HERE

Kedoshim 5781

Our double parsha this week, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, as with so much of Torah, covers a lot of ground and is multi-faceted and multi-layered. These parshiyot contain verses that have provided considerable strength and inspiration to us throughout the centuries, as well as verses that have caused tremendous pain. I am going to be focusing in this dvar Torah on a verse found in the 19th chapter of Leviticus. “לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:14, JPS translation).

This verse contains two distinct, yet simultaneously interconnected mitzvot. Leviticus 19 is often referred to by scholars as the holiness code of Torah, as it contains a variety of interpersonal and agricultural mitzvot whose intent is to create a world in which we are aware that we, like G-d, are holy and must live lives of sanctity. The mitzvot the Torah presents us with here—do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind—you should fear Hashem I am Hashem—have been classically understood in a variety of ways. Ibn Ezra holds that we should not curse the deaf because we have the power to do so and if we do, G-d will punish us by making us deaf and blind. Rashi interprets the verse metaphorically, understanding the prohibition against putting a stumbling block before the blind to be about not deceiving someone or misleading them. The logic of the metaphorical read, which has been widely adopted, is that no decent person, upon seeing a blind person approaching would think to put a boulder in their path. Lifnei Ivir or before the blind has henceforth become an expansive halakhic category, whose application is manifold. We aren’t to mislead someone by giving poor advice, or in business deals, etc., as to do so is to place a stumbling block in their path.

I have argued for years that there is tremendous power in the Torah’s words here. As a blind woman and someone committed to Torah and to remaining in relationship with this holy tradition, even and especially when doing so is very painful, when I read these two prohibitions against cursing the deaf and placing a stumbling block before the blind, I experience The Divine affirming the very real, complex lived experiences of deaf folks, blind folks, and those who are deafblind. Our experiences are as varied as we are and the circumstances of our lives as diverse as anyone’s. Yet, on a very literal level, I have navigated more than my fair share of obstacles, tripping hazards and the like. G-d isn’t simply prohibiting boulders placed in people’s way deliberately or maliciously. Rather, what would the world be experienced and felt like if we took great care to create accessible paths for all of us, so that we could navigate with ease and freedom? These prohibitions also recognize the power dynamics that are inherent in human relationships. I say that without moral judgement but simply by way of naming a truth. As a hearing person, I could choose not to provide accurate renderings of what I’m saying to folks who sign. Blind folks’ access to visual information, while improving, is still highly limited, leaving many feeling increasingly separate from others. As an educator, I experience this on Zoom in numerous ways, at the same time as I am grateful that important work is being done to remedy these disparities.

The impulse to assume that the Torah’s prohibitions here cannot be literal is a natural one—it is hard to fathom a scenario in which an individual would intentionally place a stumbling block before a blind person or curse a deaf person. Yet, as with so much in Torah, we are, I believe, being divinely encouraged to look within and take an accounting of our actions and working assumptions. When we are not in relationship with individuals about or to whom particular verses apply, it is easy to narrow their scope. Put another way, without meaningful, authentic and mutual relationships with a diverse group of individuals, I might not think that something like refraining from placing a stumbling block in the path of a blind person means all that much. When I get curious about the lived experiences of those I hold close and those who are not in my circle but are in my society, I am able to expand the palace of my own understanding and thereby to expand the palace of Torah in all of its fullness.

I hold that Torah is eternally relevant, speaking to us in every generation. Or, put another way, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings so that we can understand and live it out fully in the world. The Torah, as we learn in Deuteronomy, is close to us, it is not far away, in the heavens or beyond the sea, but in our mouths to do it. Hashem has revealed Hashem’s Torah to us so that we might internalize it and live in right relationship. We are also given the opportunity to bring our interpretations and applications to bear on the lengthy and ongoing conversation across time, geography and circumstance. Mine is the perspective of one blind woman. I certainly do not speak for the blind community, nor could I, even if that was my desire. There is room for many reads, many challenges, many pathways in.

As a lover of Torah and as someone who believes passionately in the ability of people with disabilities to thrive and live lives of meaning, when I approach classical interpretations of this verse, I am being asked to stretch myself to accommodate multiple truths. On the one hand, Ibn Ezra’s interpretation hurts at first read. I do not hold for a moment that blindness or deafness are punishments from G-d, G-d-forbid. Blindness and deafness are normal, natural parts of the human condition that people across all lines of social difference live with. Many people live lives of incredible meaning and depth and think of their deafness or blindness as inherent parts of who they are, as integral to their individual and spiritual identities as anything else about them. It is also true that discrimination and truly abhorrent behavior from others are things that many of us have to contend with. And that is a hard reality, but a necessary one to name. Ibn Ezra’s comment, read radically differently, is a reminder to all of us that the energy we put out into the world, how we view others, has a tremendous impact upon them and even more, on us.

A story from the Talmud (Taanit 20AB) illustrates this quite aptly. A rabbi is riding on his donkey home after a day of Torah study, feeling quite proud of his learning. He encounters a man who has some sort of apparent disfigurement or is in the eyes of the rabbi very unattractive. The man offers a deferential greeting, to which the rabbi responds by disparaging him and asking if all of the people who come from his city are as ugly as he is. The man replies, without missing a beat that he doesn’t know, but that perhaps the rabbi needs to go and ask the Craftsman who made him, telling the Craftsman, “how ugly is the vessel you made”. By insulting another human being, created in the image of G-d, we are insulting the Divine.

A theological foundation of mine is that Genesis 1:27, which teaches us that every human being is created in G-d’s image is perhaps one of the Torah’s most radical teachings. As my teacher and noted rabbi, scholar and disability activist Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser notes, believing that we are all created in the image of G-d is beautiful and essential theology, and it calls us to act on our radical commitments. Referencing this idea, in other words, carries little weight if I’m not actively living it out and embodying it in all that I am. Noted sociologist and shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown noted in a podcast released shortly after the attack on the United States Capital that dehumanization fuels hate, urging her listeners to take great care not to dehumanize others in action, speech or thought, even as we do the crucial work of doing all we can to eradicate hate and prejudice from our midst.

So, too, our Torah is calling us to not ignore what might feel like a simplistic couple of mitzvot. Rather, G-d is reminding us that if we want to create a holy society, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, that it is upon all of us to create a barrier-free society.






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rabbi.lauren.tuchman@gmail.com
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