Monday, March 1, 2010

Stumbling blocks

February was Jewish Disability Awareness Month. If this is a surprise, I should add that it was the third annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

I missed the first two altogether and learned about the third after it had begun. According to Rabbi David Saperstein, during February Jewish institutions and organizations were supposed to “undertake a variety of initiatives to raise awareness of disability issues, whether it’s by hosting a panel on disability issues, studying relevant Jewish texts and discussing their application to daily life, volunteering with organizations that aid people with disabilities, or embarking on a holistic re-examination of how the community—our synagogues, schools and other communal institutions—includes, or fails to include, people with disabilities.”

So why did we miss this? One reason is that religious entities, including all houses of worship, are exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act, the law that mandates physical and programmatic access in other settings for people with many kinds of disabilities. Being under no compulsion by civil law to address disability issues, we could choose to ignore them. Another is that the ADA’s requirements for barrier-free design don’t apply to existing buildings, only to new construction and major alterations.

Nevertheless, for both ethical and practical reasons, most new synagogue buildings have included entrance ramps as well as elevators when necessary, as well as wheelchair-accessible restrooms and drinking fountains. Some, but not all, have provided for wheelchair seating in their sanctuaries, accessible telephones, and other accommodations. Some, including many existing synagogue buildings, have added assistive listening systems.

The ethical reasons include the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Stumbling blocks come in many forms, including less-than-accessible buildings, Shabbat services (how many sanctuaries have wheelchair access to the bimah?), and prayer books. We are also told, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” which implies that we should not impose separation on others.

The practical reasons include the Jewish need for unity. Especially in a community as small as ours, we cannot afford to exclude anyone, even inadvertently. Rabbi Saperstein suggests that accommodation for disabilities may be especially important in the Jewish community: the rate of disability increases with age, and the median age in the Jewish community is several years older than in the general population.

Disability awareness is particularly timely for our community because we are preparing to house all of our Jewish activities in one building. Half the space in that building is on a level that is currently accessible only by stairs, and there is no wheelchair-accessible restroom on either floor. The facilities committee has pledged to make necessary accommodations but may not have planned for everything that is needed, so I hope that everyone with specific concerns will be sure to share them with the committee.

Zecher litziyat Mitzrayim

In the first session of the Crash Course in Jewish History, I said that the ultra-condensed version of the course would be, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

While that’s supposed to be a joke, it represents the extent to which Passover exemplifies the Jewish view of history. We tend to see every event in our history as following that pattern.

In Jewish thought and in Jewish prayer, Passover is even more than our story of survival and liberation. For example, although we teach young children that Shabbat is the weekly remembrance of God’s resting after creating the world, the kiddush for Friday night states that Shabbat is zecher litziyat Mitzrayim, the remembrance of going-out from Egypt.


Many of the instructions in the Torah also tie themselves to the Exodus. Deuteronomy 18:17 tells us, “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless,” and verse 18 adds, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” The passage continues with the well-known instructions to leave overlooked and fallen crops in our fields and orchards for the poor to gather, and concludes by reiterating, “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”


Therefore
. Does this mean that we are obligated to carry out these commandments because of our history as slaves in Egypt, or that we are given these commandments to help us remember that we were once slaves?


Or does it matter? The traditional idea is that observing ritual mitzvot helps us to observe ethical mitzvot, but it’s a two-way street. On one hand, the ritual of the Passover seder should strengthen our resolve to help the poor and oppressed. On the other hand, we celebrate Passover only once a year, but our fellow human beings need our help year-round.


Thus, whenever we help someone who is poor, ill, or oppressed, we should understand it as fulfilling commandments of the Torah, commandments associated with Passover.


This has been on my mind recently because of the B’tzelem Elohim (In the Likeness of God) curriculum that our eighth- and ninth-graders are following. The curriculum leads the students to create and carry out community-service projects, but it begins with study of texts from the Torah and later writings about our obligations to help others and, in particular, the best ways of doing so.


Students find these texts difficult and perhaps unnecessary, because the duty to help others seems self-evident. That it does demonstrates how thoroughly some of these instructions from the Torah have become central to Jewish life and, to a great extent, to American life. Nevertheless, we should be mindful that, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or work to liberate the oppressed, it is a holy act—a remembrance of our going-out from Egypt.