February 7, 2008
The journey to inclusion
Seeing differences in our children poses cultural challenge
(Page 3 - Previous Page)It turns out that the children who wear the badge of typicality, who seem to fulfill everyone's expectations, may have their own secret -- not failings but differences. The matmid who lives in the corner building might have dyslexia, the queen of the class might have a learning disability.
That such revelations come hesitatingly may be a function of a general cultural denial of difference that has made inroads into our own communities. Yet if we are fearful of revealing our imperfections or are reluctant to acknowledge the differences of others, it is not out of fidelity to the demands of Torah. Quite the contrary, there is a way of seeing that is part of our inheritance of our forefather, Yaakov.
Unlike his brother, Esav, who hurries off to Mount Seir to receive his full reward in his experience of the perfection of this world, Yaakov leads on softly -- accommodating the pace and needs of his nursing cattle and tender children (Bereishit 33:13). Yaakov slows down to tend to the needs of others, acknowledging, unlike Esav, imperfection as part of the nature of this world.
We are mistaken to believe that children with Down syndrome or other disabilities are the only ones who are "tender." Viewing my children -- not just Shmuel but his brothers and sisters as well -- through the unthinking application of fixed categories risks missing the distinctive manifestation of tzelem Elokim that each of them -- not just the diagnostically special -- represents.
This is not to deny that there is a continuum of exceptionality, but Shmuel, like almost all children, confounds categories. Indeed, the most typical of children, if we look closely, will show themselves to be atypical.
Calibrating our perceptual mechanisms to see the tender among us is not, however, a one-time affair. Recently, after a shiur I gave, a distraught father of a newly born special child asked me: "How are you so at peace with your Shmuel?"
In explaining my transformation, I may have mentioned the stories of Avital or Elisheva, or perhaps the image of Shmuel caressing his own younger brother in the hospital on the day of his birth, or perhaps the memory of Shmuel answering his first berachah with "Amen."
The very next Shabbat, however, walking through our neighborhood, my wife and I passed by a couple wheeling a large carriage to which was attached a respirator, on which the father made painstaking adjustments.
I turned to my wife and uttered, "How sad ...."
Her response was immediate, the rebuke barely camouflaged: "But don't you see how much he loves his child?"
To the question, "But don't you see?" very often the answer is: "No."
Rabbi Elazar was chastened for a perceptual complacency born out of pride. In the face of the new father who had asked my advice, I had evidenced a similar self-contentment. To his question, I should have simply answered: There's no magical transformation, no singular turning point, no defining epiphany, but rather the ongoing challenge to be "soft like a reed" -- to be flexible in vision.
Seeing the atypicality of Shmuel thus remains both a process and challenge of acknowledging that difference is not just a theoretical ideal for the seminar room, nor just part of earnest discussions about epistemological pluralism or multiculturalism, or even a conception of limud confined to the walls of the beit midrash. But rather that difference has a face -- like that of the man encountered by Rabbi Elazar -- through which the image of the Divine Craftsman, if we would only learn how to look properly, can be seen.
William Kolbrener will speak at a private home in Los Angeles on Feb. 20, 7-9 p.m., sponsored by the Mitzvah Corps of University Synagogue and HaMercaz, a project of Jewish Family Service and The Jewish Federation. For information and to attend the event, contact Amanda at University Synagogue, (310) 472-1255 or Amanda@unisyn.org.
William Kolbrener, an associate professor in the Bar-Ilan University English department, is currently working on a book, "From Athens to Jerusalem: From Truth to Emet." This essay originally appeared in Jewish Action, Fall 2007.