Growing up in suburban Montreal during the 1960s, there was perhaps no more important force in the lives of my brother and me than our four friends-brothers — who lived three doors down.
Our back yards were separated by a neatly coiffed and fenced lawn owned by two elderly couples.
Often, when a baseball or football soared over the fence, we would organize stealth raids to retrieve them, before our grumpy neighbors would either seize our ball — or, worse-report us to our parents.
As we left Montreal for college and other pursuits, we lost close touch with our four friends. But a few years ago, my brother Ron told me that he’d received a card from one of the brothers, inviting him to his daughter’s bat mitzvah.
With joy and anticipation, Ron and his wife Adeena decided to make the trip.
As they drove to Toronto, Ron and Adeena were curious about how the occasion would be approached. You see, they knew that the bat mitzvah, Paige, was physically challenged.
She was limited in her movement, and could not vocalize. She used instead, a combination of blinks to communicate thoughts and feelings.
The Toronto synagogue was packed as Paige was called to the Torah. And, that day, Paige, with her own language, brought a marvelous and unique force to becoming a bat mitzvah.
As my brother tells it, there was not a dry eye in the synagogue as she and her family were showered by candies and cries of Mazal Tov.
“She had the most amazing smile that anyone can imagine,” my brother recalled.
Indeed, Paige’s smile was so bright and proud that it elevated the souls of everyone present — and, I believe, extended straight to heaven, to the heart of almighty God.
Paige’s bat mitzvah was a deeply meaningful moment in that sanctuary. Perhaps even more importantly, it challenged the traditional view that those who live with disabilities are less than equal partners in the pursuit of Tikun Olam, the individual and collective mission of all Jews to repair this broken world.
Our ancient tradition has often been insensitive to those who are challenged.
As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Emor, no priest who had a defect was permitted to lead the sacrificial rituals.
This included “a person who is lame, or has a limb too short or too long, a person who has a broken leg or broken arm, or who is a hunchback, or a short person, or has a growth in his eyes, or has a boil scar....” (Leviticus 21:18-19).
In other words, those who failed to meet the communal standard of visual perfection were
not permitted to serve.
This must have been heartbreaking for those within the priestly families. And what a horrible message it sent to others.
And so it continued, for centuries. Within a faith meant to serve as a “light unto other nations,” Judaism has often lagged behind when it comes to disability.
Over the course of our history, those facing physical or cognitive challenges have often been ignored or isolated from the community. Many were hushed or hidden.
Sadly, modern Judaism has not been the exception. Up to perhaps thirty years ago, restrooms in many synagogues were inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. Mezuzot were hung out of reach.
Access to the Torah itself required a cumbersome and often embarrassing public climb up a series of steps.
How was this possible, in a faith preaching respect and empathy for all? One whose holiest of books begins and ends with kindness?
In 2010, Patte and I began planning the conversion and subsequent bar mitzvah of our son, John, who is autistic.
I was told by some within the “classic” Jewish tradition that John could not ascend to the Torah. How, some asked, could John fully comprehend the Jewish commitment he was about to take on?
It was obvious that they didn’t know John.
He loves attending synagogue. He sings prayers like L’Dor Vador at home. He recites the Shabbat blessings. He leads Dayenu at the Passover Seder. Like most, can’t wait to get to the bagel, cake, and cookie table after services.
John was called to the Torah seven years ago this week. He recited the Shema prayer of oneness, along with the blessings over the Torah. We wrapped him in a tallit (prayer shawl) that he and his bar mitzvah tutor had tied and blessed knot by knot.
He leaped high on the bimah in the middle of the Torah reading, and let out a gleeful shout – one our service-goers are very familiar — in the middle of the Rabbi’s sermon: John’s interpretation of “Hineni”–here I am.
And all this was perhaps possible because we as Jews understand the Torah must evolve and expand in order to survive.
Over the centuries, our Sages have encouraged us again and again to override strict and outdated laws which prevent the Torah from harmonizing with the evolution of Jewish contemporary culture.
For example, the Torah tells us if your son becomes a drunkard and a glutton, take him to the gates of the city, and have the elders stone him to death. But such a thing never happened.
The rabbis commanded us to disobey.
The Torah teaches that under some circumstances it is permissible for a man to marry more than one wife. But the rabbis directed us to disobey that too.
And so it must be today, as we look at the role of cognitively and physically challenged men, women and children, seeing and understanding what gifts and deep spirituality they offer the world as Jews.
Access to both physical and spiritual needs must be guaranteed to all.
This imperative has guided the practice in our synagogue. If someone is disabled or otherwise unable to ascend to the Torah, we are honored to bring the Torah to them in the pews.
Every day, I am moved by the strength and conviction of John, and Paige, and all the others with challenges to overcome, as they climb Judaism’s ladder.
For God has made each step, each rung precious and unique for every human being.
In a world where so many take Judaism for granted, it is the Johns and Paiges of the world who teach us about the sacredness of every human journey.
In so many ways, the portion of the Torah which instructs the priests to segregate and ignore disabled family members should be ignored.
The service that these commands provide today is in showing us how far we have come.
It reminds us that Torah and our understanding of the human condition must evolve from generation to generation, and that each human being possesses the ability to teach us something.
The teachings needn’t take the form of a midrash or a sermon: there is everything to learn, and to love, even in a shout or a smile.
Judaism can only be sacred when we expand our tent to all.
For we are all in this together, as we are reminded that some bear challenges for all to see – while some carry those which are better hidden.
Indeed, there is room for all under God’s light.
Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Irwin Huberman