By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

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.

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.  

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