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Broken Bodies, Broken Tablets: A Jewish Reflection on Disability

 by Lisa Gulya


Tags: Spirituality, Judaism, disability, Reform Judaism,

Sunset at Mount SinaiChronic disability raises difficult questions in religion. Helping the chronically ill participate in society may be a matter of education and legislation, but spiritual inclusion is less straightforward, as Tamara Green writes in the summer 2008 issue of Reform Judaism (article not available online):

I face what everyone with a disability or chronic illness faces: living with limitation. But committed as I am to living a meaningful Jewish life, I have found myself asking “Jewish questions” about my limitations as I shlep around on my crutches: What does it mean to be created b’tselmo, in Adonai’s image? What does it mean to one who is disabled?

Green finds comfort in the Jewish tradition of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, “the way of embracing everyone within the community, a way of acknowledging the suffering of others.”

Her conviction that Judaism values the disabled is deepened by two images from Jewish teachings. First, after Moses shattered the original set of commandments from Mt. Sinai in his anger at the people’s idolatry, the broken tablets were included in the Ark of the Covenant along with the second, unbroken pair. “There must have been at Sinai some children of Israel who, like me, were physically broken, and saw themselves as I did, in those fragments of the tablets, and… were relieved to find themselves included in the Covenant,” writes Green.

The second image comes from the 16th-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who explained that vessels, once containing the emanations of the spiritual world, were broken when Adonai created the material world, scattering “divine sparks.” The redemption of the world is possible, Luria taught, through “bring[ing] home the fallen sparks” in acts of chesed, or loving kindness. “I may not be able to do much about the broken vessel that is my body,” Green writes, “but certainly I can help to gather up the scattered light everywhere that I can.”

lisa_1
7/17/2008 11:07:18 AM

Hannah, I haven't studied this issue in terms of theology, though my curiosity is now piqued. Anecdotally speaking, I was touched by how welcoming the Salvation Army is. I attended a service in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, to do "participant observation" as part of an undergraduate sociology class. I was amazed at how inclusive and attentive the pastor and his wife were. They were genuinely interested in talking with everyone in the congregation, which included, to my eyes, several physically and developmentally adults. It was a refreshing change from attending churches where wearing your Sunday best and sitting still in your pew were the main concerns. -Lisa Gulya


hannah lobel_4
7/11/2008 3:56:49 PM

Beautiful post, Lisa. I wonder if there are similar readings from other faiths. What, for example, do Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism have to say about disability? Please chime in, Lisa and others, if you know.