Torah

"Disability" Redux

[I wrote this piece about disabilities about seven years ago, when I was learning how to confront my hearing loss. Since then my hearing as deteriorated, and it impacts every class I teach and every interaction I have. As you may imagine, it’s terribly frustrating. I felt like returning to this essay, to see how I still feel about the sentiments I wrote in 2012. And I’ll have more to say about this subject in the weeks ahead, so it seems like a timely revisit.

Instead of just reposting the piece, I’ve added some contemporary glosses by a noted scholar. (Not the same ‘noted scholar’ who commented on Woody Allen’s legendary Hasidic tales, but perhaps descended from him.)]

 

Disability

The angel wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket…
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip…
Jacob arrived  
שָׁלֵם [whole] at the city of Shechem.
(Genesis 32:26, 32; 33:18)

All of us are damaged in some way; it’s a fundamental part of being human. Also human is the way in which we confront our brokenness; the gracefulness with which accept our imperfections.

[GLOSS: When I originally wrote this, some of my readers objected to the word ‘brokenness’ as being harsh and implying a value-judgment. There’s a stream of thought among disabled communities that one should “embrace” her or his disability. But “brokenness” is precisely what I mean. When I consider what has become of my hearing, “broken” and in need of “fixing” is exactly how I feel about it.]

My personal disability is rather awkward because it plays itself out so publicly in my life – in the classroom, in meetings (in Buber’s sense of the word), in our sanctuary, and even across a hospital bed. I started losing my hearing a few years ago, at exactly the same age when my father began to lose his. It began to impact my effectiveness in my work. I would get frustrated, angry at myself. I even had a moment of “bottoming out”, to use the language of addiction and recovery, when I sat in the front row for a lecture of which I heard practically nothing. It rocked me deeply.

[GLOSS: What I thought was “bottoming out” was just the beginning. It’s become commonplace for me to attend a crowded party and not be able to hear a thing, or stubbornly go to concerts and strain to recognize songs that I know really well.]

For a short while I felt sorry for myself. Then I started visiting audiologists and figuring out how I was going to move forward. Hearing aids help, although to my chagrin and frustration they have remained “aids” and have never given me 100% of the hearing I’ve desired. This was particularly frustrating, because of all our cherished senses, hearing is especially precious to me. You who know me know that for me listening to music is one of life’s deepest pleasures. The diminishment of that pleasure is a serious heartbreak. 

[GLOSS: That observation was important. I still can’t really explain why contact lenses give me 20/20 vision, but hearing aids don’t deliver “20/20 hearing”, so to speak. Family and friends of hearing-impaired people need to understand that.

All of us have fears that awaken us in the middle of the night, when the day’s distractions have dissolved away. Lately mine is the prospect of what my hearing loss will be like when I’m 50, or 60, or beyond. Will I move from “hearing-impaired” to full-fledged deafness? Will I be able to function at my job? Those are real fears I carry in my soul, with some degree of anguish.

But these days those fears don’t slow me down. Quite to the contrary. I’ve become more and more comfortable with saying to students in my classroom, “This is what I’m working to overcome. This is my disability. What’s yours?”

[GLOSS: Some days I feel the early optimism of this piece fading. But I have never been shy about announcing that I’m hearing impaired. It’s become quite standard for me to open a class or launch a speech with a disclaimer about my disability. Not in a self-pitying way… just to clue people in.]

In fact, I find an enormous amount of strength coming forth from our tradition. Personal prayer has become far more intense since I’ve come to grips with my disability. The morning prayers, for instance, contain a remarkable passage that reflects on the body’s delicateness: “You have made the human body filled with tiny holes and orifices… If one of them were opened when it should be closed, or closed when it should be opened, we wouldn’t be able to stand before You for even a moment.” When I reflect that my hearing loss stems from the ossification of the miniscule bones in the inner ear, I share the wonder of the siddur’s poet. It’s a daily miracle how much works so well!

