Inclusion

Altshul would like to include all families and individuals who want to be a part of our community. If you or anyone in your family has a disability or access need we would like to work with you to try to find an accommodation. For more information or to join the committee on inclusion please contact inclusion@altshul.org.

For more information on what we’re trying to do, read the drash below from Samantha Shapiro:

Moses Spoke; G-d Answered Him in Thunder

I recently reread the exchange between Gd and Israel at Mount Sinai, and was struck by Moshe’s role as intermediary. The way he mediates between Gd and the people is mysterious and amazing:

“As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up. The Lord said to Moses, Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish….”

For everyone except Moses, speaking directly to Gd is an incredibly fraught experience for reasons that are hard to understand — that Gd will “break out” against them or they will “break through” to him. But
there’s something about Moshe that makes him able to speak and listen to Gd directly; Moses speaks; Gd answers him in thunder. This is particularly interesting since it is fairly clear that Moshe has what we would now call a disability.

The first time God called out to Moses from the bush and told him he had been chosen to lead his people from slavery. Moses responds

“My Lord, I am not eloquent, I am slow [or heavy] of speech, and of a slow [or heavy] tongue.”

Gd answered

“Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD?”

Gd goes on to tell Moses that Aaron, his brother who speaks well, will speak for him. He also says he will give him an assistive device, the rod, to help him communicate. Moses never overcomes his difficulties
with speech — he struggles with them throughout the Torah, even as he inhabits a powerful leadership role.

Historically one or two commentators on the Torah have said something to the effect of: Moses couldn’t have had a disibility because Gd wouldn’t pick a person with a disability. The Rashbam says ‘kvad peh’ and ‘kvad lashon’ — or heavy/slow of mouth and heavy/slow of tongue — only refer to Moses having forgotten how to speak Egyptian while he was in Midian. But the vast majority of commentators on the Torah say Moses had some sort of disability and differ only about the exact nature of it. In other places in the Torah, the word kvad is translated as “heavy” or “slow” and means not working typically. And it certainly seems from the plain meaning of the text that Gd and Moses understand his speech difficulties in the context of being blind, deaf or having a developmental disability, not lacking fluency in Egyptian.

Gd chose to communicate his message — first of liberation and then of love and covenant " through someone who struggled with speech. Perhaps Gd wanted to emphasize message over oration or performance. I read a blog post by a 16 year old boy with autism named Ido Kedar who is not able to speak; he suggested that in choosing Moses, Gd wanted to show that “perfect in his eyes is not he same as perfect in man’s.”

Moses is the only prophet who spoke face to face with Gd and I wonder if the very qualities that gave Moses challenges in communicating with other people gave him heightened abilities that made him uniquely able to speak with Gd. Perhaps there is something related to Moses’ disability which allows him to tolerate the mysterious “breaking through” that happens when Gd speaks to people, even as he later has trouble communicating a basic message about how to get water to B’nei Israel.

Today it may be hard to imagine a super prominent Jewish leader having a disability, because people with disabilities are excluded in important ways from many areas of Jewish life throughout all denominations of Judaism.

This first came to my attention when my husband and I were studying the laws of niddah or marital relations before we got married with a teacher named Dvorah Zlochower. We didn’t want the typical kallah class, we wanted to be able to openly acknowledge that some of the talmud’s ideas about menstruation may have come from bad science or wrong ideas about women and Zlochower knew all the halacha but she also had an open approach that made this tradition accessible to us.

In the course of our classes we learned that Zlochower and her husband Dov Linzer, who was the Rosh yeshiva of chovovei torah, the “liberal orthodox rabbinical school”, had two sons on the autism spectrum. Although both Zlochower and her husband were full-time Jewish educators, they could not find a suitable Jewish school for their own children, so her sons attended a secular school that had programs they really needed. Zlochower and Linzer later wrote an angry op-ed in the Jewish Week saying that while they had resolved themselves to the fact that Jewish schools couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate their kids they could not tolerate the myriad ways they felt unwelcome and shut out of synagogue life.

Perhaps naively, I was surprised and saddened by this. Zlochower and Linzer have devoted their lives to making Torah study and Orthodox life more open and inclusive of women but it was still closed off for their family. And although I was surprised, I had to admit the question of what the communities I’m involved in did to accommodate people with disabilities had not really occurred to me or been discussed, although many of these communities formally state they are open or egalitarian.

I spoke with Zlochower about Altshul specifically and among other things she said however big or small our community is, you don’t know what the needs are until you at least ask. So I hope that as a community we can begin to ask whether we are accessible to families and individuals with access needs.

Please email inclusion@altshul.org if you are interested in being involved in helping Altshul meet these needs.

Although Moses was the only one who spoke face to face with Gd, in a number of places, the Torah mentions that it wasn’t only Moses who heard God speak at Sinai. The entire Jewish people experienced a direct communication from God at Mount Sinai. As far as I know, no other religion claims to have mass revelation where everyone — everyone — stood together and heard Gd’s voice, and as Midrash said, everyone heard in his or her own way. I hope as a community we can continue to think about how to bring more holiness by being together as a people, excluding no one.

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