When I was 18, some 20 years ago, I worked for a summer doing Camp America in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. But this was a camp with a difference: it was run by an Orthodox Jewish organisation which catered for children with physical disabilities and learning difficulties (or “mental retardation” as it was referred to at the time).
It was a well-run, caring environment in which the children flourished and generally had a great time. I remember, though, what the camp director told us fresh-faced new counsellors, straight out of high school, at the start of our orientation programme: “Every one of these children here represents a tragedy for their parents, never forget that, but also an opportunity for us to do good in the world.”
It seemed to make sense to me then. But now, after spending over a decade working in education, I have questions. In the 21st century, accepted secular wisdom is that we no longer regard those with disabilities or special educational needs as tragedies: the only tragedy lies in society’s unwillingness to adapt itself to their needs. As anti-discrimination laws indicate, society has an obligation to create an environment where what used to be called “deficits” are now regarded as just manifestations of human difference, if anything to be celebrated.
Yet normative Judaism seems, on the face of it, to endorse the idea of “deficits”. For example, a person who is blind or deaf-mute cannot act as a witness in a Jewish court of law. Not only that, the presence of any significant physical defect in a Cohen precludes them from participating in the Temple service.
Similarly, only an animal free of physical blemish can itself be brought as a sacrifice. This seems a far cry from modern sensibilities: we don’t read in the Torah about making reasonable adjustments to the ramp leading up to the altar for priests with walking difficulties. Many writers on disability have used these passages to support their critique of a Judaeo-Cristian tradition which, they say, sees disabled people as being of less value than the able-bodied.
The reality, though, is much more complex than that. We know, for example, that medical expertise in Israel in certain genetic conditions far surpasses that elsewhere. Why? Because it’s only in Israel that the large Orthodox community refuses to have the screening tests that lead to most carriers of these conditions being aborted in other countries. The call to care for the “widow, the orphan…” has, in our tradition, always been extended to the disabled. When the ancient Greeks were leaving children with abnormalities to die exposed to the elements, Jews were standing up for the sanctity of all human life.
So is it true that the traditional Jewish approach fails to deal adequately with disability? There are, indeed, traditional sources whose interpretation seems more in line with modern sensibilities. Thus the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah compares a Cohen in the Temple to a hammer used to build a house. Both are just vessels that perform a particular function, and just as you wouldn’t use a broken hammer so God would not use a “defective” Cohen.
No conclusions about human value are to be drawn from these laws. Indeed, the presence of a blemish in a Cohen does not disqualify them taking their share from the sacrifice alongside other Cohanim who did serve: their place as part of the community was unaffected. Perhaps even more troubled by the apparent injustice of the disqualification is the anonymous Sefer Hachinuch. Here it is argued that the reason a Cohen cannot serve is that the peoples’ sensibilities are not developed enough for them not to be distracted by the abnormal appearance of a disabled priest carrying out the service on their behalf. Thus the burden of “fault” is shifted, perhaps more justifiably in modern terms, to the society rather than the individual.
Yet I still wonder about my camp director’s comment and the almost inaudible ring of truth I still sense lies behind it. Modern attitudes to disability, by suggesting that the very existence of disability is a consequence of social attitudes, are based on the idea that society and its attitudes are changeable. They suggest that as we as human beings have the power to rearrange society, even to the extent of dissolving disability and the suffering that it entails. There is no place for an external authority that sets the rules or for the possibility that suffering and tragedy can have any meaning as anything but random events in the physical world.
Yet this is not our tradition. We hold that we have been given, in the Torah, a framework for how society should be. Also, although we can never in human terms fully understand suffering, we accept that nothing is by chance, that God’s hand is active in the world. So when we have a disabled child, it is a tragedy. It is somehow less than what things might have been. Yet at the same time, the most important aspect of their humanity, their identity as a being made in the image of God, remains unchanged. Their value within the community is no less.
Probably now and in the past we have not always have lived up to this ideal. I like to think though, that my old camp director had it about right. There is some absolute reality to disability and suffering and there is in the end no purpose to denying this, but the authentic Jewish response is the one that he exemplified — dedicating his life to bringing support and development to the children of his community.