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Society’s Influence on the Shaping of Halakha

Jewish-Approaches-to-People-with-Disabilities-rabbi-benny-lau

Publlished :

 2013

Society’s Influence on the Shaping of Halakha

Jewish Approaches to People with Disabilities

Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau

1. We all have disabilities

To be a person of Torah is to take on a quest to reveal the light of God which shines out of the Torah, as it has been revealed to human beings. Halacha [Jewish law], in as far as it is a translation of the Godly Idea into human behaviour, must radiate that light for which all those who worship the Almighty pray. Among the subjects that linger disconcertingly between light and darkness is society’s approach to people with disabilities. Already in the Talmud we find the story of one of the greatest scholars of the Tanaitic period (70-220 CE), Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, who studied Torah from Rabbi Meir, and returned home completely caught up in the joy of his studies, which consumed his entire character:

He happened upon a man who was extremely ugly. The man said, “Shalom to you, Rabbi!” Rabbi Simeon did not reply. Instead he exclaimed, “Idiot! How ugly that man is! Could it be that all the people of your city are as ugly as you?” 

The man said, “I do not know, why not go to the Artisan who made me, and tell Him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made!’”

When Rabbi Simeon realized that he had done wrong, he dismounted from his donkey and fell down at the man’s feet, saying, “I fully accept – please forgive me.” “I will not forgive you,” said the man, “until you go to that Artist who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made.’” 

The gap between the harmonious light of Torah and this offence to perfection that is the “extremely ugly” man, strikes Rabbi Simeon like a blow. The Torah he has been learning has not refined his character, but rather had sharpened his aspiration to “angelic” completeness, which refuses to encounter an ugly reality. 

The “ugly man”, then, refers Rabbi Simeon to the source of all ugliness in the world: the Holy One, the Artisan who made him. This is a decisive religious statement, which seeks to cancel out the categories of beautiful and ugly as seen by human beings, and to bring them instead to a more holistic vision, which takes account of the fact that God created all of mankind, in all the forms it may take, in His own image. Not, that is, with a godly body – for God has no body – but rather with an essential nature that is divine, an associate in the creation and advancement of the world. Man created in God’s image is not God – he is “a little less” (Ps. 8:6). This is what brings us to the absolute knowledge that all of us are people with disabilities.