Transcript: In conversation with Lauren Tuchman on Tikkun Magazine’s Disability Justice & Spirituality Issue

To listen to the conversation, go to the November edition of radio613 by clicking here

Avi of the radio613 collective: First of all, welcome to radio613 Lauren.

Lauren Tuchman: Thank you so much for having me.

Avi: Great. And so, maybe we will start with what your reaction was to seeing the release of this Tikkun magazine fall issue entitled Disability Justice & Spirituality. Yeah, what was your first reaction to seeing that?

Lauren: I was absolutely thrilled. I am a second year Rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and I’m completely blind. So these are issues that I’ve lived with for an incredibly long time and [inaudible] and I do a lot of writing and thinking about disability, spirituality, and religious community and how to really centre the experience and the Torah that Jews with disabilities can bring to the collective discussion. So when I saw this magazine, it was, I really felt a lot of jubilitation, because its not every day that you see things like this.  And, it’s certainly not every day that you see a discussion that goes beyond physical access. Because physical access is really part one. Physical access is, Can I get into buildings? Do I have a prayer book that I can read? But that’s only part one. Part two is, how do we change the culture from the inside out? What do we do with troubling texts? What do we do with troubling metaphors? And these are really important issues for clergy to really be grappling with. Because I think, too often, when we sit down to write a divrei Torah or to give a sermon of some variety, we might throw in a metaphor that we casually use in everyday speech and we don’t really think about the implications. And it was really, really wonderful and refreshing to read several perspectives of people saying, no actually you need to look at these metaphors and see, okay, how are they sending a message of your community not being as welcoming of a community as you might want it to be. And I think it’s important for us to do that work to look at ourselves and to look at the speech that we use and the work that write and the discourse that we engage in and try to make it as inclusive as we can.

Avi: Definitely some of those articles, like you mentioned, kind of go right to the heart of some of those questions about oppressive metaphors. Metaphors that re-enforce disableism, for example. The article “Holy Access” by Darla Schumm speaks to what you were just saying. Maybe you could share some of your thoughts on how to engage with, like, some of the oppressive metaphors that are very normative and just, texts that can be, like, an impediment to true accessibility.

Lauren: Absolutely. So, this is a very pertinent time of year for this discussion because next week’s parsha has a story that I personally find incredibly difficult. It’s the story of Yacov giving the birthright, and the means by which he does so. And our tradition, pretty much, takes Esau as being, sort of captured, as really a negative character. The rabbis  have all kinds of midrash about why it is that Yacov is, of course, the right recipient of the birthright. But we don’t ever look at the means by which he gains the birthright, and I think that’s a really important conversation to engage in.

Avi: Hmm.

Lauren: And so, were I to look at the article “Holy Access” in light of this text and I’ll give a brief summary for your listeners. Yacov and Rivkah, or Rebekah, basically, have a strategy devised, I guess for lack of a better word to disguise Yacov as Esau and to trick Isaac – who, at that point, is pretty much completely blind, at least that’s the reading that I get from the text – to think that Yacov is Esau and that, therefore, Yitzhak will gave Yacov the bracha meant for Esau. And so, there’s a scheme devised. He dresses up in Esau’s clothing, and brings the game that Itzhak wanted Esau to bring him and, there’s a whole ruse devised. And, so, through that, I look at that text, and I think to myself, ok, first of all, this is an experience that blind people, often wonder, there’s always a fear in the back of your mind – am I being given all the information? Are people pulling things over me? People have had experiences like this in various ways that I read in this text and I also see Yitzhak really wrestling with, I don’t think this is a the child that I think it is. And, he’s claiming to be Esau, but I’m getting all of these hints that he’s really Yacov, but I’m going to go with it because he’s claiming to be Esau and because I can’t see him, I really can only trust what he’s telling me and he seems to be wearing the clothing that Esau would wear and he has the game, and I know that Jacob isn’t really into that kind of a thing. So,  ya know, I’m gonna go with this. And, at the risk of retrodressing twenty-first century thought onto Yitzhakh’s thoughts, because we don’t know the back-story, and I can only imagine that, after the akedah, Yitzhak is not the same as he was before, shall we say. So, I look at this text and I think to myself – how can I approach this as somebody who can relate to this in a way that, perhaps, others cannot or have not? With the disclaimer that my views are mine alone and do not represent anybody else. And think, ok, how can I give a drash, or how can I study this text in a way that’s reverential toward the Torah and towards our sacred tradition, while at the same time, bringing a highly critical lens to the interchange here? And, so, when I’m looking at an article like “Holy Access” I think that is a very good paradigm that we can use when we’re dealing with difficult texts or when we are dealing with difficult metaphors and things that we can do as conscientious religious and spiritual leaders to say, “I have this text here, this a sacred part of our story, and this text can be harmful or hurtful to people in my congregation or my community, what can I do to be reverential of our tradition, while at the same time saying, this is not an easy text and really, honestly, grappling with the text?” My personal view is that, it’s much better to know the difficult texts very, very well, to be able to wrestle with them, to be able to contend with them, than to pretend that they don’t exist. I think that it’s considerably more intellectually honest and more integral to the tradition to say, “These are texts that we have, these are texts that we grapple with, and these are texts that we wrestle with, but ultimately Torah has much to teach us, and through bringing our own Torah to the table as we engage with the thousands of years of tradition that we have, we can somehow come to find a way to relate to this text.” And, the way that I may relate to Parshat Toldot this year may be completely different to how I relate to Parshat Toldot next year and the year after. And, I think that’s really important to have a religious community in which those sensibilities of marginal people can be really centered and in which that Torah which has often been relegated can be brought to bear when we encounter a difficult text. And it is very difficult, I understand that there may be a lot of resistance, we have a lot of tradition, you know, that has Yacov portrayed in a particular way, and, I don’t feel for myself when I think of our ancestors. If I, I don’t believe that my wrestling with an action they have taken in any way detracts from my reverence of tradition; in fact, I think it enhances it because I am then in relationship to that tradition in a really authentic way and I believe that that’s what we, fundamentally, are called to do as Jews, is that we are called to wrestle deeply with text.

