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  • Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli
  • Mayer I. Gruber
Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli, by Judith K. Abrams. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1998. 236pp. $49.95.

In this book Judith K. Abrams presents scholar and layperson alike with a masterful study of the treatment of the physically and cognitively challenged in the authoritative sacred texts of Israel from the Iron Age through the Babylonian Talmud circa 500 C.E. (her date, which follows the traditional date given by Sherira, head of the academy of Pumbeditha [c. 970–1000 C.E.]). She exhibits total mastery of the relevant passages in Hebrew Scripture, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Mishnah, Tosefta, the Talmuds and Rabbinic midrash. She makes creative use of the work of the important pathfinders in 1) twentieth century Jewish biblical studies (Haran, Kaufman, Knohl, Milgrom, Weinfeld); 2) the contemporary scientific study of rabbinic literature (Halivni, Jaffee, Kraemer, Neusner); and 3) the post-modern study of the body in Judaism (Boyarin, Eillberg-Schwartz). Abrams is equally at home in the history of medicine and in anthropology and sociology. The depth and breadth of Rabbi Dr. Abrams’ knowledge is a tribute not only to the author of Judaism and Disability but also to her mentors at Hebrew Union College, where she earned her rabbinic ordination and at Baltimore Hebrew University where she earned her Ph.D.

A generation ago Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, spiritual leader of the Jewish congregation for the deaf in Greater Chicago (Bene Sholom), reported to the Chicago Board of Rabbis the grave difficulty that deaf Jews had in receiving a fair hearing [End Page 115] within the Jewish community. Wrongly assuming that every deaf person should be defined as cheresh (deaf and dumb; consequently in a subcategory of shoteh [imbecile]), rabbis and congregations refused to provide prayer groups of deaf Jews with Torah scrolls and other necessary appurtenances of public worship. Finding that the Jewish community turned a deaf ear to their pleadings, hearing-impaired Jews often fled to the welcoming arms of Christian churches.

In a feature article concerning the treatment of the handicapped in the State of Israel in the Hebrew daily newspaper Ma’ariv (February 10, 2000) Tali Barzilai Sonenfeld writes: “Israel is insensitive to the physically handicapped; it does not see the blind, nor does it hear the deaf.” Consequently, she explains, elevators in public buildings lack buttons with captions in Braille for the blind; many government buildings provide no wheelchair access, and few ATMs are situated low enough to be operated from a wheelchair. Moreover, she reports, the head of one supermarket chain asked Ms. Sonenfeld please not to report that the chain would, if asked, help handicapped customers carry their purchases to their vehicles: “We do not want the handicapped taking advantage of us.”

Rabbi Dr. Judith Z. Abrams shows that the basic sacred texts of Judaism—Hebrew Scripture, Mishnah, Tosefta, the two Talmuds, and the vast midrashic literature produced in Byzantine-age Palestine—constitute a treasure-trove of insights as to how the physically and cognitively unchallenged can learn to treat as peers the blind, the lame, the deaf, as well as the cognitively challenged.

The author explains that the priestly heritage of Judaism exemplified by Lev. 1–16 created an ideal of physical perfection, which may rightly be compared with the qualifications required for admission to that elite military corps, the United States Marines. Building upon Israel Knohl’s thesis concerning the ideological differences between the priestly heritage exemplified by Lev. 1–16 and the Holiness Code contained in Lev. 17–26, Abrams demonstrates that Lev. 19 brought the ideal of physical perfection required of Temple priests into the popular realm by requiring Israelites to respect and treasure all human bodies. The logical consequence is Lev. 19:14, which prohibits cursing the deaf and putting a stumbling block before the blind. The next logical step is contained in ancient Rabbinic exegesis (see pp. 42–45). The rabbis saw in these prohibitions not only special consideration toward those persons whose physical disabilities often lead to their marginalization but also 1) a general prohibition against dealing...

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