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Today is 17 Tammuz, a traditional fast day commemorating the last phase of the Babylonian and Roman sieges against ancient Jerusalem. In recent years, thanks to an organization of young religious activists, it has also become a day of reflection on ethical questions in Israeli society. This year's question, the focus of a conference in Jerusalem, concerns the integration of people with disabilities into the normal life of the community.

Relevant Links
Equality by Right, Not by Beneficence  Bizkhut. Website of the Israel human-rights center for people with disabilities.
Disability in Jewish Law  Rochelle Caviness, The Jewish Eye. Reviewing an authoritative book-length survey of the major Jewish legal texts on disability.
On the Physically and Mentally Disabled  Moshe Tendler, Fred Rosner, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. Jewish religious law works to help the disabled achieve a full life, and to exhort society to its responsibilities.

In 1988, Knesset legislation guaranteed the fundamental rights of individuals with disabilities to employment and space on public transportation.  In 2005, the Knesset went further, enacting laws intended to make all public buildings in Israel accessible to the disabled by 2018. 

The legislation put Israel at the leading edge of international action on this front, and the organizations that helped make the laws possible became key participants in the effort to draft the UN's 2006 Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Israel has signed but not yet ratified the Convention. Meanwhile, at home, much work remains to be done in carrying out the 2005 regulations.

In her book Frontiers of Justice, the American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that theories of justice based on social contract are inadequate when it comes to the status and needs of persons with severe impairments. Instead, she suggests a "capabilities approach," taking as its starting point a conception of personhood in which "living with and toward others, with benevolence and justice," is central to our definition of humanity.

In Jewish terms, the idea that all humans were created in the divine image is a spur to help the disabled achieve a full measure of dignity. But the divine imperatives of justice are not always an easy fit with our imperfect world.  Traditional Jewish sources, as usual less interested in abstract theorizing than in practicalities and responsibilities, discuss how the community should deal with its disabled members and dwell on the obligations and rights of the disabled themselves under Jewish law. At times these sources resonate with contemporary sensibilities and at other times jar with them—but they provide, throughout, invaluable resources for reflection, interpretation, and action. 

In this connection, it is appropriate to note that 17 Tammuz, according to ancient tradition, also marks the date that Moses smashed the first set of tablets on which were engraved the Ten Commandments. As the Talmud reminds us (Breakhot 8b), the ark of the covenant held the shattered tablets, too.  



gershom gale on June 29, 2010 at 9:38 am (Reply)
As a "member of the (disabled) club" I'm always happy to see such issues discussed. Treatment of and attitudes toward the disabled is one of the areas in the Talmud in need of updating -- the work of a new Sanhedrin.
While, ideally, the best approach would be to treat disabled individuals exactly like the able-bodied -- no better and no worse -- the less-than-ideal nature of modern society makes me lean toward the Canadian approach of offering companies temporary government subsidies to hire equally-qualified disabled applicants in order to overcome employers' initial doubts.
Yehudah Mirsky on June 30, 2010 at 4:08 am (Reply)
PS - By chance, this morning I was privileged to attend a presentation at Beit Midrash Elul here in Jerusalem at which two actors, one of them deaf, presented Shir Ha-Shirim (Song of Songs) in sign language. It was extraordinary and revelatory, and we all were left, appropriately, speechless.
Yisroel Lacks on July 8, 2010 at 5:29 pm (Reply)
As Co-Director of Yad HaChazakah- the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (Check out, I'm delighted to hear of developments with respect to expansion of disability consciousness, rights, opportunities, access and the breaking down of attitudinal barriers in Eretz Yisrael.
Yad haChazakah-JDEC is devoting its efforts to injecting a grass roots, 'disability led' philosophy of empowerment into the frum communities here in NY and the States.

We hope that additional effort goes into the exploration of disability issues, and attitudinal barriers from a Torah and Halachic perspective, as part of our efforts to empower and participate in every part of community life, including; learning, leading, working , marriage, and child rearing.
Yasher Koach to all of you engaged in these Holy efforts.

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