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Scholar examines disabilities in the Torah
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Scholar examines disabilities in the Torah

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Ora Horn Prouser believes that understanding the disabilities of biblical characters can provide deep insight into how their special needs may have influenced their actions. 

In her book, Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces those with Special Needs, she notes how the speech impediment of Moses or Jacob’s limp suggests a way of looking at the Torah as a guide to empathizing with those with disabilities. 

“I think at the very least it means we should show compassion for the disabled,” said Prouser, executive vice president and academic dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY.

The Bible’s unflinching portrayal of disabilities, she continued, demonstrates that God’s love and compassion extends to everyone and that even those with special needs can become heroes and leaders. Prouser believes that the inclusion of those with special needs is a communal responsibility.

She will elaborate on the topic — as well as the origins of Havdala and the challenges of “disturbing” texts — at the ninth annual Dr. Julius and Ethel Mintz Scholar-in-Residence Shabbaton, to be held Friday-Saturday, Nov. 20-21, at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. 

Moses, she told NJJN, is described in the Torah as “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” Commentators suggested he stuttered or had burned his tongue as a youth. 

“We have to look at all the biblical text about Moses. How is he dealing with his speech difficulty while engaging in all the actions of the Torah?” asked Prouser. 

She notes that Moses is punished when, in Numbers 20:11, he strikes a rock in order to bring forth water — disobeying God’s order to speak to the rock instead. Did Moses’ speech problems play a role in the incident? 

Similarly, she said, Jacob was left with a permanent limp after wrestling with the angel (in Genesis 32:22-32), which may have affected future actions. “He does not seem to have the same strength when dealing with Esau or in dealing with the rape of his daughter.”

Esau’s challenges may not be as obvious to many readers of the Bible. 

“I think we can read Esau as someone who is dealing with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” said Prouser. “When you look at his behavior, he exhibits characteristics we know today to be ADHD. He’s impulsive, lacking in social consciousness; he needs to be very active.”

In her other programs at the synagogue, Prouser will examine biblical passages that “are challenging to us — whether morally, ethically, pedagogically — in our understanding of God, or in affecting our Jewish life.”

These include the binding of Isaac and the first part of the Book of Hosea, in which the prophet is commanded to marry a woman of “ill-repute.”

Hosea can be read as “being really abusive of women, bordering on condoning spousal abuse,” Prouser said. “What do we do when challenged by sacred literature we feel connected to and we feel is our job to follow?” 

In her final talk at the seuda shlishit meal before Havdala, she will explore the connection between the Book of Esther and the ceremony that ends Shabbat, which features a quote from Esther: “The Jews had light and happiness.” 

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