Let’s Make this Shavuot Like the First – With Everyone Included

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Matan Torah
16 May 2007

When the Jews in the wilderness told God “Naaseh v’nishma” – We will do [what the Torah commands] and we will obey its lessons – they took it upon themselves to study and adhere to the Torah’s every dictate. This act of communal acceptance was, as Rashi’s commentary teaches us: k’ish echad b’lev echad – as one person with one heart and should have prompted us to view every Jew as an equal receiver in that holiest of inheritances from that day on. When it comes to inclusion of some Jews, though, it seems we’re still working on it.

If the Torah that unifies and differentiates Jews from the rest of the world is an intellectually profound legacy, a resource to be studied in depth toward infinitely deepening levels of comprehension, what regard is there for those with limited intellectual capacity? How do we view the obligations of those within our people with developmental disabilities – these “special” Jews within the special nation?

There are differing levels of analytical capability among people with disabilities just as there are among all people. Every Jew, no matter his or her ability to comprehend the Torah’s complexities, shares a place in its lineage of law and the obligation to transmit it to all of our children. As Rabbi J. David Bleich eloquently observes so in the second volume of his series Contemporary Halakhic Problems: A father is obliged to teach his son Torah by virtue of a two-fold obligation: one rabbinic…the second biblical. With regard to the biblical obligation to teach Torah there appears to be no grounds to distinguish between a shoteh (a mentally incompetent human being) and a child of normal mental capacity… A father is obligated to instruct his son in the biblical passages concerning Shabbat and tefillin, not in order that that he become a Sabbath observer and don tefillin, but by virtue of the intrinsic mitzvah of Talmud Torah.“

Concerning the obligation of a person with disabilities in mitzvah observance, scholars such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg differentiate between a shoteh and a person with developmental disabilities (a shoteh is someone who meets the Talmud’s standards of mental illness, while a developmentally disabled person is considered intellectually limited) and include those with developmental disabilities among those required to fulfill many mitzvot for which a shoteh would be exempt.

These determinations place a clear obligation upon the community to provide every child with learning disabilities the fullest possible Torah education and religious communal experiences. Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik states in his book, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind: “There is no nobler cause than dedication to the ushering of joy and meaning into the lives of retarded children.” Those who have reached out to this delightfully welcoming and open population are unanimous in their certainty that they have benefited far more than the recipients of their help.

The Power of Inclusion

For two successful decades, Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union, has been taking this long-neglected population out of spiritual and social exclusion by actively promoting the inclusion of Jews with disabilities into religious life and communal activities with dynamic programming. Boasting close to 2,000 enthusiastic members, Yachad runs regular Shabbatonim, where Jews with developmental disabilities experience a joyous Shabbat within a community setting alongside their mainstream peers. Yachad also offers grade-school and high-school programs, a day habilitation program, relationship building courses, vocational and job-placement programs, and provides service coordination to individual clients. Yachad runs four mainstreamed summer camping programs, three with existing camps and one that travels through Israel and parts of the US. Two hundred teens and young adults with developmental disabilities look forward to summer fun as much as their peers without developmental disabilities. Yachad members have successfully joined the workforce, some have married and built their own Jewish homes, and all of them feel they are living purposeful Jewish lives as integral members of the community.

I am pleased to report that a similar commitment seems to have taken root throughout the Jewish community. Several months ago, I received an invitation to speak at a UJA Federation of New York event entitled “Opening the Gates of Community: Building a Culture of Inclusion for People with Disabilities” and served as a panelist in a breakout session addressing inclusion in synagogues. Soon afterwards, I received more invitations to discuss the promotion of inclusion, such as the first meeting of a Jewish Network on Disability Issues, inaugurated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, and a New York Jewish newspaper sponsored event, part of its new series on inclusion.

Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, is also referred to throughout the Talmud as Atzeret, which can be translated as “holding back.” In His great love for the Jewish people, God “holds us back” from one holiday to the next, to maintain the closeness engendered over this auspicious time. The holiday of Shavuot is attached to the joyous redemption of Pesach by the counting of the Omer. Apropos to our momentous, unified acquisition of the Torah, the very backbone of the Jewish people’s existence, Atzeret has yet another meaning, a united gathering or collection – b’Yachad.

Rabbi Soloveitchik further points out that “There is a law in the realm of physics which says that the strength of a chain is determined by the strength of the weakest link in the chain. Every one of us serves as a link in the chain of the community in which we live. The strength of mankind in its entirety and the strength of the Jewish people as a collective will be determined not by the high caliber of talmidei hakhamim (scholars) of our generation or by the stature of the scientists of our times, but rather by the weakest members of our community, namely, by our retarded children. By reinforcing and galvanizing the maximum potential of the limited children, the chain of mankind in general, as well as the chain of the Jewish people in the course of history in its entirety, will be substantially strengthened.”

Judaism teaches “B’Rov Am Hadrat Melech,” – the greater the assembly of people, the more the glory of the King [God] is magnified. Let us all live up to our initial promise of “naaseh v’nishmah” b’Yachad, k’ish echad b’layv echad – by including every Jew.

Rabbi Mayer Waxman, a licensed social worker with a second Master’s in psychology, is the Assistant National Director of the OU’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.