Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Judith Z. Abrams. Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli. Washington, D.C.: Galludet University Press, 1998, 304 pp, 1-56368-068-8. $65.50.

Reviewed by Josie Byzek, New Mobility magazine and Lancaster Theological Seminary

Serious students of theology will find Judith Z. Abrams' book, Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli, to be an easy read, as her writing style is engaging, her examples enlightening, and her mastery of the subject impressive. Abrams is not writing an apologia of how Judaism has treated people with disabilities throughout the ages, nor is she writing a disability rights manifesto. She simply presents her thorough research on the topic in hope that it can be used to create change. Her research should be a starting point for any student of Jewish or Christian attitudes toward disability.

Abrams explores five topics: The Temple priests and ritual purity; people with disabilities as symbols for Israel; life stories of people with disabilities as object lessons; treatment of people with disabilities within Judaism; and the classification of people with disabilities. Abrams also discusses the concept of da'at (cognition). According to ancient Judaism, fully-functioning human beings must have da'at, the ability to act on da'at and also the entitlement to act on da'at. For example, for a very long time, many Jewish sages did not know that deaf people could learn, therefore they did not know deaf people had da'at, and this influenced the place in society deaf people held.

Abrams adroitly explains the religious underpinnings of the role of the priests and ritual purity in the day-to-day workings of the temple, along with the implications of these for people with disabilities. The Temple was understood to be a place where Heaven and Earth overlapped and the priests operated in the Temple's most dangerous zone, so the codes dealing with ritual impurity existed for the priests' safety. "To survive in such a dangerous position, the priest had to be fit for the company of angels: blemishless, pure of lineage and untouched by the taint of death (i.e., ritually pure)," writes Abrams. "Thus a priest in a state of ritual impurity is more disabled than a priest who is blind. ... While a blind priest may still consume the food set aside for him, a priest who is ritually impure cannot."

Some vestiges of the priestly cult remained after the fall of the Temple, such as the priestly benediction during services. It was thought God's presence comes and rests on the priests, so congregants should look away or they might die. Thus, the sages who protected and nurtured Judaism after the fall of the Temple gave instructions that the hands of those giving the blessing should be as inconspicuous as possible, free of deformity or blemish. Over time, the oral code known as Tosefta softened this teaching: If everyone is used to how the blesser's hands look, then he can still give the blessing. Subsequent rabbis and sages further expanded teachings like these. By presenting this line of evolution, Abrams shows Judaism's concern with balancing respect and awe of God's holiness with real-life human concerns.

Abrams discusses both teachings that link disability to spiritual failings and teachings that over time softened the implications of such teachings. An early rabbi claimed certain birth defects are directly linked to certain sexual practices, but this is balanced with a teaching from the Tosefta that we should bless God each time we see a person born with significant disabilities because God creates such marvelous differences in people. This evolution in thought continues in contemporary Judaism. Rabbi Isaac Herzog, chief rabbi of Israel until 1959, insisted rabbis accept people with deafness, since it is obvious in modern times that deaf people can both learn and communicate. Also, accommodations allowing Jews with disabilities to participate fully in all rituals are becoming more commonplace. A blind child may not be able to read from Torah in the same way as a sighted child, but now many rabbis allow them to memorize verses or use a copy in Braille.

Abrams' book is not an apologia for the past. She simply seeks to understand and share how Judaism has dealt with disability through the ages, including how contemporary Judaism now strives to include all Jews with disabilities. The shining thread that links modern Jewish thought to scriptures dealing with disability is the acknowledgment that each human life is sacred. Readers seeking a disability studies critique will be disappointed with the book, but theologians seeking foundational research on the subject be thrilled.

Copyright (c) 2006 Josie Byzek

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)