Typically when we think of access in general and in Jewish community specifically, we first default to thinking about physical access—is the bimah accessible? Do we have sign language interpretation provided for services and other events? Are Braille and large print siddurim available? It has often been my experience as someone who is blind and very Jewishly involved that, when physical access is attended to in a synagogue or other setting, there is a sense that all that is needed has been done to include folks with disabilities into the fabric of Jewish life. But accessibility is about more than overcoming physical barriers to participation; inclusion must also be understood spiritually.
Indeed physical access is a necessary first step, but unfortunately it isn’t even a given. Imagine, for instance, that you want to pray with a community on Shabbat but that’s a week in which sign language interpretation isn’t offered and thus your participation in services is made more difficult, or you are blind or visually impaired and don’t have access to Braille or large print siddurim, making it very difficult to follow services in a congregation in which there is no accessible siddur. Or imagine you want to receive an aliyah, but you can’t, because there’s a flight of stairs to the bimah. The Torah, then, becomes literally inaccessible. These barriers frequently result in people feeling alienated and disengaged from Jewish life because they feel unwelcome. Though I am blessed to be part of Jewish communities doing cutting-edge work around access issues, I have had my fair share of experiences in which lack of access translated to my feeling unwelcome. It is far too frequently the case that I have to bring my own Braille siddurim to synagogues because I know that those synagogues do not have such siddurim of their own. Indeed, I take it as a given that I will have to provide my own siddur, and though I have siddurim that are relatively easy to carry, with very few exceptions, sighted Jews would rarely have to go to such trouble. They can expect to walk into any synagogue and find a siddur, as well as a chumash, available for their use. Though my use of my own siddurim enables my access to the services, and though I have personal preferences in terms of the liturgy I use, it shouldn’t be the case that a blind or visually impaired Jew, despite our relatively small number, should by default expect to be excluded from the community during prayer.
Nevertheless, a community that is truly and deeply accessible is one in which inclusivity doesn’t stop at physical or attitudinal access but instead goes further. Inclusivity should extend to thoughtfully and intentionally grappling with the language we use in the drashot we give from the bimah as well as the ways in which our liturgy can be used as a vehicle for expressing our yearnings for a world in which the inherent value and dignity of every human being—kavod habriot—is a given. This is not something that happens instantaneously, nor should it. We are constantly, each and every one of us, including those of us who inhabit one or more marginalized identities in a continual process of growth, and thank God for that. Just as generations before us struggled with our ancient liturgy, reformulating blessings, creating new blessings, and amending liturgy such that it was authentic for them and better reflected the voices of the marginalized, including women and the LGBTQIA community, I believe that thinking about, creating, and revising liturgy from an intersectional disability justice and spirituality perspective is a continuation of this sacred tradition.
I have become increasingly interested in the power of the brakhot in our liturgy—those we recite on a frequent basis as well as those that we utter less frequently. In birkhot hashakhar, the series of fifteen blessings traditionally recited each morning, we find several blessings that either refer explicitly to disability—pokeakh ivrim (gives sight to the blind), for instance—or which could be read in such a way—matir asurim (frees the captive) and zokef kefufim (straightens the bent), for example.
Throughout the past few years, I have begun rethinking my relationship to these brakhot, particularly pokeakh ivrim. Though I said it for years without much thought, there was always a small voice inside challenging me to rethink the implications inherent in the recitation of this brakhah by a blind rabbinical student such as myself. I also grew increasingly frustrated that my understanding of this brakhah, I felt, was not gaining any traction in a similar manner to how progressive Jews changed the problematic second, third, and fourth blessings of birkhot hashakhar to rid our siddurim of exclusivist language. I also respect the fact that the disability community comprises multiple disability experiences, and that folks who experience degrees of visual impairment relate to this brakhah in a variety of ways. Having said this, I do yearn for the day when the process of a reexamination of pokeakh ivrim is taken up by Jewry in earnest.
It became increasingly clear to me that my discomfort with the brakhah needed to be reflected in my practice. I was no longer able or willing to recite this brakhah by rote, and the metaphorical interpretations that I had fallen back on out of a sense of obligation to remain loyal to the traditional text completely fell flat. If remaining loyal to a traditional text meant that I was routinely, in a sense, denying my own being in the world, I had to think of a better, more affirming solution. I didn’t know what the next step would be. Do I create a new brakhah? Skip this brakhah entirely? What happens when I am leading a community in prayer and have to recite birkhot hashakhar aloud?
Though the third question still remains unanswered and is something I think about often, one of the ways in which I dealt with my discomfort in saying this brakhah was to create a new one in its place. Barukh Atah Adonai (Brukhah At Yah), sh’asani sh’lemah. “Blessed are You, God, who has made me whole.” My dignity and inherent human worth, despite social messages to the contrary, is no different than that of a sighted person. For those of us who inhabit any number of marginalized identities, who routinely face subtle and overt messages that tell us our humanity is somehow diminished because of who we are, this blessing is a daily affirmation that we are indispensable, unique, and precious in the thought of God. As we work toward creating a more inclusive Jewish community, we should ensure that our liturgy reflects the values we stand for.
Lauren Tuchman is a rabbinical student, passionate about Judaism and social justice, grassroots community-building, text study, and ritual creation. She is dedicated to creating Jewish communities in which individuals can bring their whole selves and believes wholeheartedly that we all have important Torah to teach.