The special Torah: A haredi rabbi’s call for inclusion

‘Among children with disabilities, the prayer book is opened and shut and this is deemed to be true prayer’

By FRIMET ROTH
June 26, 2019 19:32
The special Torah: A haredi rabbi’s call for inclusion

‘MY BROTHER always embraced his cognitively impaired son, Mordechai, regularly bringing him to the synagogue over which he presides.’. (photo credit: TNS)

 
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How is a new Torah scroll linked to people with disabilities? As one hassidic rabbi, my brother, showed, it can help shatter prejudices against them.

By proudly embracing their children with disabilities, all celebrities can further that goal. But many such parents squander that opportunity. Whether ashamed or grief-stricken, they hide their special children.

• Golda Meir never spoke publicly of her granddaughter, Meira, who had Down’s syndrome.
• Yigal Alon, IDF general, Knesset member and minister institutionalized his autistic daughter, Nurit, in Scotland and never mentioned her publicly.
• Joseph and Rose Kennedy concealed the cognitive impairment of their daughter, Rosemary, in her early years. Later, after a botched lobotomy rendered her severely disabled, they institutionalized and abandoned her.
• Playwright Arthur Miller banished his newborn Down syndrome baby and never even mentioned him in his autobiography.

SO MY brother’s act is noteworthy – particularly given the haredi proclivity for concealing such offspring.
He has always embraced his cognitively impaired son, Mordechai, regularly bringing him to the synagogue over which he presides and annually to the grave of the Breslov Rebbe in Uman.

Mordechai, 29, warm and affectionate, lives with his parents and three of his 13 siblings. For six years he has been an appreciated employee in a bakery. He describes his job as “Fun!”

After work he attends group activities with similarly disabled men – singing, bike-riding, gymnastics – to which he commutes independently.

Several years ago, my brother decided to pay Mordechai a rare tribute to “compensate” for the likelihood that he will never marry. Since his needs are met by his parents, my brother encouraged Mordechai to hire a scribe, or sofer to write a new Sefer Torah. A man who cannot marry often does that, but perhaps never has someone with significant cognitive disabilities done so.

Throughout the year that the scribe wrote, Mordechai enthused over the project, visiting him regularly. Toward its conclusion, preparations were made for the traditional celebration. In Mordechai’s case, these were unusually extravagant. Fancy invitations were distributed and, my brother’s apartment building and adjacent streets were adorned with gala lights, signs and balloons.
On the night of the Hachnasat Sefer Torah (Welcoming of the Sefer Torah) men streamed into my brother’s apartment. There the scribe drew the outline of the final words and selected guests were honored with taking the traditional quill in hand, each filling in one letter.

Mordechai had distributed invitations to his co-workers and to sundry relatives, shopkeepers, neighbors. Thus hundreds arrived to dance and sing along the route to the synagogue, the Torah gripped by Mordechai under a huppah led by a truck sporting colored flashing lights and blaring music. Women – walking, not dancing – took up the rear.

Inside the synagogue, the men danced for another hour while the women watched via closed circuit screening in an adjoining garage. Next, relatives and congregants were bused to a hall for a three-course meal, more dancing and my brother’s speech.
Shortly after my brother began, Mordechai took the microphone from him (as my brother proudly told me, “He literally grabbed it out of my hand”) and declared to the crowd, “Thank you very much Daddy and Mommy!”

Soon afterward, Mordechai again approached mid-speech and whispered to his father. “Mordechai would like me to take a break,” my brother explained to his guests, “and since this is his simcha (celebration), I will.” My brother later resumed his impassioned speech, praising Mordechai and expressing thanks for such a son.

He criticized any concealment of such offspring, stressing that it “is not the way of the Torah,” adding, “Mordechai’s place of employment is privileged to have him… He is a very chaste, young man, pure-hearted, a very elevated soul. He has greatness in everything relating to interpersonal mitzvot. He avoids offending others, he flees from praise. Mordechai is always happy. He is connected to the world of music; he has special movements during music. There are things that cannot be expressed vocally and that he says with his hands. There are elevated things in children with special needs: they pick up and open a siddur, and that is called prayer. As with supremely holy ancestral tzaddikim, so, too, it is among children with disabilities; the prayer book is opened and shut and this is deemed to be true prayer.”

He thanked individuals who have been devoted to Mordechai, from various charities that assist children with disabilities to his pediatric neurologist.

Afterward, “Grace After Meals” booklets were distributed along with a monograph of my brother’s selected Halachic responsa – a veritable rallying cry.

FOR EXAMPLE: “Many of these children exhibit heightened sensitivity toward others that surpasses the rest of the world. When they see someone crying or in distress, they rush over to show interest and share in his misery. The writer of this Sefer Torah [Mordechai] is superlative in his deeds, remembering all who need help and mentioning their names in his elevated and amazing prayers. And in his great modesty, whenever he is praised for his righteousness he replies, ‘You too,” meaning that ‘You, too, are pious, so why single me out?’”

One halachic query he answered was whether to teach adults with special needs the children’s blessing after meals. His answer: “Teach the adult version. Though they may be incapable of reciting it entirely and properly… the benefit is the good feeling they derive from reciting the blessing in its entirety as is required.”

Addressing opponents of placing schools for girls with disabilities within communities, he wrote, “They fear that frequent observing of such girls will result in impaired future offspring, a view distorted to the core. In the merit of aiding [these] children, they will be blessed with everything good.”

Already an activist at Mordechai’s bar mitzvah, he declared then, “I’d like to thank God for this great and hidden gift, this precious soul. It is a tremendous honor to raise a child with special needs. The Chazon Ish zt”l would rise in the presence of the parents, as well as for the children themselves, and said “The enormity of their souls is beyond our comprehension.”

I must confess that as the non-haredi mother of a profoundly disabled daughter, this aspect of his message does not resonate with me. My child exhibits no signs of spiritual or religious insight, yet I love and cherish her.

Notwithstanding, his underlying message does have general relevance, particularly in Israel where the institutionalization of children with disabilities is promoted by medical and educational professionals’ and by lavish governmental funding. The largest such enterprise, Aleh, receives more than 75% of its money from government sources and it is thriving. By contrast, subsidies for such children living at home are meager.

In another responsum, my brother recalled ancient Greece’s reverence for physical prowess.

“The healthy expelled the sick and elderly, abandoning them to die so that the serenity of their lives would not be disrupted.”
Sadly, remnants of that ancient Greek practice still infect our society. When I predicted that my brother’s act is bound to galvanize others toward change, he tempered my optimism:

“Well, not from one day to the next; perhaps it will dribble down eventually.”

He may be my little brother, but he nailed it!

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