A conservative, egalitarian synagogue

Sermon for Deaf Awareness Shabbat

May 5, 2012 – 13 Iyyar 5772
(Aharei Mot – Kedoshim)
Rabbi Gordon Tucker


Among the nice characteristics and coincidences of the Jewish calendar is the fact that Parashat Kedoshim always falls between Pesah and Shavuot. That inter-festival period is, of course, the one in which we are prompted (in part through the counting of the Omer) to consider what it means to be properly prepared to return to Sinai and to receive the Torah. Reading Parashat Kedoshim, then, with its multitude of exhortations for achieving a sanctified life, is always among the essential preparatory steps for "standing again at Sinai". (We will return to this phrase presently). This makes perfect sense, since it is in Kedoshim that we are famously exhorted to become a community with sanctified values and a sanctified life (this is both the "headline" of this Parashah and the very meaning of its name). Kedoshim contains such immediately recognizable characteristics of an elevated society as reverence for God's Sanctuary, honor given to parents, observance of the Sabbath, love of both neighbor and stranger, and honesty in the pursuit of a livelihood. Yet it may not only be substantive characteristics that determine sanctity in a community, but form and process as well. This is a simple point for Americans, certainly, to grasp. The high-minded, and soaringly expressed, principles of our founding documents fell short for a significant portion of our national history, precisely because not everyone in the society was included in those majestic visions of equality and dignity. And similarly, the effort to be worthy of Sinai and the Torah requires more than a commitment to live by the substance of Leviticus Chapter 19, arguably the most uplifting chapter in the Torah. It must also require a commitment to ensure that Kedoshim applies to, and thus speaks to, everyone in the community of Israel's covenant, and perhaps to everyone in the human family.

In fact, the words of Parashat Kedoshim themselves seem to recognize this. Verse 2 of chapter 19 has God instructing Moses to speak to the whole congregation of Israel all of the words that follow. And the sages of the rabbinic period understood and made explicit what was implied in this word "whole" ("kol" in Hebrew). Here is what the Sifra had to say: "This section of the Torah was given to a full general assembly, because most of the essential teachings of the Torah are derived from it." In other words, the greatest substantive teachings of any tradition will come up lacking, if they are not addressed – and addressed effectively – to the largest
possible group of adherents of that tradition. American democracy was given greater life and potency when it was finally made into a welcome address for all races and for both sexes. And the Jewish tradition always gains greater life and potency when it is opened up to more people, especially those who have been excluded by appeal to the tradition itself.
Kedoshim, in fact, recognized this crucial element of sanctity in a more particular way. Verse 14 in our chapter instructs us as follows: "You must not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block in front of the blind. Reverence for God demands this."

It is this verse that brings us back to the phrase we brought up at the very beginning, when reflecting on the annual journey from Pesah to Shavuot – from Egypt to Sinai – and about how we are to be prepared to be "standing again at Sinai". The phrase was made famous by Judith Plaskow, in a book by that title a little more than 20 years ago. That book was one of the first powerful teachings about exclusions, about the diminutions of the general assembly that sanctity demands of a community, diminutions that we so often fail to perceive, especially if we are not among the excluded. Here is what Plaskow opened our eyes to:
"Entry into the covenant at Sinai is…..the central event that established the Jewish people. Given the importance of this event, there can be no verse in the Torah more disturbing than Moses' warning to his people…[Exodus 19:15]: ‘Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.'"
Plaskow explains: "Moses addresses the community only as men. Moses does not say ‘Men and women do not go near each other'. At the central moment in Jewish history, women are invisible."

Attentiveness to this fact – long hidden from the generations of males for whom this verse had a perfectly natural sound – that their female counterparts were not even being addressed, was the beginning of wisdom. We were taught in that groundbreaking book that for a long time, certain parts of our "whole community" were unseen. Yet still today, many members of our "whole community" struggle with being unheard. "Do not insult the deaf", we are told, is one of the demands that reverence for God makes on us. And what is the greatest insult that one can give to another human being? The suggestion – in words and in deeds – that that human being does not quite count. That the community can survive and thrive without their participation. Indeed, the word translated as "insult" really is tekallel, which means literally "to curse". There is, in fact, no greater curse in human life than to be on the margins, to not be needed.

Here is part of the testimony of Alexis Kashar, a civil rights lawyer, and president of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, founded by Executive Director Naomi Brunnlehrman. Ms. Kashar was born deaf, to parents who were deaf. She has a sister who hears, and three children who hear as well: "With three generations of deaf family, I always had the gift of full access to language through sign language. But due to our unique communication situation, my family did not have access to the greater Jewish community and I could not receive a Jewish education. My sister Debbie is the only member of my birth family who can hear. She was trapped between the hearing world, the deaf world, and the Jewish world. She was not deaf, yet she too had no access to the greater community because it was inaccessible to our family. Like most Jews, I want to give my kids the gift of moral stability. I want them to become full-fledged members of the community. For this to happen, I had to join a synagogue, go to services, and become a practicing Jew to share the experience with my children and be a role model for them. I soon learned that the doors to the Jewish world were not open and it was not welcoming to me and other deaf people. I was unable to experience Judaism freely with my children. I was told that communication access to the Jewish world was too costly, even though I was a full paying member of a synagogue and enrolled my children in its preschool. I was uncomfortable bringing my own interpreter to services, but negotiating for access reduced me to a beggar."