A: As far as the reverence that you speak of, but through a critical lens, I think that Darla Schumm kind of puts it as “engaging sacred texts and stories with suspicion, asking where and how they function as tools of oppression and exclusion while simeoultaneously mining those same texts for messages and models of iiberation”. So I do think that relates a lot to the process that you’re speaking of and it’s something that I feel strongly about, as far as, like, the prophetic tradition within Judaism pervading throughout, and that it doesn’t go away when there are oppressive aspects of our sacred texts. But then I have to admit, you know, there’s also points of, kind of, wondering to myself, well, is that a cop-out? Or, is that a fair kind of approach? So, I dunno, I wonder if you could go a little deeper into how you kinda grapple with that?

L: Yeah, so, I have thought an incredible amount about this, very intentionally. Umm, because, sometimes when you see texts that have such oppressive metaphors in them or are sending really difficult or problematic messages it is really hard to keep top of mind the fact that we as Jews have a prophetic tradition. And, I really like the quote that you shared, I think that it is absolutely true – that’s basically the hermeneutic that I use when I look at our tradition. Because I do think that there are important ways in which texts have been, and continue to be, used as metaphors and weapons of exclusion – not only for people with disabilities, but for many marginal groups. And that’s why, thank G!d, there are a variety of new, hermeneutical ways in which we talk about texts and we talk about theological belief around these texts. I’d like to see that happen more in that Jewish community than we’re doing now. Umm, I think that there are a lot of very critical readings that we can bring to texts. And I don’t think that those critical readings detract, I think they actually enhance. So, I think that it’s a very deeply personal process, and I think that everyone’s process is different and I think that everyone’s process is dynamic.  And I am right now trying to reclaim my reverence in a different way in light of my critical lenses that I’m applying, simultaneously trying to maintain that reverent spirit, however defined– and I’m still working on how to define that.  Because it’s really– and I’ve often been tempted to say, “Well these are really ancient texts, these are texts that are born out of a cultural context that is completely different from our own, so I can just dismiss them.” But I think that’s intellectually dishonest.  I also think it’s intellectually dishonest to do the opposite and say, “Well, Hazal, our sages, torah, whatever you want to say– they are infallible, they are always available to teach us, turn it turn it, you always find something in it.”  Absolutely that’s the case, and I certainly think there’s always– we mine the depth of torah all the time and we are always finding new insights.  But I think if we don’t apply our own sensibilities to text, we really are not able to connect with it in a really authentic way.  And I feel that grappling with stories such as Yaakov and Yitzhak and Rivka from my lived experience as somebody who is blind, that helps me then move forward and figure out what to do with this text that is part of our sacred tradition but I find incredibly painful.  But at the same time, I can’t just say “Alright, I’m gonna dismiss this because this is a terrible act.”  So it’s this constant– I can be angry, I can be outraged, I can wrestle, I can grapple with the text, but if I then turn around and walk out the door and say, “I’m not doing this anymore,” which is something that– you know, who doesn’t have days when they think to themselves, “Why am I doing this?  I should just turn around and walk out the door.” If I do that, I’ve lost.  I’ve given up and I can’t do the work that I want to do in the world.  And so I really feel it’s my sacred obligation to figure out what do we do with these texts.  Especially given the world in which we live, which we don’t really think in a nuanced way about texts anymore.  You’ve got the beautiful passages about inclusion that are brought out for certain– for disability awareness month– and then you’ve got people on the other side who are bringing out texts to support their own views. And there isn’t really an honest and heartfelt and deeply anguished wrestling with text.  