[GLOSS: Still true. And yet… I look at the birchot ha-shachar, the daily blessings of awe that are found early on in the Jewish siddur. We bless G-d for being pokeach ivrim, “the One who gives sight to people who are blind,” which of course is meant as a spiritual metaphor. Why doesn’t it say mashmiya chershim, “the One who causes deaf people to hear”? Especially since “to hear” – as in the Shema Yisrael – is such a crucial metaphor in the Jewish prayerbook? I’ll write more about this soon, but I’m curious if you have an insight about this.]

In the Torah, many of our ancestors carried some sort of brokenness. Isaac was blind; so too, perhaps, was Leah. Jacob’s leg was wrenched in his wrestling with the angel; perhaps he limped for the rest of his life. Most famously, Moses stood before G-d at the burning bush and said, in essence, “Why would you choose me to speak before Pharaoh?  After all, my lips…” The Torah is enigmatic about Moses’s shortcoming: Did he stutter?  Did he have a disabled palate? Or was he merely terrified of public speaking? It matters—but not as much as G-d’s response to him, which is, in essence, “I don’t make mistakes. I’ve called you to do a job, to speak truth to the power that is Pharaoh. And if you trust Me, then when the time comes we’ll find the words, together.”

[GLOSS: A partial list of disabled people from Jewish tradition (note the surprising absence of deaf characters):
Isaac – blind
Leah – “weak eyes”
Jacob – walked with a limp
Moses – speech impeded
Samson – blind
Ahiya the prophet – blind
Rabbi Yosef (Nedarim 41a) – blind
Rabbi Sheshet (Berachot 58a) – blind
Levi (Ta’anit 21a) – could not walk
The Maggid of Mezeritch – walked with a limp
R. Simcha Bunem of Peshischa – blind
… I know there’s so many more. How many can you add to this list?]

I have no delusions (trust me) of being a Jacob or Moses or Isaac or Leah. But I study their life-stories and try to learn their lessons. Isaac found the words to bless his children. Leah went on to find love and, if you believe the midrash, she also found her sister. Jacob, even with his limp, is still called shalem, “whole” – a poignant reminder that these finite bodies are mere containers for the infinity in our souls. And Moses, G-d’s servant and partner, spoke through damaged lips the words, “Let my people go.” He even found the strength and confidence to lead a people through the wilderness.

I imagine that each of them felt sorry for themselves when they first confronted their disabilities. Maybe their communities supported them in their struggles (maybe they didn’t). But eventually, each of them found a way back to Life; to saying: This is Who I Am. No longer will it hold me back, but I’ll offer myself, anew, in all my brokenness, to do what I was designed to do all along. In faith and tradition and the love of others, I will find my strength.

This is my brokenness. What’s yours?

[GLOSS: Corny ending, perhaps. But something cool has happened over the years: when I talk about my disability, I’ve found that students of all ages have opened up. Some have come to me and said, “I’ve been faking it for years; I’m going to make an appointment with an audiologist.” Even more gratifying are those whose hearing is fine, but who make the connections to their learning disability, or whatever. Here’s to each of us sharing our own vulnerabilities, so that “maybe more can come out of their hiding places” (to borrow a line from a Danny Siegel poem).

After Charlottesville

I’ve been reticent to write about the horrors of the past few days. Not because I haven’t been completely obsessed with it all; simply because I didn’t think I had anything new to contribute.

After all, when my family and neighbors and I were at our town’s rally against hate on Sunday night after Charlottesville, I was in kind of snarky mood. (It happens.) My overwhelming sense was: “Really? We still have to do this? We have to protest the KKK and American Nazis? In 2017?” What was running through my head that evening was the voice of John Belushi ז״ל: “I hate Illinois Nazis.”

And of course, I’m appalled by the moral black hole that is the Executive Branch of the government.

So I’ve read the articles (obsessively), and the op-eds, and the letters from rabbis to their communities, and the statements from community organizations—all of whom appropriately have expressed revulsion that Nazi slogans and symbols are resurging and that the White House can only muster half-hearted condemnation (at best; at worst, “they made me do it!”) of the most appalling people in America. The movement to normalize white supremacy in the highest level of governments is terrifying.  This meme by satirist Andy Borowitz kind of summed it up for me: “Man with Jewish Grandchildren Reluctant to Criticize Nazis.”