Do not insult the deaf. Do not curse their families, including those in their families who can hear, with exclusion from the fullest experience of Jewish life and culture, and with the message that their presence doesn't matter to the whole. It was mentioned earlier that it is especially urgent for traditions to repair themselves when the very principles of those traditions have been used to justify excluding members of the community. And this, unfortunately, has been the case with the Jewish deaf. Perhaps it was an excessive focus on the "nishma" – "we shall hear" – that our ancestors uttered at Sinai. Perhaps it was a too-literal understanding of the central imperative "Shema Yisrael" – "Hear, O Israel". Perhaps it was more simply, and understandably, the absence of effective techniques for communication and education with respect to the deaf in ancient times when our legal texts were first formed. But for whatever combination of those reasons, the Heresh – the rabbinic word for the deaf – was considered to have no access to the intellectual and spiritual riches of Judaism, and thus was categorized with the under-age and with mentally impaired adults, as being exempt from the obligations of Jewish life and from the privilege of communal participation in those rituals and practices.

This month is the first anniversary of the unanimous passage of a landmark Teshuvah (responsum) on this subject by the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. The responsum was written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash. Building on her research into Jewish sources, and into the realities of the deaf community in our time, here is, in part, what she wrote of the treatment of deaf Jews by Jewish law in the past: Their physical disability disenfranchises them completely. They are thoroughly excluded because their disability is associated with a mental incapacity, not solely a physical limitation. It is especially the exclusion from communal activities that originated in a misunderstanding of the intellectual capacity of the deaf that is most hurtful and most in conflict with the currents of compassion for those marginalized from society customary in our tradition, and with the vast improvement in the education, integration, and advancement of the deaf during the past two centuries…..We must grapple honestly with the halakhic association of the deaf with the mentally incapacitated and not ignore or whitewash how demeaning it is.

Judaism reveres words. And so, inevitably, the question arises as to whether sign language should be considered one of the many human languages that our tradition has always said can be used for the recitation of blessings and for prayer. Until relatively recent times, the morphology of sign language, and its complexity and subtlety, was commonly misunderstood or missed entirely. But Rabbi Barmash correctly notes how our understanding of this has shifted in recent decades (and some 40 states, and hundreds of universities, today recognize ASL as a language alongside all others that fulfill school language requirements): Sign language and speech….. both involve abstraction and generalization…. Speech consists of a limited set of sounds, repeatable and consistent, expressing conceptions, and the individual sounds that convey meaning are distinguished by articulation, pitch, duration and rhythm…..The motions of sign language are distinguished from one another by the position of the hand(s), the movement of the hand(s) in relation to the body, and the orientation of the hand….. Sign language, therefore, is a means of communication equal to speech…..It meets what halakhah needs in a means of communication used in halakhic proceedings [such as prayer, and giving testimony].

The conclusion of this landmark Teshuvah was that the halakhic record of discrimination against the deaf should be, and is now, reversed due to the increased understanding and awareness of the cognitive ability of the deaf among the hearing and due to the advancements in the education of the deaf. What we celebrate this Shabbat is that the categorization of the deaf as mentally incapacitated has now been revoked in our community. And we give thanks for the increased understanding of God's world that has made this repair of our tradition possible, and has enabled us fully to fulfill the command "you must not insult the deaf". Among the delights of Torah study is this: Sometimes, we find ourselves moving to certain new places as a result of new knowledge, only to find that there were already hidden hints in the Torah about where our understanding would one day arrive. Now that we embrace sign language as one of the ways in which communication between humans and God, between Jews and Jews, can take place, how else shall we now read the description in the Torah about how the community experienced the revelation of God at Mount Sinai: "All the people saw the sounds"! Moreover, in Deuteronomy 27, the Israelites were instructed to create an altar upon entry to the Promised Land, out of whole stones ("avanim shelemot"). Those stones were also to contain the words of the covenant "ba'er heiteiv" – most distinctly. The rabbinic tradition took "ba'er heiteiv" to mean that the covenant had to be rendered in every conceivable language. That respectful inclusion of all the languages in which sacred words are articulated, we now apprehend, is what was required to make them "avanim shelemot", truly whole stones, which alone can create a worthy altar, a place of service to the Creator of all.

One of the most beautiful blessings recorded in the Talmud appears in Hagigah 5b, as the punch line of a story told of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch and Rabbi Hiyya. When they were traveling together, they went to visit and pay respects to a local sage, who was sightless. When the visit was over, the blind sage gave them the following blessing: "You have respected the presence of one who is seen, but cannot see. May you have the merit to be received in the Presence of the One Who sees, but is not seen." In the same spirit, we may say that Jewish gatherings in which the deaf are at home are gatherings that respect the presence of those who can and must be heard, though they cannot hear. May all of us who follow such a practice have the merit of being welcome in the Presence of God, Who, while not heard by our ears, surely hears all.