In this episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies, we’re looking at the intersection of Jewish Studies and Disability Studies. Guest scholars Julia Watts Belser and nili Broyer, along with host Avishay Artsy, talk about everything from the story of Moses to the founding of the Jewish state through a disability lens. They also consider current efforts to make Jewish life more inclusive of people with disabilities of all kinds.
Julia Watts Belser
nili Broyer is academic director at the Center for Disabilities Studies, Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her PhD in Disability Studies is from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where she was a recipient of the Ethel Louise Armstrong (ELA) Scholarship Award. Her main research interests include critical disability studies, cultural studies, disability art and culture, performance studies, feminist theory, autoethnography, and stigma.
Avishay Artsy: Welcome to Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m your host for this episode, Avishay Artsy. In this episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies, we’re looking at the intersection of Jewish studies and disability studies. We’re going to talk about everything from the story of Moses to the founding of the Jewish state through a disability lens. And we’ll look at efforts to make Jewish life more inclusive of people with disabilities of all kinds. First, let’s meet Julia Watts Belser. She’s an associate professor of Jewish studies and disability studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She’s also a rabbi and a disability activist.
Julia Watts Belser: As a scholar, my work really centers on the critical study of body, land, and power in late antique Jewish culture. So I'm bringing deep interest in the study of gender, sexuality, disability, and ecology to late antique Jewish texts. But I also work in contemporary Jewish ethics, and that's a space that gives me freedom to not just ask critical questions about the portrayal of disability in the past, but also ethical questions about the way that we might understand body politics, disability politics, gender politics in the present and in the future, and you know, I try to bring all of those strands into my rabbinic work.
Avishay Artsy: In workshops, Belser teaches biblical, rabbinic and Midrashic texts alongside short passages from disability activists, writers and artists… such as disability and civil rights attorney Harriet McBryde Johnson, the choreographer and dancer Claire Cunningham, who performs on crutches, and Alice Sheppard, a wheelchair dancer.
Julia Watts Belser: It feels powerful to bring in voices that have not often been a part of the classical canon, and bring in voices who aren't necessarily even Jewish and then invite contemporary Jewish communities to be thinking about how to take seriously, how to engage, those voices and our complex textual heritage. There's something magical that happens when we bring that kind of knowledge into conversation with text and tradition, it opens up possibilities, it opens up doors, it opens up new ways of imagining. Disability culture is absolutely in your face, luminous, and there's such spiritual power here. And so allowing that to quite literally dance with Jewish tradition feels to me like a gift. A gift to all of us and a gift to the tradition and also an invitation.
Avishay Artsy: The Torah and rabbinic literature are both deeply layered, and Belser approaches these texts with frameworks that help to reveal how Jews viewed themselves and God and their role in the world, in biblical times and beyond. In her book Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem, Belser looks at passages in the Babylonian Talmud that reveal how rabbis thought about the destruction of the Holy Temple, and the violence enacted upon Jewish bodies. In their telling, the wounded or disabled body doesn’t represent the shame of the Jewish victims, but rather the moral depravity of the Roman conquerors.
Julia Watts Belser: We see the way in which rabbinic texts sometimes use disability here as a powerful challenge to Roman ideas of masculinity, virility, warrior culture, where dominance over the body is idealized. Instead, I think we see a different, in some of these texts, anyway, I believe we see an alternative kind of subjectivity and masculinity being articulated where the ability to accept the wound, and catalyze that into a source of insight, knowledge and strength, often strength in the realm of Torah study rather than strength of arms, strength of war. It's an extraordinary moment where these rabbinic texts are working to flip the script and to use disability as a way to imagine an alternative way of being both in the body and in the world.
Avishay Artsy: The issues around disability are hardly relegated just to the distant past. Contemporary disability activists such as nili Broyer in Israel are addressing these issues and how they affect real people everyday. Broyer is an artist and performer, and the academic director of the Center for Disability Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She refers to herself as a “crip artist.”
nili Broyer: Crip is similar in a lot of way to queer. It's a term that was negative and the community itself transformed this term by identified through this label and see it as something that is more radical and political, trying to change society by not taking the more suitable, easy way to think about disability, but actually taking a more critical approach to it and referring to society as the problem needed to be changed significantly in its structure. And not only doing small reforms, doing small changes.
Avishay Artsy: Broyer sees this critical approach catching on in Israel, by reframing disability not as a target of pity and charity, but focusing instead on the problem of ableism, meaning the structural barriers that favor non-disabled people, and how that affects us all.
nili Broyer: It's required us all to perform abilities and excellency in our life, in our study, in our work, in our physical abilities, mental abilities, cognitive abilities, we are all the time being measured to some ideal concept of how we should be and perform and the disability movement trying to resist to it. But we are all victims of this ideology and practice.
