Lessons on how we should treat people with disabilities begin in Bible

Ora Horn Prouser, who speaks at the SJCC on February 20, says the Bible has much to teach us about disabilities and inclusivity. Louise Rachlis reports.

While we sometimes see the issue of disability as “being of today,” says Ora Horn Prouser, “it has been important for millennia.”

Horn Prouser, CEO and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, N.Y., is keynote speaker at “Limping Toward the Promised Land: How the Bible Pioneers Inclusion,” a Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month event taking place Thursday, February 20, 7 pm, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC).

She is the author of Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible embraces those with Special Needs, as well as many articles about making the Bible speak to existential concerns, specifically regarding ethical dilemmas and individual growth.

The event is presented by Tamir and co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, JOIN (Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network), Jewish Family Services of Ottawa and Kehillat Beth Israel.

Horn Prouser told the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin that her interest in the topic was piqued when her family was young.

“I was very involved in my children’s schooling, at the day school in our area, where it was very clear to me that the children, even with minor disabilities, were not receiving the services that were needed,” she said.

She began doing a lot of reading about disabilities like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition in which a person has trouble paying attention and focusing on tasks, and has trouble sitting still.

“I went to a lecture where the speaker said Esau was ‘impulsive.’ I leaned over and said ‘Ha, Esau had ADHD.’ I put it together. I really was joking at the time, but I loved that lecture and was thinking about the topic. I realized that right there in the biblical text, the personality type has always been there.”

Horn Prouser did further study, looking for other references in the Bible to people differently involved. Disability studies was still relatively new, she said, and not a lot of information was available.

“Once I started, it was very enlightening both from a scholarly point of view, and then regarding the contemporary Jewish community, and what our responsibilities are. It impacts on our communal priorities in terms of serving all communities.”

Horn Prouser served as adjunct faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary for 20 years and has consulted on the development of Bible curriculum through the Matok Torah Curriculum Development Project and the Day School Hebrew Bible Curriculum Project.

In Esau’s Blessing, Horn Prouser looks at Biblical characters who exhibit signs of ADHD, depression, intellectual disabilities, speech impediments, gifted learning, and physical disabilities, and discusses how the Bible can guide us in responding with acceptance and compassion.

Horn Prouser plans to begin her address in Ottawa by providing an understanding of disabilities in the Bible and then move into “our responsibility to the full contemporary Jewish community.”

“The text contains a fair number of characters with a number of disabilities. It really enhances and widens our understanding of what it means to be in God’s image in a beautiful way,” she said.”

“For example, Jacob the Patriarch was physically disabled after an altercation and had a limp. When we study these texts in general, people will think Moshe had a speech issue – but he had it his whole life. How did it impact the rest of his life? Jacob continued to have that limp. We forget that these characters are full individuals.”

She hopes to make her Ottawa audience “really feel that inclusivity is deeply Jewish, and to be really proud of our ancient text… I hope it will make people go back and look at the Biblical text they know and are already comfortable with, and find new things.”

Tickets for “Limping Toward the Promised Land: How the Bible Pioneers Inclusion” with Ora Horn Prouser are $18 and available at www.tamir.ca or by contacting Jodi Green at jodigreen@tamir.ca or 613-725-3519, ext. 115.