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.
Judith Z. Abrams, a rabbi and a nationally recognized teacher of Talmud, is the founder and director of Maqom, a school for adult Talmud study in Houston, TX.