But it turns out that there are a couple of wrinkles I’d like to see get some more attention, so here goes:

(1)  The Jewish members of Trump’s inner circle—and I mean National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—what are they still doing there? They should follow the lead of the CEOs who resigned from presidential advisory councils and resign their posts. Collaborating with evil is evil; this is no time to say, “Well, maybe I can change things from the inside.” 

Just as it was the moral responsibility of Jewish board members to resign from the Carter Center when it became apparent that former President Jimmy Carter was irredeemably anti-Israel, there are bigger things at stake. You can’t say, “Well, in my little corner of the administration, we had a different agenda.” 

(2)  Domestic terrorism:  You don’t like American Nazis and the KKK? Great—that shouldn’t exactly be controversial.  But legislatively speaking:  Now we must be calling out the administration for its proposing to remove domestic groups from certain anti-terrorist organizations, in order to focus solely on Islamic terror. I don’t think this actually went into effect—this administration is insidiously non-transparent—but it did openly propose the idea. Reject it; make sure that lawmakers keep all these groups on domestic terror watchlists (and having the funding to do something about it).

(3)   Don’t change the subject. I was bemused to watch yesterday’s press conference with the President, where at the beginning, middle, and end of the questions-and-answers it was clear that he wanted to talk about anything other than Charlottesville. “How about a couple of infrastructure questions?” he kept asking to reporters who weren’t interested in discussing infrastructure while the residue of a Nazi march in Virginia lingered.

And kudos to right-wing pundits such as Charles Krauthammer, with whom I agree practically never.  But on Fox, Krauthammer wasn’t standing for any dissembling from Trump apologist Laura Ingraham:

Ms. Ingraham, a Trump supporter who has been courted by the White House, allowed that the president’s remarks might have hurt his agenda [my italics]. But she also offered a partial defense, saying of Mr. Trump, “He made some points that were factually right.”

Mr. Krauthammer retorted, “What Trump did today was a moral disgrace,” and said that the president had broken from his predecessors who recognized the history of civil rights.

“I’m not going to pass moral judgment on whether Donald Trump is morally on the same plane as you are, Charles,” Ms. Ingraham replied.

Don’t let them change the subject. That goes too for the likes of Rabbi Marvin Hier—whose moral blinders let him intone a bathetic prayer at the Inauguration—who this morning on CNN condemned Nazis, but tried as hard as he could to change the subject to Iran’s pursuit of nukes. Iran is a horror—but Hier's desire to talk about anything other than the topic at hand was pretty transparent.

We know what we have to do—stand with those of our neighbors who are most likely to be disenfranchised; have zero-tolerance for leaders’ racist dog whistles; sign petitions, attend rallies, write letters and op-eds. Remain aghast, don’t be silent. But I hope drawing out some of these points above is useful. 

And a reminder:  in this week’s Torah portion we read two seemingly contradictory verses:

אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן
There shall be no needy among you (Deut. 15:4)

כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ
There will never cease to be needy ones in your land (Deut. 15:11).

Which is it? Will there be people in need in the future or not? 

Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman addressed this in his Torah commentary: Verse 11 doesn’t mean that there will always be people in desperate straits; the Hebrew word yehdal ("cease") means that it won’t come to a stop on its own. If you want suffering to disappear, you’ve got to do something about it, reaching out to hurting brothers and sisters.

So it is with extreme hate. It isn’t just going to go away—not unless people of good faith come together and clearly articulate our vision of a decent and just society, and demand that elected leaders make it so.

All You Need is Love

It’s mid-summer and Love Is All Around.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love,” and The Beatles spearheaded the moment in July 1967 with “All You Need is Love.” The song was recorded as Great Britain’s contribution to “Our World,” the first live global television transmission: 400 million people in 25 countries watched John, Paul, George, and Ringo sing:

Nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be

It’s easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love

Love is all you need

Love is also in the air because it’s Tu B’Av, the date on the Jewish calendar devoted to love. (And not the rabbis’ kind of love—you know, “God’s love for the people of Israel.” It’s about the good kind.)

Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the month of Av, falls just six days after the bleakest day on the calendar, Tisha B’Av, as if to offer comfort and consolation after that day’s commemoration of tragedy and destruction.

Tu B’Av is unmentioned in the Bible, but appears briefly in the Talmud, Ta’anit 26b and 30b-31a. There we are told:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:
There were no days as joyous for the people of Israel as the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes—borrowed, so as not to embarrass one who did not have [any of her own]. 

…They would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man! Raise your eyes and see what you are choosing for yourself. Do not set your eyes on [surface] beauty, but rather on [a good] family.

[As it says in the Bible,]
Grace is deceptive, beauty is illusory
But a woman who fears God is to be praised.
And it further says,
Extol her for the fruit of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:30-31).

So early Israel had a day devoted to frolicking and partnering up, long before your mother’s friend had “someone she wanted you to meet.” Note especially that the Talmud’s description of “a good family” has nothing to do with money or social status. My favorite part of this description is how the young women of Jerusalem would borrow their festive clothes from one another, so that there was no rich or poor on this day, no humiliation or shame for the Cinderella who isn’t invited to the white collar criminals’ ball.

The Talmud goes on to link this day to events that happened in Israel’s past—days when relief from suffering came to a blessed end, and normal life could resume. One Sage says Tu B’Av was the date when it was determined that members of different tribes of Israel could intermarry with one another. Another Rabbi says that it was the day that Israel was permitted to marry members of the tribe of Benjamin, who had been declared off-limits after the intertribal war described in Judges 19-21. And a third opinion says that Tu B’Av was the day when the deaths of the Israelites in the wilderness—the generation that was doomed to die and not enter the Land of Israel—came to an end; a new generation was now established and they could prepare to enter the Land.  (For all five explanations of Tu B’Av, see Ta’anit 30b-31a.)

It is wonderful to simply note that ancient Israel, like so many other cultures, had a day devoted to love. But what is “love” in the Torah, anyway?

Jews have many words for love, just as, so they say, Eskimos have many words for snow. The most common is ahavah, a word that appears frequently as a noun and as a command (“v’ahavta”). But many have wondered: how can the Torah command love?

I think the key is to understand what, exactly, the Bible means by ahavah. We are, after all, commanded to love many things:  God; fellow Israelites; the stranger (= the immigrant, the minority in our society); and most famously, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  What does it mean?

Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is not simply an emotion. Love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ‘ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds… The ger [minority] is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing His commandments (Deut. 11:1, 6:5-6,9) and God, in turn, “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).  (Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, p.1653).

That is to say: of course love is deeply rooted as an emotional complex of compassion, affection, desire, gratitude, and nurturing. But the Bible’s definition of love demands behavior that stems from those feelings.

All of which makes perfect sense. If someone says they love you, you expect that means something more than simply sending flashes of warmth in your direction; it means you can expect certain kindnesses and acts from that person. When my wife, whom I love, needs something, it is a privilege to put my own will aside and to get her what she lacks. When my children, whom I love, hurt, then I hurt.

Or phrased in the negative—if someone disappears in our time of need, or speaks cruelly behind our back, or simply doesn’t have time for us, we may suspect that person didn’t really love us in the first place.

Of course, we are human beings, and by nature we are imperfect and doomed to disappoint. So we should hasten to add that falling short and forgiveness should be built-in parts of a genuine loving relationship as well. Some of the actions that love demands include what the Torah calls tochecha - critique and correction, in order to help the object of our love be the best that they can be. (This is an important part of what we mean by loving one's country.) We believe in teshuvah, the opportunity to return and repair. The point is, “love” demands both presence and action in addition to deep-seated emotion.

So was Lennon זצ״ל right when he sang, “All You Need is Love”? We need more than that. We need justice. And truth. And the ability to support ourselves in a dignified way. We need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. And God knows we need more peace.

