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A sensitive reading of Torah for those with special needs
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A sensitive reading of Torah for those with special needs

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Consider Esau as a misunderstood kid with ADHD, instead of Jacob’s less-worthy twin. Review Samson’s behavior through the lens of a conduct disorder. Think about Jonah as an icon of depression.

In her new book, Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces those with Special Needs, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser rereads nine biblical figures through the lens of special-needs education.

The results, engaging and surprising, do for those with special needs and their families what feminist readings of the Torah did for women: make an ancient text speak to them in new and relevant ways. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the American Jewish University says that the book helps readers “see with clearer vision the special needs children and adults who deserve our respect and our attention today.”

“We all really need to pay attention to these issues and think about them in a Jewish context,” said Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, the nondenominational rabbinical seminary in the Bronx. “Relating them to our most sacred literature only helps to bring the needs of every individual to the forefront.”

Prouser, who grew up at the Summit Jewish Community Center and whose father, Rabbi William Horn, is the religious leader emeritus of the Conservative congregation, will discuss her book there on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 29.

Prouser, who received her PhD from the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages and Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been working on the book, published by Teaneck-based Ben Yehuda Press, “on and off” since the 1990s. She has taught the material for about 10 years. While that has given her time to enrich the book with the feedback she’s gotten about different characters, she said, it has provided more fodder for examination.

Careful readings of the text allow the biblical figures to emerge as embodiments of various challenges, from Isaac (developmental disability), to Moses (speech disorder), to Hannah and Naomi (depression).

Prouser also looks at how these disabilities affect family dynamics. Many sections focus on pedagogical implications and place God in the role of master educator. The giving of the laws at Sinai is presented as the quintessence of the “multiple intelligences” approach to learning: thunder and lightning provide audio and visual aids, and the law is written on tablets.

Prouser said her project was inspired by the Esau story. She once heard a lecturer list his personality traits and had a kind of epiphany. “I leaned over to a companion and whispered with a chuckle that maybe Esau had ADHD.”

To arrive at Esau’s “diagnosis,” Prouser offers a careful reading of the Torah text and compares it with scholarly literature on attention deficit disorders. She finds the difficult pregnancy Rebecca describes is common among mothers of ADHD children and that a person with ADD traits would make “an extraordinarily good hunter” because of his intense focus and easy distractibility.

Arriving at Esau’s pivotal act — trading his birthright for a pot of stew after coming home from hunting — Prouser asks, “Is it possible that he comes home so hungry because he forgot to plan ahead and prepare provisions for his hunting expedition?” She writes about this incident, “Several classic ADHD symptoms are evident: impulsiveness, craving, and distractibility.”

Unlike the traditional view, “we might posit that Esau is neither ignorant nor shortsighted, but simply distractible, a trait that leads to severe consequences…. Consider the life Esau could have led had he been understood and nurtured with appropriate care….”

Other biblical figures with “a bad rap,” Prouser said, might also be “misunderstood” characters with potential special needs.

Prouser views her interpretations as a correction to a traditional attitude within Torah that has often troubled advocates for those with disabilities. In the Torah and Jewish law of ancient times, the hearing-impaired, blind, and those with developmental and physical disabilities were barred from certain ritual privileges and obligations.

“If you read the priestly literature, it is clear that those with imperfections are not able to enter certain areas of holiness,” said Prouser. “We could…say the Bible is against those who are disabled in some way. But that’s why it’s all the more significant that in the narrative that characters show themselves to have imperfections. The narrative section shows a different approach from the priestly literature.

“It shouldn’t surprise us because the Bible does not only present one point of view,” she added. “And when we see biblical figures able to accomplish things and show themselves to be people of great strength of character, it’s very meaningful.”

Prouser said that her interpretations aren’t meant to suggest that the Torah was intended solely as a guide to special needs. In concert with the principle found in the Mishna that there are many valid ways of understanding the Torah, she said, “I feel strongly that there are many readings of the biblical text, and what I say consistently is each of these readings is a reading of the text, not the reading of the text.

“The ability to read a biblical text seriously with careful methodology and have it relate to contemporary issues gives a whole new lens and in my opinion leads to more intimacy with the Bible and more excitement about studying it,” she said, and “great spiritual meaning.”

The book has been published in time for Jewish Disability Month, which occurs in February. (See sidebar for other events.)

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