Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Deaf Jews: Hear The Word of God

By: Guest Blogger Michael Janger.    Michael wrote this blog in appreciation of JDRC. 

Michael Janger is a strategy consultant for businesses in the disabilities market. Profoundly deaf since birth, he previously worked in finance for American Express and Thomson Corporation. He has a MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an BA from Brown University. You can check out his blog at Michael Janger Consulting.

For deaf Jews who are not very observant but no less committed to the Jewish faith, it may seem surprising to learn about a two-thousand-year-old rabbinical law that was still in practice. This law withheld from those "who cannot hear," the rights and obligations of a fully practicing Jew. I am a deaf Reform Jew who, while not devout, actively celebrates the major Jewish holidays, draws spiritual sustenance from attending and participating in synagogue services, and considers myself a full member of my family’s congregation despite the communication challenges presented by my hearing loss. Yet my sense of inclusiveness did not extend to every deaf Jew.   Until last year, Conservative halachic law, did not count a deaf Jew as part of a minyan, did not allow deaf Jews to perform mitzvot, and wouldn’t even let signing deaf Jews use other means of communication to “articulate” the Sh’ma.

That is beginning to change. Last May, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly, the membership organization for Conservative rabbis, unanimously approved a responsa ruling that “the deaf who communicate via sign language and do not speak are no longer to be considered mentally incapacitated” — a statement that directly overturns millennia of halachic law defining those who cannot hear as mentally deficient. This helps pave the way for deaf Conservative Jews of all communication modes (spoken or sign) to perform mitzvot, read from the Torah in sign language, and even say the articulated “Sh’ma” in sign language.

The old halachic law stems from the assumption that those who could not hear the word of God were not capable of performing the rites and obligations of the Commandments, which led to determinations among influential rabbis that the deaf were considered “mentally deficient.”   Since a large part of the Jewish service is aural, with specific requirements for how certain words are said and the inclusion of sounds in some rituals, it has been difficult for religious authorities over thousands of years to accept that deaf Jews could fully participate in religious practice.

Even as rabbis across all branches of Judaism now accept that there is no empirical justification that deafness influences mental capacity and cognition, the responsa has not been easily accepted. According to this JDCC article, Rabbi Michael Knopf expressed his distaste for the way CJLS committee members spent an hour arguing back and forth over technical legal issues brought up by a teshuvah on whether a Torah reading can be communicated in sign language. It was only when a deaf observer pleaded through his sign language interpreter, “What I and the deaf community want are to have the same rights and opportunities as the hearing community. We want to be able to access the word of God the only way we can. Please,” he said, his passion and pain clear, “let us have Torah, too. That’s all we ask.” This emotional appeal was enough for the CJLS to approve the teshuvah. Teshuvah Appendix: Reading Torah in Sign Language

The passage of the responsa has implications for the rest of the Jewish community. If deaf Jews cannot even participate in the Torah reading due to halachic interpretation, it not only impacts them, but also their loved ones. Either the loved ones accept the classification of their deaf relatives as second-class in the eyes of their religion, or they harbor negative feelings toward their spiritual leaders. What does this do to Jews’ faith in the power of community in their religion to heal and inspire their own fellow Jews?

By including them in Shabbat services, in Onegs after services to celebrate over wine and challah bread, in Torah readings, and the blowing of the Shofar during the High Holidays, the rabbis enable deaf Jews to experience the most powerful and emotional parts of a Jewish service on the same level as their non-deaf peers. By recognizing the advances of the past two centuries in the education and status of the deaf, this strengthens the ties of deaf Jews and their families more tightly to the Jewish religion and people around the world.

While the passage of the responsa by the CJLS is significant for deaf and hard-of-hearing Jews, it is just one step toward total inclusion into their synagogues and Jewish communities. At the grassroots level, it is essential for each rabbi in every synagogue to recognize a deaf or hard-of-hearing Jew as possessing the same rights and responsibilities as any other Jew, and ensure this person has full access to the congregation’s services and community events.

In the Jewish Bible, there are many references to “hearing the word of God.” The intent of this passage is to exhort Jews to pay attention to what God wants to say to them. If deaf Jews cannot pay attention with their ears, they certainly can pay attention with their eyes. This effort alone is more than enough to demonstrate their passion and desire to be active participants in the Jewish community.

JDRC thanks Michael Janger for being our first guest blogger