A:  Yeah.

L:  And I think that that’s a really important thing for spiritual leaders in formation to do, as a general rule, because I think that if we’re gonna have to develop our own relationship with these sacred stories, and I think that if I’m going to be the best pastoral presence for the people that I’m gonna come in contact with, I need to take care of my own stuff, so I can sit down in a genuine relationship with somebody else and say, “How can we work through this difficult thing together?”  And I think that’s a really important thing to do.

A:  Yeah absolutely.  And first of all, I just want to say that I appreciate that you are doing that work and it is heartening, as a disabled Jew who doesn’t put aside as much time as I’d like into this process, but it’s heartening at the same time just to know that folks like yourself are doing that and that there’s gonna be more tradition to build upon.  One reflection I also thought was I think that sometimes in contemporary places around Jewish torah interpretations, there is this idea of how to reconcile the ancient culture in torah with the modern world that, with the built in assumption that the modern world is where it’s at, you know?  Maybe not perfect but…

L: Right.

A: This is very much my kind of issues that I have when I studied at Hadar, for example, that there’s a lot of “How do we reconcile this tradition, this halakhic tradition, this torah tradition, with our modern values?” But our modern values with regard to people who don’t have normative minds and bodies are abhorrent and completely against, in my view, our tradition of respecting the holiness of each person and, we live in– our modern society is one that has created barriers to marginalize certain minds and bodies and create this rigid idea of normal.  This is not to say that, you know, we should romanticize the past, but I also feel like there’s an acceptance of the status quo that I’m not exactly comfortable with either.  I don’t know if that makes any sense to you.

L:  I absolutely resonate with that.  I think that it’s a trap that a lot of progressives tend to fall into, is assuming the work’s been done.  We passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Unites States and similar legislation in other countries.  We’ve done the work to try to make our buildings accessible, we’ve tried to introduce more inclusion language.  But the work hasn’t been done.  And we need to really look at our society as a whole– not that a lot of disability activists are doing.  When we talk about disability justice and we talk about disability justice from a religious perspective, which is really what I’m interested in– really we’re talking about looking at every human being as truly being created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of God.  And looking at disability as a natural part of the human condition.  That disability is diversity.  Disability is not a thing that has happened to you and needs to be fixed necessarily.  Disability is something that is dynamic and changing and different people relate to their disabled identity in whatever way works for them.  I certainly relate to mine very differently today than I used to, and I’m sure in the next couple of years from now I’ll relate to it very differently then.  I think that it’s really important for us to be honest about our modern society.  This is not to say that the progress that we have made is not phenomenal progress.  I mean, I am grateful to be living today as opposed to in another era.  I am grateful for the opportunities that I have, I am grateful for the access that I have.  There is a lot of work that needs to be done.  There are a lot of challenges that I have, but I am certainly incredibly privileged, incredibly blessed– to be the first blind woman that I am aware to be in rabbinical school ever.  I claim that tentatively because I don’t know of anyone, though if there are others I would be more than thrilled to know.  So our society has opened up so many doors for people with disabilities.  But it also has really reified a lot of really difficult normative ideas of what is a normal body, what is a normal mind, what does time look like, what does a life look like– all of these things that people with disabilities who may go through the world in a different way or a way that’s different from the normative mainstream are writing and thinking about in really deep ways and saying “How can we apply a lens of disability justice in a way that actually makes the world better for all of us?”  I truly believe that when we talk about issues of disability justice– as an example, and there are many examples of this in a variety of different marginalized perspectives– when we bring these ideas to the table, we are helping everyone.  We are all, in many ways, constrained by the messages that society gives us about the perfect body, the perfect mind, the perfect life, the certain ways in which we demonstrate the ways in which we demonstrate our success in the world by reaching certain milestones.  And when disability activists say, “What do these things say about our larger culture?” we’re really saying, “How can we make the world more liberating for everybody?”  Not just for people with disabilities but also for our allies, for our families, for our friends, for anyone.  And that’s really the hermeneutic that I’m trying to bring.  It’s not about only bringing disability torah to the table, because I really do believe very strongly that there is no such thing as The Disability Torah, because we are all different, we all have our own experiences, we’re not going to have the same experience as another person.  And so, as I speak about these issues from my perspective as a rabbinical student, I am aware that I speak for myself and only myself.  I do not claim to speak for anyone else.  And I think that being aware of the diversity within marginalized identities is as important as it is to bring the marginalized identity to the table.  I feel the same way about feminists’ spot in this way, as well.  I’m thrilled that there are feminist torah commentaries in the world, but I’m also very aware that there are multiple voices in the feminist conversation and we have a more robust feminist discourse around religion when we bring all those things to the table.

