Jewish Values and Disability Rights

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" (Pirke Avot 2:5); accordingly, we must prevent anyone from being separated against their will. This occurs frequently; for example, Medicaid will often pay for long-term services for people with disabilities only if they live and receive care at institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes. Guided by our belief in the importance and value of community life, Reform Jews have been working on programs that will end Medicaid’s "institutional bias."

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 Reform Judaism cares so deeply for the rights of people with disabilities.

Other Jewish texts on disability issues include:

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

 "And God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…'  And God created man in His image in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:26-27)

  • On "let us make man" – As long as God is still creating, He does not in fact say 'I,' He 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)
  • On "in the image"–"Beloved is man for he was created in the image of God.  Still greater was God’s love in that He gave to man the knowledge of his having been so created." (Ethics of the Fathers 3:18)

Two translations/interpretations from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5:

  • "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."
  • "(An individual man was created) to show the greatness of God.  While a person stamps many coins from a single die, and they are all alike, the King of kings has stamped every person with the die of Adam, yet not one of them is like his fellow."

"One who sees…people with disfigured faces or limbs, recites the blessing, 'Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, 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, Lord our God, King of the universe, 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 Lord, 'Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of 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 Lord said to him, 'Who gives man speech?  Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind?  Is it not I, the Lord?'"(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, Ch. 10)

Two translations/interpretations fromPirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, 4:3:

  • "Ben Azzai taught:  Do not disdain any person.  Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun."
  • "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.”(Pirke 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."

  • "TheMishnahtells 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)