Tradition Today: Honoring those with special needs

The rabbis taught: "Everyone must say, ‘For my sake was the world created!’”

A man in a wheelchair [Illustrative]. (photo credit: Carlos Jasso/Reuters)
A man in a wheelchair [Illustrative].
(photo credit: Carlos Jasso/Reuters)
Can children with special needs, mental or physical, celebrate a bar or bat mitzva in a synagogue? This question was put to the Committee on Jewish Law of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel many years ago. There were such children, including the visually handicapped and hard of hearing, who were being denied this privilege on the basis of the ruling by some authorities that the rabbinic teaching that the “heresh” (deaf) and the “shoteh” (mentally deficient) are not obligated to perform mitzvot means that they cannot become bnei mitzva. In my responsum, I showed that the rabbis were referring to people who had no means of communication with the outside world or people who were psychotic and could not be held responsible for their actions. These definitions would not apply to the deaf or hard of hearing today nor to children with learning difficulties.
It was on this basis that the program of bar and bat mitzva instruction for children with special needs was undertaken by the Masorti Movement. Schools for such children were offered the opportunity of having trained instructors come to them at no cost to conduct classes in Judaism for the year prior to the age of bnei mitzva. A ceremony would then be held in a synagogue with no charge to the families. Since then, dozens of Israeli schools have entered this program and more are interested in doing so when the financing becomes available. The program is open to all and is financed by a special fund of the Masorti Movement.
Recently I attended such a bar/bat mitzva in Jerusalem at Moreshet Avraham Synagogue on a Rosh Hodesh morning. The children were physically handicapped and were all in wheelchairs. Some had difficulty controlling their limbs, others had speech problems and used electronic devices to substitute for their own voices when they recited the blessings. In attendance were their schoolmates, their parents, grandparents, relatives and friends. They were aided by the teachers and helpers whose love and devotion were evidenced in all their actions. Their families represented the full spectrum of Israeli Jewry: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular. It goes without saying that it was a very emotional event, with hardly a dry eye in the room.
It is impossible to exaggerate what such a celebration means for these children and their families, most of whom never dreamed that their children would be able to celebrate such an occasion. These children are deprived of so much, but here they were being welcomed into the Jewish community, into the synagogue world, into Jewish tradition and observance with pride and honor. They were being told that they are the equal of others and can relate to God and Torah as well as anyone else.
As I listened to these children recite the blessings over the Torah in whatever way they could, I responded “amen” with enthusiasm, as did the entire congregation. I was reminded of the well-known hassidic tale of the child who whistled on Yom Kippur during the service. It was the only way he could express himself. When the congregation was annoyed, the rebbe told them that his was undoubtedly the purest prayer that had been uttered all day and had gone straight to heaven. I am certain that this was the case that morning in Moreshet Avraham as well.
The rabbis taught: “When someone makes many coins from one mold, all of them are alike, but the Holy One forms every person in the image of the first human being, yet no one is exactly like anyone else. Therefore everyone must say, ‘For my sake was the world created!’” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Each of these children is a creation of God for whose sake the world was created. To recognize that and treat them accordingly is Judaism’s command to us all.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).