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Judaism and Disability

Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli

Judith Z. Abrams

Publication Year: 1998

The Jewish religion owns a virtually uninterrupted record of scripture and commentary dating back to 1,000 B.C.E. (B.C.), portions of which allow the new book Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli to document attitudes toward disabled people in the earliest centuries of this ancient culture. Abrams examines the Tanach, the Hebrew acronym for the Jewish Bible, including passages from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, and subsequent commentaries up to and through the Bavli, the Talmud of Babylonia written between the 5th and 7th centuries C.E. (A.D.). In Judaism and Disability, the archaic portrayals of mentally ill, mentally retarded, physically affected, deaf, blind, and other disabled people reflect the sharp contrast they presented compared to the unchanging Judaic ideal of the “perfect priest.” All of these sources describe this perfection as embodied in a person who is male, free, unblemished, with da’at (cognition that can be communicated), preferably learned, and a priest. The failure to have da’at stigmatized disabled individuals, who were also compromised by the treatment they received from nondisabled people, who were directing and constraining. As the Judaic ideal transformed from the bodily perfection of the priest in the cult to intellectual prowess in the Diaspora, a parallel change of attitudes toward disabled persons gradually occurred. The reduced emphasis upon physical perfection as a prerequisite for a relationship with God eventually enabled the enfranchisement of some disabled people and other minorities. Scholars, students, and other readers will find the engrossing process disclosed in Judaism and Disability one that they can apply to a variety of other disciplines.

Published by: Gallaudet University Press


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p. vii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xi

The past, they say, is prologue. In the case of attitudes about disabilities and persons with them in ancient Jewish sources, one hopes that this is so, for there is much that has yet to be thought through regarding the topic. The future has yet to be recorded. This book, ....

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1 Introduction

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pp. 1-15

If you were to stand at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, where the Mississippi River begins, you might doubt that so mighty a river could spring from so small a source. And yet, were you to follow a leaf that fell into the river at its headwater you would soon see how the river grows until it reaches its destination in the sea, some 2,350 miles later....

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2 Priestly Perfection

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pp. 16-70

"The Few, the Proud, the Marines" is a phrase we associate today with exceptionally fit men and women who, because of their physical condition and training, are able to survive the most dangerous aspects of combat. The phrase implies that there is another group, "the many, the weak, the humble and forlorn"—that is, those who would surely perish...

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3 Persons with Disabilities, Symbolism, and Collective Israel

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pp. 71-83

If the Statue of Liberty's light were to go out one day, we would expect that great pains would be taken to fix it, as, indeed, great trouble and expense were lavished on the statue's refurbishing some years ago. In many movies, the downfall of America is represented by the toppling of this statue, which symbolically embodies the country's best ideals. Human bodies frequently are made to bear such symbolic weight....

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4 Disabilities, Atonement, and Individuals

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pp. 84-103

"Once upon a time..." This phrase raises our expectations that a story will follow in which good prevails and evil is punished. Such tales—fairy tales, literary tales, traditional narratives of every kind—can tell us much about the culture that produced them, regardless of how factual they may or may not be. In ...

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5 Body, Soul, and Society

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pp. 104-122

Think of all the variety of glasses there are, and how each fits form to function. There are brandy snifters that hold the scent of the spirit, champagne flutes that conserve bubbliness, and shot glasses for efficient transfer of alcohol. What each glass is meant to contain affects its shape....

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6 Categorization, Disabilities, and Persons with Disabilities

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pp. 123-197

The questions of the playground plague us for life. "Who's in?" "Who's out?" "Who's the prettiest?" "Who's the best athlete?" "Who's the last person to be picked for the team?" These questions of inclusion and exclusion, and the issues of categorization on which they rely, are extremely important ones for our sources with regard to persons with disabilities....

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7 The River Flows On

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pp. 198-205

While our analysis of Jewish attitudes toward disabilities and persons with them stops at this point, Jewish tradition continued to develop and change. It therefore may profit us to close with a question that falls outside the limits of this study: What do all the texts we have studied, and the attitudes expressed in them mean today? Let us...


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pp. 207-214


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pp. 215-218


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pp. 219-224


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pp. 225-236

E-ISBN-13: 9781563682292
E-ISBN-10: 156368229X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563680687
Print-ISBN-10: 1563680688

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 5 tables, 5 figures
Publication Year: 1998

OCLC Number: 43475910
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Judaism and Disability

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • People with disabilities (Jewish law).
  • People with disabilities in the Bible.
  • People with disabilities in rabbinical literature.
  • Capacity and disability (Jewish law).
  • Rabbinical literature -- History and criticism.
  • Bible. -- O.T. -- Criticism, interpretation, etc.
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