

Furthermore, in Leviticus 19:14 we are commanded, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Stumbling blocks come in many forms, from less-than-accessible buildings, Shabbat services, prayer books and web pages to health care that is harder to access or isn’t sufficient for people with disabilities. We are obligated to remove these stumbling blocks; this is why Judaism cares so deeply for the rights of people with disabilities.

Jewish Texts to Inspire Inclusive Practices

• "For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people."(Isaiah 56:5)

• "And God said, 'Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness…' So God created the human beings in [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female." (Genesis 1:26-27)

o On "let us make human beings" – As long as God is still creating, God does not in fact say 'I,' God says 'we,' an absolute, all-inclusive term which does not refer to an "I" outside the self but is the plural of all-encompassing majesty. It is an impersonal I, an I that does not face another Thou, that does not reveal anything but lives, like the metaphysical God of pre-creation, only in itself." (Franz Rosenzweig)
o On "in the image" - "Beloved is humanity, for it was created in the image of God. Still greater was God’s love in that God gave to humanity the knowledge of having been so created." (Pirkei Avot 3:18)

• Two translations/interpretations from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5:

o "A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the holy one, blessed by God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique."
o "(An individual was created) to show the greatness of God. While a person stamps many coins from a single die, and they are all alike, the Eternal has stamped every person with the die of Adam, yet not one of them is like their fellow."

• "One who sees…people with disfigured faces or limbs, recites the blessing, 'Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of time and space, who makes people different.' One who sees a person who is blind or lame, or who is covered with sores and white pustules (or similar ailment), recites the blessing, 'Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of time and space, who is a righteous judge.' But if they were born that way (with the disability), one says, '…who makes people different.'" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot B’rachot 10:12, based on B’rachot 58b)

• "But Moses said to the Eternal, 'Please, O Adonai, I have never been good with words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.' And the Eternal said to him, 'Who gives humans speech? Who makes them dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Eternal?'" (Exodus 4:10-11)

• "Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah—whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability." (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 10)

• Two translations/interpretations from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, 4:3:

o "Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have their hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun."
o "Treat no one lightly and think nothing is useless, for everyone has a moment and everything has a place."

• "Do not look at the container, but what is in it" (Pirkei Avot 4:27)

• "Speak up for those who cannot speak…speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy." (Proverbs 31:8 )

• "Hinei ma tov u'ma na'im shevet achim gam yachad." - "Behold how good and pleasant it is when all people live together as one." (Psalm 133)

• "Rachmana leib'i." – "God wants only the heart."

o "The Mishnah tells us, 'Don’t look at the flask, but at what it contains.' In teaching ourselves to see the inner sparks that light a person’s soul, rather than merely glancing at the casing that holds those precious assets of personality, aspiration and caring, we can act like God in the wilderness, healing when we can, and transcending limits when we cannot." (Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson)

• "Do not curse a person who is deaf and do not place a stumbling block in front of a person who is blind." (Leviticus 19:14)

• Deuteronomy 24:17 and 27:19, and Jeremiah 22:3 teaches us "not to oppress the stranger, the orphan and the widow." These three are offered as examples of the weakest, least protected members of society. The Torah repeatedly delineates that protection and help must be afforded such members of the group.

• "Teach a child according to their way." (Proverbs 22:6) (according to their needs and abilities)

• "All Israel is responsible for one another." (Mishnah Sanhedrin)

• "We may sell a synagogue, and, similarly, all holy objects – even a sefer Torah – in order to provide for Torah students and orphans." (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 153:6)

• "Rabbi Yochanan said: 'Each of the 40 days that Moses was on Mount Sinai, God taught him entire Torah. And each night, Moses forgot what he had learned. Finally, God gave it to him as a gift. If so, why did God not give the Torah to him as a gift on the first day? In order to encourage the teachers of those who learn in a non-traditional manner.'" (Jerusalem Talmud)

• "Human beings were created as a single individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single life is as though that person has destroyed an entire world, and anyone who preserves a single life is as though an entire world has been preserved. The creation of an individual human being was done also for the sake of peace among humanity, so that no person could say to another, "My parent is greater than your parent.'" (Talmud Sanhedrin 4:5)

• "And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)

• "Oh God, may all created in your image recognize that they are kin, so that in one spirit and in one friendship, they may be forever united before you.” (Traditional Liturgy)

• "When a person insults someone else, it their own defect that they are revealing." (Kedushim 70a)

• "If there be among you a person with needs, you shall not harden your heart, but you shall surely open your hand." (Deuteronomy 15:7)

• "Anyone who deprives a student of being taught Torah is as if they robs the student of their parents' legacy." (Sanhedrin 91b)

• A student should not say ― "I have understood" when they have not understood. Rather, they should ask again, even several times. And, if the teacher gets angry and abuses the student verbally, the student should say to the teacher, ―Teacher, this is Torah and I must learn it, even if my capacity is inadequate. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 4:4)

• The decency of a society is measured by how it cares for its least powerful members. (Etz Hayim, commentary ed. by Rabbi Harold Kushner)