But if “love” is a multidimensional thing that includes feeling and acting on those feelings, maybe Lennon was on to something. If love spurs us to action, maybe Love Is All You Need.

Happy Tu B’Av!

Disability

The angel wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket… The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip… Jacob arrived  שָׁלֵם [whole] at the city of Shechem (Genesis 32:26, 32; 33:18).

All of us are damaged in some way; it’s a fundamental part of being human. Also human is the way in which we confront our brokenness; the gracefulness with which accept our imperfections.

My personal disability is rather awkward because it plays itself out so publicly in my life – in the classroom, in meetings (in Buber’s sense of the word), in our sanctuary, and even across a hospital bed. I started losing my hearing a few years ago, at exactly the same age when my father began to lose his. It began to impact my effectiveness in my work. I would get frustrated, angry at myself. I even had a moment of “bottoming out”, to use the language of addiction and recovery, when I sat in the front row for a lecture of which I heard practically nothing. It rocked me deeply.

For a short while I felt sorry for myself. Then I started visiting audiologists and figuring out how I was going to move forward with my problem. Hearing aids have made a difference, although to my chagrin and frustration they have remained “aids” and have never given me 100% of the hearing I’ve desired. This was particularly frustrating, because of all our cherished senses, hearing is especially precious to me. You who know me know that for me listening to music is one of life’s deepest pleasures. The diminishment of that pleasure is a serious heartbreak. 

All of us have fears that awaken us in the middle of the night, when the day’s distractions have dissolved away. Lately mine is the prospect of what my hearing loss will be like when I’m 50, or 60, or beyond. Will I move from “hearing-impaired” to full-fledged deafness? Will I be able to function at my job? Those are real fears I carry in my soul, to some degree of anguish.

But these days those fears don’t slow me down. Quite to the contrary. I’ve become more and more comfortable with saying to students in my classroom, “This is what I’m working to overcome. This is my disability. What’s yours?”

In fact, I find an enormous amount of strength coming forth from our tradition. Personal prayer has become far more intense since I’ve come to grips with my disability. The morning prayers, for instance, contain a remarkable passage that reflects on the body’s delicateness: “You have made the human body filled with tiny holes and orifices… If one of them were opened when it should be closed, or closed when it should be opened, we wouldn’t be able to stand before You for even a moment.” When I reflect that my hearing loss stems from the ossification of the miniscule bones in the inner ear, I share the wonder of the siddur’s poet. It’s a daily miracle how much works so well!

In the Torah, many of our ancestors carried some sort of brokenness. Isaac was blind; so too, perhaps, was Leah. Jacob’s leg was wrenched in his wrestling with the angel; perhaps he limped for the rest of his life. Most famously, Moses stood before G-d at the burning bush and said, in essence, “Why would you choose me to speak before Pharaoh?  After all, my lips…” The Torah is enigmatic about Moses’s shortcoming: Did he stutter?  Did he have a disabled palate? Or was he merely terrified of public speaking? It matters—but not as much as G-d’s response to him, which is, in essence, “I don’t make mistakes. I’ve called you to do a job, to speak truth to the power that is Pharaoh. And if you trust Me, then when the time comes we’ll find the words, together.”

I have no delusions (trust me) of being a Jacob or Moses or Isaac or Leah. But I study their life-stories and try to learn their lessons. Isaac found the words to bless his children. Leah went on to find love and, if you believe the midrash, she also found her sister. Jacob, even with his limp, is still called shalem, “whole” – a poignant reminder that these finite bodies are mere containers for the infinity in our souls. And Moses, G-d’s servant and partner, spoke through damaged lips the words, “Let my people go.” He even found the strength and confidence to lead a people through the wilderness.

I imagine that each of them felt sorry for themselves when they first confronted their disabilities.  Maybe their family and friends supported them in their struggles (maybe they didn’t). But eventually, each of them found a way back to Life; to saying: This is Who I Am. No longer will it hold me back, but I’ll offer myself, anew, in all my brokenness, to do what I was designed to do all along. In faith and tradition and the love of others, I will find my strength.

This is my brokenness. What’s yours?