A:  Yeah.  Absolutely.  I think that that work of disability justice that you’re talking about, that in and of itself is very Jewish work.  Because it’s not about changing what kind of minds or bodies we have, but changing the world that we live in.  Which is very much part of the work of repair that we have to do. You mentioned a lot of those issues of intersectionality and making these connections for justice. I appreciated the description in Tikkun Magazine that says “Disability justice demands that human lives be valued, not for their ability to create profit but for the divine spark within each of us.  Meeting this demand, in practice, requires nothing less than what Tikkun has been calling for– a radical turn toward a society based on love and care rather than on profit and domination.”  So anyway, I liked that connection and I think that also leads into the second article we wanted to discuss by Rabbi Julia Watts Belser called “God on Wheels:  Disability in Jewish Feminist Theology.”  Rabbi Watts Belser is pushing a lot like what you’re talking about in terms of what disability culture, as she refers to it, can bring to the world broadly and the change we’re seeking. I was interested in your reactions to the thoughts that she was putting out there.

L:  Yeah. So her piece was phenomenal.  I think there are a lot of different angles that we can take when we talk about the things that Jewish disability culture, or disability culture more generally– outside of Judaism, can bring to the wider conversation.  And I think there are several things that disability culture as it’s defined in activist literature can bring to that.  I think a lot of it has to do with how we redefine the notion of a good life and a life well-lived.  I think also bringing a disability reading to text and to our conception of the Divine is really important. Because I think that these are really important things for people to grapple with.  I think that for a lot of people with disabilities, religion is very important– as it is for a lot of people without disabilities– and we’re as diverse in our religious beliefs as any other group of people on the planet.  And so I used to hold that disability theology was kind of like, “Yeah, this is nice, alright, but I’m not so into it, I’m more into feminist theology, I’m more into learning torah through these other lenses.”  But my view has really shifted.  Because I think the way we talk about God and the way we talk about text is really a reflection of how we think about ourselves.  And I think that as I have thought more about how disability really does affect every aspect of my life, I have thought about, “How do I relate to a Divine in the body that I inhabit, in the world that I inhabit, with my own life experiences?”  And the notion that God has wheels is pretty amazing!  In the sense that, what does that mean?  If God goes through the world on wheels or if God goes through the world with a cane, or if God goes through the world with any kind of a disability what does that say?  I’m not necessarily in favor of making a claim about God having certain attributes. I believe those things are important for us as people to better relate to God, I haven’t really, I’m still kind of like in process when it comes to how I think about God, but I really think that the idea of God going through the world and having an access problem is really phenomenal.  It blows open a lot of things.  And it really makes us look at our own communities.   There’s this notion in parshat terumah about the Israelites build a sanctuary that God may dwell amongst us, right?  And if we relate to God as having a hard time dwelling amongst us for whatever reason, what does that charge us with? We have some beautiful teachings in our tradition about how we are to relate to the stranger, how we relate to the other.  What does it mean for God to dwell amongst us, what does it mean to have those connections with the Divine and with other human beings who are created in the image of God?  And when we aren’t inclusive of all who are trying to seek a spiritual home in our communities, does that exile God in some way?  I think that’s a really powerful idea to think about.  I think it’s really powerful to look at the text of Ezekiel’s vision, which is really really complicated, especially when you read it at 5 in the morning on shavuos morning it’s even more complicated, right?!  But when you look at it from that perspective, it really challenges us to look at ourselves and our communities and say, “Is God having an access problem?” I’m really just blown away by it, I’m still processing it, and I certainly haven’t come to any definitive conclusions, but I’m still very much processing it.

