Last week, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend a meeting of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. The CJLS is a group of Conservative rabbis – including our very own Rabbi Stein – who are experts in halakhah, or Jewish law. The Law Committee formulates and issues halakhic opinions that help guide Conservative Jewish individuals, rabbis, and communities.
The conversations were truly captivating. The committee debated the use of musical instruments and electricity on Shabbat, whether certain foods require certification as kosher for Pesah, and commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. I could spend hours reflecting on any one of the issues the committee discussed. But today, I want to focus on one conversation:
Here was the question: may a deaf community could hold a fully ritualized Torah reading, complete with blessings, in Sign Language?
Last year, the Law Committee unanimously accepted a teshuvah, a legal opinion,by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, a Washington University professor, about the status of the deaf in Jewish Law. The deaf have historically been excluded from many Jewish activities because authorities thought the deaf’s inability to hear and communicate meant that they were mentally incompetent. Today, though, we know that the ability to hear or speak does not correlate to intelligence. We have made important advances in our ability to educate the hearing impaired. And innovations like Sign Language have enabled the deaf to communicate with relative ease.
Because of this, Rabbi Barmash argues that the Conservative Movement should afford the same Jewish rights and responsibilities to the deaf as to everyone else: they should be obligated to observe the commandments and count in a minyan. And they should be permitted to worship using sign language.
But Rabbi Barmash left the question about a Sign Language Torah service unresolved. Which brings us to last week, when Rabbi Barmash presented her opinion as an addendum to her original paper.
For her presentation, Rabbi Barmash invited well-respected members of the deaf community to give expert testimony. With the help of Sign Language interpreters, the expert witnesses passionately and eloquently addressed the Committee.
After their testimony, the committee members had an opportunity to raise questions and engage in debate. What ensued was fascinating: the committee members began to wrestle over some of the finer legal issues raised by the teshuvah, like whether sign language should be considered ‘reading’ or ‘translation,’ a point that theoretically impacts Torah reading more than other rituals.
As the Sign Language interpreters were translating the conversation, I could see one of the witnesses growing frustrated. I could read the expression on their faces: “What is this discussion about?! Why isn’t this a slam dunk?! The answer is obvious!” After about an hour of this legalistic wrangling, the witness stood up and, through his interpreter, made this plea: “What I and the deaf community want are to have the same rights and opportunities as the hearing community. We want to be able to access the word of God the only way we can. Please,” he said, the passion and pain now clear on his face, “let us have Torah, too. That’s all we ask.”
Ultimately, the Committee handily approved the teshuvah. My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, reflected that the Committee showed their commitment to “inclusion and near-equal access to Torah” for all, including deaf members of the Jewish community.”
But in the petition of that one, silent, witness, I could not help but hear echoes of a similar plea we find in this morning’s Torah portion.
In parashat Toldot, we read the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of our patriarch, Isaac, and our matriarch, Rebecca. Rebecca, we are taught, favored Jacob, the simple, scholarly son who loved the indoors. Isaac, however, favored Esau, the rugged outdoorsman who would delight his father by bringing him freshly hunted meat.
As Isaac grew old and blind, he summoned Esau for what he feared might be his last opportunity to bless him. While Esau was out hunting some game for Isaac to eat, Rebecca instructs Jacob to dress as Esau and trick Isaac into blessing him instead. The scheme works: Isaac believes that Jacob is Esau and blesses him with abundance and dominion.
Shortly after – SPOILER ALERT! – the real Esau arrives from the field. A horrified Isaac realizes what had transpired. In a dramatic and tragic scene, Isaac tells Esau that he has already given the blessing to Jacob. Esau bursts into wild and bitter sobbing and begs, “Bless me too, Father!”
Isaac responds, “But your brother…took away your blessing… What, then, can I still do for you, my son?”
See, Isaac thinks Esau is asking him to rescind Jacob’s blessing and give it to Esau. Isaac knows this cannot be done. The commentary in our Etz Hayyim Humash puts it this way: “The blessing he has given now possesses a potency and dynamism all its own…[it] is irreversible.”
When he realizes how Isaac has understood him, Esau clarifies his request: “Ha-lo atzalta li b’rakhah? Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”
In other words, Esau knows the original blessing is already gone. He just wants another blessing. Any blessing. But Isaac remains recalcitrant, insisting that he has no blessing left to offer.
Heartbroken, Esau replies, “Ha-b’rakhah ahat hi l’kha, avi?! B’rakheni gam ani, avi! Vayisa Esav kolo vayivk. Do you truly only have one blessing, father? Bless me too, father! And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.”
At that moment – almost as if coming to from a trance or waking up from a coma – Isaac finally conjures a blessing for his devastated son. It turned out that there was, indeed, another available blessing.
I read this story every year. And no matter how many times I read it, I have trouble understanding why it is so difficult for Isaac to find a blessing to offer Esau. Sure, I get why Isaac is initially reluctant: he thinks Esau is asking for the blessing he has already given to Jacob. That blessing he can no longer have. But once Isaac realizes that Esau would be content with any blessing, once Isaac realizes that all Esau wants is to be blessed by his father, why still then does Isaac demur? Why still then does Isaac force his son to beg for a blessing, a blessing that, ultimately, Isaac realizes he has at the ready?
Because Isaac mistakes the whole for its parts. He fixates on certain facts, and is blind to the whole picture. It’s his tragic flaw. This, I think, is what the Torah means when it teaches “Vayehi ki zaken Yitzhak, va-tikheina einav me’r’ot, that Isaac grew old, and his eyes grew too dim to see.” The contextual meaning of this verse is that Isaac was physically blind. But many commentators say that Isaac was also emotionally blind. For example, the midrash teaches, lo ahav oto ela mipnei she-haya ma’akhilo tzayid, Isaac only loved Esau because Esau would feed him game; he didn’t pay attention to Esau’s bad traits. Because Isaac loved certain things about Esau, he didn’t notice Esau’s shortcomings.
And this is also how Jacob deceives Isaac: When Jacob, disguised as Esau, appears before Isaac, Isaac is suspicious. So, like a good judge, he tries to analyze the facts. The voice sounds like Jacob’s, but when he tastes the food, when he smells the clothes, when he feels the hands, reasonable doubt sets in. Isaac exclaims, “ha-kol kol Ya’akov v’ha-yadayim y’dei Esav, the voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau!” Isaac calculates the facts: are there more things in the Esau column, or in the Jacob column? And that’s how Isaac determines that the son before him must be Esau.
But that, again, was Isaac’s true blindness: people are not disembodied parts. We are integrated wholes, greater than the sum of our parts. By focusing on the parts, Isaac was blinded to the whole.
And in the case of the blessings, Esau, standing right in front of Isaac, just wants to be blessed; but Isaac, oblivious to the big picture, remains stuck in the legal minutia, in the details of a question Esau isn’t even asking.
Ultimately, it is only Esau’s cry that enables Isaac to see. Like the kiss that wakes Snow White, Esau’s cries restore Isaac’s vision. When Esau weeps, Isaac suddenly realizes that the whole person standing before him is greater than a collection of facts. And when Isaac realizes this, he remembers that, indeed, he had a storehouse of blessings he could offer Esau.
And here’s the lesson: when we truly see people, when we are able to see people in their full humanity – not as collections of phenomena, not as theoretical problems, not as abstractions, but as wholes greater than the sums of their parts – we will better understand their legitimate needs and become aware of what blessings we have reserved just for them.
This is why the Talmud teaches ein lo l’dayan ela mah she’eynav ro’ot, that a rabbinic judge only has what his or her eyes see. A rabbi, in Jewish law, is not allowed to determine the halakhah, the law, by thinking about an issue theoretically or abstractly. Rather, a rabbi must train himself to see the real lives in front of him – in their totality, in their need – and rule with awareness of and sensitivity to those lives.
Too often, though, rabbis become preoccupied with systemic rules and a cold calculation of facts. Rabbis sometimes forget about the people whose religious lives depend upon the decisions they make. This is why Oliver Wendell Holmes, a former Supreme Court justice, warned that we see judgment as more than arithmetic. People are not collections of phenomena. And when rabbis only focus on certain details, we can become blinded to the whole. That was Isaac’s blindness.
Last week, the Law Committee almost fell victim to this blindness. But, thankfully, the deaf community’s cries opened the Law Committee’s eyes. As they wept, the Law Committee remembered that, indeed, they had a storehouse of God and Torah just waiting to be given to those who sought it.
But it is not only rabbis who can be vulnerable to this kind of blindness. All of us can. My guess is many of us have been guilty of this at some point. Many of us define whole people by the individual parts of them we focus on: She’s a deaf person. He’s autistic. She’s black. He’s homeless. She’s an immigrant. There is no shortage of examples here. And often, when we do this, we offer it as an excuse for withholding our blessings from people, from denying people access, opportunity, equality, and the full dignity due them by being manifestations of the Divine Image.
The story was once told of six blind men who were brought into a room with an elephant, though nobody told them what it was. They were told: touch the object that is in the room with you and determine what it is. The blind men began to touch the elephant’s body. The one who touched the elephant’s leg said, It’s a pillar.’ The one who touched its ears said, ‘It’s a winnowing basket.’ The one who touched its trunk said, “It’s a water spout.” And so on: Each blind man thought that the part they were touching was an object to itself; none could imagine the whole majestic creature that was actually in front of them.
Many of us are have moments in which we are just like the blind men with the elephant. We treat wholes as parts, and, in doing so, dismiss people.
Let us strive to keep our eyes open, to see people as they truly are, in their full humanity. And if we can do this, we can discover the blessings we have saved just for them.