Tag Archives | Judaism

Rabbi Boteach and Children With Disabilities…Revisited

So, my friend Geoff (name changed) and I have been having a Facebook debate on the Rabbi Boteach blog on why God allows children to be born with disabilities. Here’s the blog in question:


Geoff and I often debate American politics. You’d expect that it would come to blows more often than it does, him being a staunch Conservative and me being a bleeding heart Liberal. However, we find that often our beliefs match, more or less, on the basics of many things.  How we’ve arrived at those beliefs is often a different story.Rabbi Boteach

We debated the Rabbi Boteach blog the way we do American politics – calmly and respectfully (well, we debate that way most of the time, anyway). And, as usual, I think each of us made the other do some thinking.

Debating Rabbi Boteach

Geoff said that he couldn’t understand why I had problem with doctors working to cure disabilities. I don’t. I’m not against researchers working to find cures for conditions that cause disabilities or interventions that improve quality of life.  I do have a problem with the blanket assumption in the Rabbi Boteach blog that disability = suffering, and therefore must be eliminated. Certainly some forms of disability are very painful and very isolating and cause a great deal of suffering…but I’m not suffering. My friend Martyn, who has spinal muscular atrophy, uses a wheelchair, and can’t lift much more than a 1-litre bottle is having the time of his life doing humanitarian work in Spain right now. There are plenty of people who have severe hearing impairments and reject the cochlear implant and any improvement it could offer, for various reasons.


“The idea that difference must always equal suffering and a yearning to be “normal” is ablist thinking,” I said to Geoff, which he appeared to understand. But he was concerned that I misunderstood the Rabbi’s desire that researchers find cures with a desire to *force* cures on people afflicted with disabilities.

I do think I came away from the Rabbi’s blog with that impression, but I really had to think about why. I think it was his use of the word “purge” when he was talking about Down’s Syndrome.  “Purge” is such an emotionally loaded word for me that that seeing it used in relation to Down’s Syndrome had really set me off, quite frankly. In my world, you purge to get rid of things that disgust you, that you don’t want near you, that you want no part in your life. I’ve never felt that way about Down’s Syndrome or anyone in my life who’s had it. I’d rather “purge” the attitudes that make my friends with Down’s Syndrome or any other disability feel excluded, unsafe, or just generally like second-class citizens in their own towns, states/provinces, and countries.

But Geoff always encourages me to read carefully and monitor whether my emotions are getting the better of me when I’m reading, lest I miss the whole story.  I went back and read the Rabbi Boteach blog again and saw Geoff’s point that Rabbi Boteach was answering the question about children and disabilities from several vantage point: theologian, counselor to parents who’d just found out that their child would be born with Down’s Syndrome, and as a refuter to the argument about children with disabilities being advanced souls in sinless bodies. He’d always came back to the idea that children with disabilities are precious and worthy of life, and he eventually hit the points on which he and I agreed: That children with disabilities are no more or less “divine” than any other children, and that we need to find ways to rally both natural and agency supports around children with disabilities and their families to give them as fulfilling a life as possible.

And for someone that believes those things and is willing to work for them…I can overlook the other stuff that didn’t sit quite right. I apologize to Rabbi Boteach for any of my knee-jerk reactions to his wording that might have caused me to misunderstand the rest of his message.

And thanks, Geoff, for helping me get on track again. :)

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Rabbi Boteach Talks About Children With Disabilities

I generally make it a policy to stay away from religion on this blog. But I’m going to make an exception today to address Rabbi Boteach’s recent blog on the “Huffington Post” website about Judaism’s position on why children are born with intellectual disabilities (or mental disabilities, as he says).


What I Can and Can’t Address about Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Argument

I’m not Jewish, nor do I have an academic background in Judaism. I took Introduction to Judaism in university. It was very interesting. I enjoyed it. However, I’m in no way qualified to argue the theology behind Rabbi Boteach’s argument, nor would I want to. He’s entitled to believe what he wants.

However, I was disturbed by some of the real-world implications of his theological views. This isn’t a new experience for me. Many religions have theological views that, in practice, leave me disturbed. I figure that I can talk about that.

What I Like About Rabbi Boteach

Rabbi Boteach is responding, with his blog, to another Jewish scholar’s argument that children with intellectual disabilities are highly evolved souls. God has made it impossible to sin by putting them in them in their disabled bodies, making them innocent and worthy of our reverence. Rabbi Boteach sees this attitude as “justifying” the “suffering” of the Rabbi Boteachultimate in innocent children, and therefore wrong. Since Judaism works to eliminate suffering, he argues, it’s wrong to pretend that children with disabilities have a “lofty or divine purpose.”

I agree. Children with disabilities face different challenges and may different ways of expressing their gifts than children without disabilities, but there’s nothing about them that makes them any “better” or “worse” than any other child.
Rabbi Boteach and I also agree that a comprehensive system of supports, both natural and agency-based, is vital if people with disabilities are to lead fulfilling lives. Good on him. However…

Rabbi Boteach and I Disagree…

Rabbi Boteach can’t seem to get away from this idea that people with intellectual disabilities are innocent children that will never grow up. I think that this stereotype is particularly damaging for people with intellectual disabilities. They *do* become adults, and we don’t do them any favours when we treat them like they’re children whose innocence makes them unable to handle learning about how the world works. In fact, that can make them much more vulnerable to all kinds of abuse.

There’s also an uncomfortable (for me, at least) slant towards “If it looks different, we should “cure” it” that runs through the whole article. Yes, Down’s Syndrome has its own set of challenges for a child and for the family supporting the child. But many, many people with Down’s Syndrome grow up to live happy, healthy lives – as do people with various disorders on the autism spectrum, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, etcetera. The problem isn’t that these people need a “cure”. It’s assumptions like, “They *must* be suffering, so they must *want* a cure!” that bother me, assumptions about what the people with the conditions feel, and about what the families that support them feel. And the message through the article of children with disabilities having “life more infinitely precious than any explanation” is difficult to reconcile with “But we’d change a huge part of them if we could.”

I don’t doubt Rabbi Boteach’s good intentions with his article. I think that he actually probably treats people with disabilities and their families with a great deal of respect and compassion. I just had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around this bit of writing. If it’s clearer to someone else, and you think that I’ve misinterpreted, please leave me a comment.

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