Avishay Artsy: Julia Watts Belser agrees: ableism is something we should all fight against.
Julia Watts Belser: Ableism is brutal to all people. It is not good for anybody. That sense that we are only as good as our last accomplishment, that we are always under pressure, that we have to be working at maximum efficiency, prove ourselves again and again and again, that's not good for anybody. Whether or not you currently have a disability, it's worth it to all of us to get involved in the work of dismantling and bringing down that system.
Avishay Artsy: Broyer says Israel has over time adopted the Western concept of ableism, while also rejecting what she calls “stigmatized Judaism.”
nili Broyer: Seeing the Jewish as part of a stereotype we need to reject from ourself, and go beyond it, to transform ourself to something that is more complete and healthy. And I'm thinking about the concept of the “startup nation” that Israel is proud of. We’re trying to prove to ourself and to the world that we have something to give to the world because we have these unique abilities in the way we think, the technology we create.
Avishay Artsy: Physical strength was heralded in pre-state Israel, as Jews reclaimed their ancestral homeland through manual labor. Take this 1935 publicity film called The Land of Promise.
Clip from The Land of Promise: “Yesterday, prisoners of the ghetto, prisoners of their own false hopes, tomorrow they will march to their work in the Jewish settlements to build roads, to quarry stones, they will drill wells and bring the hidden water, the most precious treasure, out of the depths of the earth, to restore to Palestine’s soil its long neglected fruitfulness.”
nili Broyer: And I think it's an interesting move that the Zionist state, the Israeli state, moved from the physical body as something that needs to be strong and healthy to a more healthy mind, if you want. The image of the soldier is very significant in the way the Zionists projected the “healthy new Jew.” It's a symbol that have a lot of power still today. But I think that also in the army, we see a movement toward a better technology that protect us, that need to give an edge to our army, to give an advantage to our nation against other nations or enemies that we need to protect ourselves from.
Avishay Artsy: In 1998, Israel passed a Law of Equal Rights for Disabled People, which promises the disabled “active and equal participation in society in all areas of life.” But disability rights activists say the country has been too lenient on regulation and enforcement. In recent years, activists have protested by blocking railroad tracks and highways, causing major traffic jams. Organizations like Nacheh, lo chetzi ben adam – Disabled, Not Half a Human Being – advocate for raising the general disability pension and tying it to the minimum wage, but also for the right to housing for people with disabilities, the right to nursing and medical treatment, access to education and employment, and physical accessibility to buildings and buses. nili Broyer says the movement has had mixed success.
nili Broyer: In some level there is significant leadership of disabled people and also family members of disabled people that do think critically about disability. But, I think that also the disability movement need to continue and transform in Israel. I think that physical disability still dominate this movement, and mental disability and cognitive disability is far behind. So I don't know if I can say the place that we are is the place that I want us to be. I'm still looking for the next turning point of the disability movement in Israel.
Avishay Artsy: After this short break: Moses, Ezekiel, and making Jewish spaces more inclusive.
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Avishay Artsy: Back with Adventures in Jewish Studies. In the Bible, disabilities are found everywhere. Isaac went blind in his old age, Jacob walked with a limp after his wrestling match, King Saul suffered from depression, and Moses had a speech impediment, perhaps a stutter. Julia Watts Belser writes about that in her upcoming book, out in 2023, called Breath and Bone: Disability Politics and the Bible.
Julia Watts Belser: There's a famous passage in Exodus 4 where Moses describes himself as kavod la’shon and kavod peh. That's heavy of tongue and heavy of mouth. This is often taken by some classical commentators, as well as many contemporary scholars, as an indication that Moses had a speech impediment. Some traditional frameworks say that Moses was a stutterer. If we take a look at those early discussions in Exodus. Moses discloses his own disability when God calls him to speak to Pharaoh. And so Moses says, uh, no, you've got the wrong guy for the job, paraphrasing here a little bit, I am not a man of words. In the ensuing conversation, God offers Moses what we might today call a disability accommodation. That is, God offers Moses a revoicer: his brother Aaron. Moses is instructed to speak the words to Aaron, and then Aaron will speak the words to the people. This is a really significant moment, I think, of divine recognition of Moses's own disability. Just before this happens, God says to Moses, who made man's mouth, who made humans as they are? And so this is also a really powerful moment in which God claims disability as a part of the fabric of human creation. But as far as accommodations go, I actually think Aaron is the least revolutionary, because this is a model whereby Moses ends up adjusting his speech to mirror non-disabled norms. A little bit earlier we see a very different approach. That is, God gives visual signs, a set of visual signs to Moses, signs that Moses will do in order to demonstrate his role to the people. That is an even more significant recognition of Moses's disability experience because God now is suggesting that Moses play to his own strengths, that Moses used the visual, rather than just relying on the verbal. And so I would lift that up as a really striking moment of recognizing that access requires more than just accommodation to match the non-disabled norm.
