I spent the last morning of 2010 at a screening of the new Yogi Bear movie with some very special kids. My autistic nephew’s therapy group reserved the theater, and about 100 people came to enjoy the movie with other families who don’t mind occasional outbursts or other disruptions from their neighbors. While being introduced to my nephew’s many friends as the uncle who was a Portuguese fisherman on the TV show Family Guy, I couldn’t help but reflect on LDS and Jewish teachings on the mentally disabled and our obligations to them.
According to LDS theology, all men and women lived with our Heavenly Father and Mother before coming to earth to gain a physical body and to be tested to see whether we would be faithful to God and prove worthy to live with Him again for eternity. Some of our spiritual siblings were so obedient and valiant in the pre-earth life that they do not need to prove themselves in this one. That is, their salvation is assured; they only need to come to this earth to gain a physical body that will someday be resurrected. It is our belief that people with severe mental disabilities are members of this elite class of souls who will be fast-tracked to heaven.
Other members of this group include infants and children who die before reaching an age where they can be held accountable by God for their moral choices, which we believe is eight years old for normal children. We do not baptize children before they are eight years old, and we hold that children who die before reaching the age of moral accountability are automatically saved in heaven. In addition, we do not believe that Satan has the power to tempt little children before they are morally accountable (which as any parent knows does not necessarily mean that little kids are incapable of doing “wrong” things). For us, circumcision reinforces the moral accountability of children: our modern scriptures teach that Israelite parents were commanded to circumcise their sons at eight days as a reminder that children are not accountable for their moral choices until they are eight years old (JST Genesis 17:11).
I am not aware of any authoritative Jewish teaching that explains why some people are born with severe mental disabilities and/or assigns a role to them in the next life. However, both Mormons and Jews, along with decent people everywhere, believe that we have a special responsibility towards them. According to Conservative Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner, “Contemporary Judaism sees the disabled as those who have a challenge to overcome and we are bound as a community to be compassionate, understanding and to facilitate their needs. That is why you see many more synagogues with hearing aids of various types, ramps to the bimah, etc.” My nephew has already taught me a great deal about unconditional love and acceptance, and I can only hope to deal with life’s trials and challenges in a way that will allow me to be where he will be in the world to come. The way things stand right now, it’s obvious which one of us has the true disability.
Best wishes for a successful and spiritual 2011 to all of my readers.
I will be speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, January 12 at 7:00 p.m. I will also be speaking with Rabbi Alan Cohen at the Lenexa Stake Center in Lenexa, KS on Sunday, January 16 at 7:00 p.m.