Broken Bodies, Broken Tablets: A Jewish Reflection on Disability

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Chronic 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.”

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