History in Review
Disability in Jewish Law
By Tzvi C. Marx. Volume 3 - Jewish Law in Context. (London & New York, Routledge: 2002. Pg. 260.)
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - December 10, 2002
Tzvi C. Marx's treatise, Disability in Jewish Law offers readers a much needed overview, in English, of the legalistic aspects of Jewish law concerning the disabled, and the obligation of the disabled to uphold these laws. Marx's work is based upon traditional Talmudic and Halakhic sources. In this work, Marx does not engage in the task of looking at the status of contemporary concerns or mores in regard to how these traditional laws are currently upheld. Marx's takes a scholarly look at the often contradictory issues that can surround the interpretation of Jewish laws, and he presents an unbiased, clear, and authoritative survey of the topic in question.
Once such contradictory issue that Marx's discusses in great detail is the obligations and legal obligations of the blind, including procreation. The following passage will give you a taste of the monumental task he has undertaken in this work...
"The Talmud records a disagreement between the Tannaites R. Judah and R. Meir on the degree to which one who is blind is obligated to observe the precepts. The controversy has generated much debate over the centuries, and has not been resolved even today. R. Meir maintains that the blind are categorically obligated to observe all the precepts, save those that are specifically vision-related, from which they are exempt. R. Judah, on the other hand, exempts the blind from all observance." (Pgs. 96-97.) Marx then goes on to look at this disagreement in minute detail.
This book not only deals with the laws regarding how a Jew is suppose to deal with disabled members in the community, but also the obligations and rights that the disabled have under Jewish Law. These obligations and rights can differ, according to the disability in question, and Marx tackles each disability in detail. The disabilities treated in this book include the blindness, speech impediments, mental disability, and those who are deaf and mute. Individuals who are deaf, but can speak, are treated differently in Talmudic traditions than are those who are both deaf and mute. Another disability covered in this text, which might seem odd to some not familiar with Jewish traditions, is infertility, which is often seen as a disability.
Topics covered include a discourse of what obligations and mitzvahs the disabled are exempt from performing, and those which they are disqualified from performing due to their disability. As well as the laws regarding how the disabled should be treated, including steps to be taken to ensure that a disabled Jewish child is educated, and that the disabled are included in religious life and communal activities, such as religious services. For example, Most important, from a modern standpoint, Marx also looks at the role that assistive technological aids can play in allowing the disabled to participate more fully in some observances.
As many of these 'laws' have never been formally codified, Marx takes great pains to illustrate the various opinions that arose over these issues and shows how one opinion came to be accepted versus another. "...it appears that Jewish law does not take a single position on the question of the participation of the Disabled in religious rituals. Rather, inclusion or exclusion of the disabled is considered only when technical aspects fo the relevant precepts raise questions as to the plausibility of participation by the disabled. This is true with regard to both synagogue liturgical activity, and activities carried out in the home." (Pg. 187.)
This important work will be of interest not only to scholars of Jewish Law and history, but also to anyone interested in Jewish disability issues, both on a historical and a contemporary level. This book is detailed, but not pedantic. The prose is fluid, and Marx effortlessly interweaves his commentary with excerpts from Rabbinic and Halakhic sources. Besides providing detailed footnotes, Marx has also included an excellent bibliographic section that will greatly aid those who wish to pursue this topic in more detail.
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