Blind visionary scholar confronts inclusivity challenges
It is an intellectual and spiritual challenge for any person to study for the rabbinate. How much greater this challenge will be for a woman who is fully blind, and must overcome all the added barriers, both physical and social?
As a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Lauren Tuchman has chosen to confront these challenges and to share her insights as a widely respected educator. Earlier this month, Tuchman was the scholar-in-residence at Kehillat Beth Israel as part of a program for Jewish Disability Awareness Month. (While this article refers to her talk given on Shabbat, the news gathering was undertaken after Shabbat.)
“There has been much progress made to remove physical barriers and enable better access,” she explained in a report published on the topic. “But we need to go further and think about access in a holistic sense. We need to move to inclusion of people with disabilities, to bring them in from the margins of the Jewish community.”
Tuchman described her own experiences at JTS. She feels that by being present in a normal manner, working with other rabbinical students, she has demonstrated how managing with disability should be a routine aspect of community behaviour.
This is part of what she calls changing culture from inside out. Creating physical access – getting into buildings, reading a prayer book in braille – are essential. But Tuchman underlines that rabbinical clergy must also deal with difficult texts and teachings. Her goal is to have Jews with disabilities adding to our understanding of spirituality and religious community.
At the KBI Shabbat dinner, Tuchman shared a set of texts from traditional sources that deal with disability issues. She showed how these are central to the Jewish narrative, citing one dialogue between Moses and God in the Book of Exodus (Shemoth). Moses is commanded to return to Pharoah and demand the freedom of the Israelite slaves. But he refuses on the grounds that his speech is impaired: “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” Moses argues.
Tuchman stresses God’s response was that all people, whatever their abilities or disabilities, are created through the unique divine power. God insists that Moses goes forward on the mission to confront Pharoah, but Moses is also given the assistance of his brother, Aaron, to help in communicating. The double significance of this dramatic exchange shows the importance of inclusion and accommodation, thus ensuring that Moses will act effectively.
As a public figure and scholar, Tuchman has challenged Jewish communities to consider wider issue of disability. “What is a normal body, what is a normal mind?” she has asked. “How can we apply the lens of disability justice in a way that actually makes the world better for all of us?”