A:  Yeah, I really like– I think you’ve brought out a lot more from the article for me, hearing you talk about it.  I think it can also be powerful, this image of God bound to a wheelchair basically.  This is the picture from Ezekiel’s vision.  It kinda goes to this idea of people who experience disability challenging the capitalist, individualistic idea that the normal person is independent and does not rely on others, while disabled people do.  Which of course is not true, everyone is relying on people in different ways.  And this article brings out the importance of the experience of asking for help, building community, doing that in a just way is so valuable for everyone.  And how can we be in relationship with God?  With the idea that God is seeking us out– what are the sort of barriers that God is facing?  I feel like the world that we live in, which needs to be healed, including healed of the structures that marginalize and oppress– how are those keeping God from us as well?  Or how are those even oppressing…

L:  Yeah, I think that thinking of God as seeking us out and having a hard time seeking us out– I think that’s a really powerful image.  It challenges us to look inwardly and outwardly at who we are as people, as individuals, as communities, as societies, as the world in general.  I also think it’s really important to think about the ways in which when we alienate people from our communities, that can not be– that can often translate into them feeling alienated from spirituality, from God, from something larger than themselves.  And unfortunately that’s a common experience.  It’s a common experience across a lot of different groups of people, not just people with disabilities.  Something that a lot of people experience.  I think that if we’re all being honest with ourselves, those of us who are spiritual seekers are engaged in– you know, common religious leaders, our religious leaders are trying to do this work– who hasn’t had a difficult taxing spiritual journey?  That’s something that we’ve all been through and I think those can teach us a lot about who we are.  I also think that it’s really important that when we look at these articles together, they’re teaching us not only to think about God and to think about text and to think about tradition and the sacred differently, they’re also looking at us and saying, “If I believe, which I do, that human beings are partners with God in the work of creation and the daily renewal of the work of creation, in what ways are we doing that and in what ways might we do it better?”  I think in a world in which community is really elusive, one of the things that we Jews have, that we can really bring to the human family, is this notion of being in community.  And when that community is not inclusive of all of its members, or when you have people who have a disability that might result in them feeling isolated from community– what ways can we as a collective, bring that person in?  Even if that person can’t physically be at services for whatever reason, what can we do?  What kind of things can we as communities do to send that message that, “Hey, we are here for you, you are a valued member of our community, you are as created in the image of God as anyone else in this community.”  That’s one of the most beautiful teachings in our tradition, and I think that when we see this image of God as being on wheels, that’s pretty powerful!  It’s really bringing that to the fore in a really really visceral way.  If everybody is created in the image of God, whether your body is normative or not, it doesn’t make a difference because we are all children of God.  That’s just the bottom line for me.

A:  Absolutely.  I just wanted to ask if you have, before we wrap up, any other… anything else you wanted to add?

L:  I really urge anyone who’s interested in these issues to read this.  Really phenomenal pieces.  And I’m incredibly grateful to Tikkun for having this issue.  I had no idea until I saw it myself recently, and it’s just a real breath of fresh air because often these experiences and these perspectives are not part of the mainstream discourse.  A large part of what I hope and pray to do with my own rabbinate, to bring these voices to bear, to really center disability torah in a way that disability torah hasn’t really been centered.  Because so much of the activist, which I am incredibly grateful for the amazing work that has been done already, has been focused on physical access, on attitudinal adjustment.  And those are really important.  But once we get people with disabilities in the door, how can we bring the rich array and tapestry of talents and gifts that people with disabilities can bring to bear in our communities in holistic ways?  Without making sure… not to pigeonhole someone into being, “You are the blind rabbinical student.”  There is much more to being me than a blind rabbinical student, though that certainly factors a great deal into how see my rabbinate is going.  And just as I see myself as a multifaceted person with a variety of interests and a variety of things I care deeply and passionately about, so too do others.  And religious communities and communities of all kinds are enriched when we bring the full personhood of all of our community members to bear.  And I would love to see a world in which there are more communities that are really intentional about allowing people to be who they are in that space in a really genuine and authentic way.  And I think that we’re seeing a movement towards that in a lot of the more grassroots Jewish communities.  And I think there’s going to be an effect on the larger community as well, and I pray that it happens speedily in our days.

A:  Amein v’amein.  I want to wish you ongoing strength and inspiration in the work you’re doing at rabbinical school and elsewhere.  And we look forward to speaking to you again.

L:  Absolutely.  Thank you again so much for the opportunity.  It was a pleasure speaking with you.

A:  Take care.

L:  Thank you, you too.

One Response

  1. […] Click here to listen/download our November show Read the transcript of our interview with Lauren Tuchman […]

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