Ascending Towards Accessibility
The biblical exclusion of people with disabilities from serving in the priesthood demands that we develop greater sensitivity to those with special needs in our communities.
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I don't ask that question so much these days, because most synagogues have taken steps to provide facilities for those with physical disabilities. Having presided over one such effort, I can testify to how a synagogue's spiritual environment is improved by these changes.
In fact, it's in the spiritual realm that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made the greatest impact: As of 1998, houses of worship of all religious denominations were in greatest compliance--even though they were excluded from the act's requirements!
Good for us! But before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, let's realize that there's much more to be done. In fact, our history of excluding people with disabilities goes back to the Torah.
In this week's Torah portion, we read the qualifications of a kohen, a priest: among those who are excluded is anyone "who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf..." (Leviticus 21.18-20)
Historians and biblical scholars suggest that this law was one of several which kept the priesthood untainted by contact with anyone who was not considered a "whole person." (Among others, such persons included women and the poor.) Whatever spiritual merit may have been found in this practice, it had the effect of gross discrimination: any kohen born with or acquiring one of these conditions was out of a job.
We see another example in the Talmud's frequent statement that an imbecile, deaf person, or a minor lack legal status. Although later Jewish law mandated that the second category only applied to a deaf mute, people in both categories--as well as those with poor vision or learning disabilities--were usually not educated and often left out of synagogue life.
Some recent examples:
I grew up with a Jewish girl who was developmentally challenged and also severely visually impaired. While her younger siblings excelled in Hebrew school, the rabbi recommended that she not be trained for Bat Mitzvah. Twenty years later, she demanded the right to have one, and actually learned to chant a Haftarah (reading from the Prophets or Writings) and most of the service. She still lives in my hometown and attends services regularly.