CFP: Disability in Jewish Thought and Culture

‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind’: Disability in Jewish thought and culture

31st March – 2nd April 2014
Institute of Jewish Studies, University of Antwerp

Keynote lectures by R. dr. Zvi Marx, author of Disability in Jewish Law (Routledge, 2002) and Prof. dr. Jeremy Schipper, author of Disability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Oxford University Press, 2011).

In sharp contrast to Aristotle’s statement that there ought to be a “law that no crippled child be reared” the Mishnah never even considers infanticide as a possibility. The rabbis cherish life and see human variety as evidence of God’s greatness. Despite this positive attitude towards the disabled, they were excluded from many religious practices. Access to the sanctuary of the Temple was severely limited for the disabled, as God’s presence in the Holy of Holies could be lethal and physical perfection was required to even survive it. At the same time, there are several examples of people with disabilities who played a crucial role in Biblical history. Jacov limped his way into greatness, while Moses spoke some of history’s greatest orations with a speech impediment. After 70 CE the Halacha left the narrow confines of priestly cult and started a long process of regulatory thinking on disability in daily life that continues to this day.

In the wake of the explosion of interest in the relationship between biblical and cultural studies in the past decade, biblical scholars have started to engage disability studies. Some conclude that Jewish law labels the disabled as outsiders, and argue that Judaism needs to be rewritten to include people with disabilities. Others focus on the narratives and find a system supportive of vulnerable people, one that seeks to empower the disempowered, often informed by the Biblical injunction against placing a stumbling block before the blind (Lev 19:14) nor to ‘ridicule or curse the deaf, who could not hear the ridicule or curse, and therefore could not defend himself’ (Psalm 38:15). The actual behavior and various attitudes towards disability that exist and have existed in religious communities show again a very different story.

‘Disability in Jewish Thought and Culture’ aims to bring people together who in their research address the theology, history and practical experience of disability and Judaism. We will focus both on rabbinical theological debates, on practical implementation of religious beliefs and on the genuine experience of disability in the Jewish community, in order to understand the many tensions that arise between the different traditional sources themselves and between orthodoxy and practice. The conference will be focused on – although certainly not limited to – the meaning of deafness, and disabilities connected to childhood and old age in these discussions.

In the history of thinking about disability, deafness has always challenged people to rethink their opinions within a context of extreme paradoxes. In a context of Judaism – as a belief and practice centred around of the spoken and written word and a strong culture of dialogue – we will give special attention to how Jewish thought are contributing to the contemporary discourse about medical and sociocultural models of disability and disability culture, and how the Halacha and Agadda can contribute to thinking the paradoxes which arise in the context of the recent technological (r)evolution of the 21st century.

Examples of questions:

  • To what extent is the Judaic approach to disability linked to social, historical, religious factors?
  • How should we – according to Jewish law & narrative relate to disability?
  • What does the development of new technology mean for the relation between disability and Judaism? Do we have the duty to except or to correct a disability? Under which conditions do we have to except or correct disabilities?
  • Can Thora be read in sign language for deaf people? Does learning a spoken language override a visual language or vice versa? Is it enough to use language only for phatic communication or is Thora asking for higher order of communication?
  • Can deaf parents choose for deaf children and vice versa?

Please send your abstracts (500 words) and short bio to David Dessin ( by 31st August 2013.


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