Avishay Artsy: The Moses story is more than just some tale that happened thousands of years ago in the Bible. The Torah, as the key text of Jewish history and peoplehood, serves as a way for many Jews to make sense of the modern world. This particular story continues to resonate with both positive and negative overtones for individuals with disabilities.
Julia Watts Belser: As a disabled person myself, that's always been a bit of an absence for me, a kind of weight. There is, in contemporary culture, such a strong, powerful tendency to want to silence or look away from disability, to pretend it's not there. And so in that silence surrounding Moses's own disability, I wonder sometimes, right? I feel the weight of that sense that maybe others didn't recognize what God did. There's a striking moment near the end of a really striking contrast in Moses's story. If Moses begins the book of Exodus as a reluctant speaker, he concludes the Torah by delivering an extraordinary oration. The irony here was not lost on the classical commentators. But this is another place where it's a really mixed bag. There's a midrash in Tanchuma that imagines, that asks Moses the question: back then, you said you were not a man of words, and now here you speak exquisitely. Does this mean that you shall learn Torah and be healed? Now that's a brutal, brutal message. One that imagines Moses's disability as erased through his experiences. And one that suggests that the only appropriate, good, desirable solution to disability is a kind of miraculous cure. I reject that and I reject that message. And furthermore, I feel it's such a devastating message to other people with disabilities to hear that. I imagine Moses stuttering his way through the book of Deuteronomy and the community, having finally learned to listen to and savor the sound of his stuttering voice. I think about what it means for Moses to embrace his own speech. To really claim the rhythm of his own true tongue. So yeah, I love to think about Moses stuttering his way through the entire beautiful recitation of Deuteronomy, stuttering without shame.
Avishay Artsy: Another passage in the Torah that Belser writes about is the prophet Ezekiel’s psychedelic vision of God. Ezekiel describes four winged creatures with the faces of a human, eagle, lion, and ox, that serves as a type of chariot for the divine throne. Beside each creature was a gleaming wheel. He describes a wheel within a wheel, and says, “their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around.” Belser wrote about this surreal description in an essay for Tikkun magazine called “God on Wheels: Disability and Jewish Feminist Theology.”
Julia Watts Belser: It was so extraordinary for me. One morning during Shavuot services, when that first chapter of Ezekiel is chanted in the synagogue, I remember sitting in shul in my wheelchair. I have a deep, deep love of my wheels. Wheelchair for me is a source of joy and freedom and openness. And as the reader was chanting through this extraordinary description of the divine chariot, the luminous wheels, the wheels within wheels, I thought, God has wheels. And so I've really been loving playing with the idea of just sort of imagining God as knowing something about disability experience from the inside out. Because I think that helps uproot that deep assumption that disability is an aberration and something that is only a loss. There's a lot about disability that's difficult. There's a lot that is frustrating and challenging, but there are also things that are exquisite and beautiful and joyful.
Avishay Artsy: Jewish tradition has many teachings that could be applied to disability inclusion. In Pirkei Avot, a compilation of ethical teachings and maxims, we are taught “Do not separate yourself from the community,” and to therefore prevent anyone from being unwillingly excluded from the community. In Leviticus, we are commanded, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” In the Mishneh Torah, we are told that when one sees people with disfigured faces or limbs, to recite the blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who makes people different.” I asked nili Broyer if there is something specifically Jewish about the Israeli disability rights movement. Are they drawing from the Torah, or from Jewish ideas of social justice?
nili Broyer: I don't know if we already are a Jewish movement, disability movement, but I wonder if we can become, or we’re starting to become, a more Jewish movement in a way. I'm thinking that the disability rights movement is in some way influenced by Jewish concepts. Thinking of each one of us as a human being that is created in b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God.
Avishay Artsy: Judaism and disability studies also intersect during one of the world’s most horrific acts of genocide. During the Holocaust, the Nazis killed as many as 300,000 people with mental and physical disabilities in a euthanasia campaign called Aktion T4.
nili Broyer: And in Israel, we almost never talked about it. When I studied in school, it was the Holocaust day. And we have the ceremony and everything, disabled people never mentioned. And when we learned about it in history class, it was not included. And it's a shame because we are removing a part of history that is also relevant for disabled people, Jewish disabled people in Israel, and also understanding how disability and Judaism is connected through history. It's part of also the try of Zionist to disconnect the Jewish people from the stereotype of Jewish as ill people, queer people, people who are degenerated. And when we try to disconnect ourselves in Israel from this stereotype and this anti-Semitic view of Judaism, of Jewish people, I think we also disconnect this part of us in ourself and trying to disconnect from disabled people as a minority in our communities.
