Ki Tissa: Awareness Is Necessary, Not Sufficient
02/13/2014 - 14:21
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy

God’s initial revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, when He uttered the Ten Commandments, was accompanied by lightning, thunder and shofar blasts that inspired the soul. The inspiration lasted just forty days.

As described in this week's Torah portion, the Israelites, fearing that Moses had perished on Mount Sinai, turned to a golden calf to sustain them.

When Moses finally returned, he persuaded God not to destroy the Israelites. Then, after intense supplication, he obtained God’s forgiveness.

As God accepted the Israelites’ repentance, he revealed Himself again, telling Moses,

"The Lord, the Lord, is a compassionate and Gracious Deity, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth. He awards kindness unto thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, willful sin and error, and cleansing."

God didn’t speak of his omnipotence, omniscience, or miraculous deeds. Rather, He drew attention to His forbearance, kindness and compassion, the attributes which ever since have enabled us to seek His Presence and forgiveness.

How should we who have disabilities "reveal ourselves" to the Jewish community?

Too often, the question never arises, because non-disabled individuals talk on our behalf without any input from us.

Many organizations now offer "disability awareness" sessions to schools, camps, synagogues and community agencies. These sessions tend to convey some unhelpful messages:

1. Is it not strange that often, non-disabled individuals speak to other non-disabled individuals about what it is like to be disabled? The situation is comparable to male health professionals speaking to other men about a woman's experience of giving birth. At best, perhaps a few people with disabilities speak briefly at such presentations, unintentionally becoming a stereotype which the audience generalizes to all who are disabled. 

2. "Disability awareness" makes it seem that our central characteristic is our disability. Since 2006, Yad Hachazakah—The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (, has conveyed a more accurate message to individuals, families, community leaders, educators, clergy and the media: Each of us with a disability, like our non-disabled counterparts, possesses a unique combination of interests, strengths, limitations and aspirations.

3. "Awareness" may convey to the audience the idea that knowledge about disability and certain actions connected to "sensitivity" can solve our problems. The sessions leave audiences unenlightened about systemic transportation, architectural, communications and attitudinal barriers which prevent our full participation in Jewish life.

We who have disabilities must become much more involved in educating our communities about ourselves. Let's call our presentations "Jews with Disabilities Accommodations Workshops."

Our very involvement in organizing and conducting workshops clearly conveys that our attributes, not our disability, define who we are. From personal experience, we can enlighten our audiences regarding short-term and long-term approaches to removing barriers in the community.

Audiences will begin to realize that we are more similar to them than we are different. They can join us in the ongoing task of removing barriers.

Disability-driven inspiration, like the fanfare that accompanied the Ten Commandments, often is temporary and may not lead to positive changes. On the other hand, effective ongoing education can forge relationships and bring positive changes that last a lifetime.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah and disability-related topics.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons --boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at


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Thank you. As a parent of a Jewish young adult I see her barriers in our community to full engagement with her 20-something peers. She has been on a Birth Right Trip with special needs peers this past December; 7 summers at accommodating programs at Jewish camps far away from home; involved as a teen in our community- now what? Your words have given me more perspective, and a continues used hope that other parents advocates and I can give our children with many different abilities stronger skills to self-determine their Jewish involvement.

My observation is that a significant obstacle has been that people with physical disabilities may be treated as if they had mental disabilities. Some others seem to be uncomfortable as if such disabilities were contagious. It is important that we raise our children with the concept that a disability is neither good nor bad, but rather, an inconvenience that needs to be accommodated. As you pointed out in earlier columns, many of us will be facing some kind of disability as we age.