Avishay Artsy: Besides being a disability rights activist and artist, Broyer is the academic director at the Center for Disability Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She’s seen an increase in disability scholarship, especially in the past decade.
nili Broyer: I think that in Israel, you can see two, maybe three, main disciplines start to adopt disability more significantly. Legal study, also social work, and also I think it's starting to be more significant in education, and thinking how a school can become more inclusive in their structures and practices.
In addition, you can see beginning of writing and also creation in disability art in Israel. And there is also a new project that I'm one of its leaders, that thinking about disability in the Orthodox Jewish context and community in Israel and it's to see how the Torah and the Halacha and the Jewish texts can give us a corpus to work with when we think about disability and to create new framework or old framework, and to take their advantages and see how they are relevant to our life today.
Avishay Artsy: In recent years, the movement for disability rights has made some progress in reducing the gaps between people with disabilities and those without in education, employment, income, access to technology, homeownership, and voter participation. In the Jewish world, disability rights advocates have called for the full participation of people with disabilities in religious and public life. That means making synagogues and other Jewish institutions more accessible, with wheelchair ramps and braille prayer books… though, says Julia Watts Belser, that’s just the beginning.
Julia Watts Belser: There's a lot of things that synagogues and religious communities can do to build accessibility into our spaces. I think a lot of this requires a shift in mindset, a recognition that people with disabilities are already a part of our communities and deserve to have full, deep access to spaces. So for me as a wheelchair user, it's not just the ability to access the sanctuary, but also the ability to get up on the bimah. So often if wheelchair access is considered, it's a sort of second tier, backdoor kind of access. Happily, there's a lot of transformation happening here. We're seeing a lot of communities recognize that this is a justice issue. It's also really crucial to recognize that it goes beyond just a ramp. I want to always think about cognitive access and I think about access for people with neurodivergence and neuro-diversity, whether that's changing up the norms and expectations in terms of what happens within the context of the building. Maybe that's sensory friendly Purim. Maybe that's stim toys available in the sanctuary. I think about Braille and large print siddurim. I think about captioning and ASL interpreters. I think about having culturally competent captioning. So it's not just the auto captions that get the English only, but give you also access to the Hebrew. I think about, you know, all of these things, and then I want to say, what I'm describing here, these specific strategies feel like the floor and not the ceiling. When I talk about access, what I mean really is what do people need to thrive? What do people need in order to be rooted and nourished, to be honored, to be known and to have the capacity and the space to be deeply in the midst, embedded in every aspect of community. To be leaders in community, whatever that looks like to them.
Avishay Artsy: The work of inclusion has taken on added resonance with today’s public health and ecological crises. The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected people who are immunocompromised and face greater risk of severe illness and death. And the climate crisis, with increasing heat waves, fires, floods, and extreme storms, is taking a greater toll on those who face mobility and health challenges. Belser says that Jewish communities as a whole gain from creating spaces that are accessible and inclusive, from rethinking how they pray and revising stories that they may have grown up with, to creating physical spaces and a way of treating others that makes everyone feel included.
Julia Watts Belser: I firmly believe that the Torah that emerges out of our lives, disabled people's lives, queer people's lives, trans people's lives, the Torah that's being taught by Jews of color, the Torah that is emerging through this rigorous, luminous, beautiful engagement between tradition and often excluded identities is doing revelatory and revolutionary work. And I firmly believe that it is good for the Jewish people to inhabit a world where we learn and teach and recognize and cultivate the fullness of that Torah. I like to say, you know, if Torah has seventy faces, one of them is yours and one of them is mine. And we will never know the fullness of this tradition and its possibilities until we know the Torah that each of us have to teach. I want a Jewish future that has room for all of us. I want a Jewish future that is absolutely lit up with the brilliant, vibrant insights of queer, feminist, disabled Jews and all of our allies and co-conspirators.
Avishay Artsy: Adventures in Jewish Studies is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation. I’m Avishay Artsy. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. The Association for Jewish Studies is the world’s largest Jewish studies membership organization, and features an annual conference, publications, fellowships, and much more for our members, as well as public programming. Visit associationforjewishstudies.org for more information on what we do, to learn about joining if you’re a Jewish Studies scholar, or to find out how to bring a Jewish Studies scholar to your community. Thank you for listening.
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD