Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Awareness Shabbat: Just Give Us a Chance
Sermon by Rabbi Robert N. Levine, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, New York City
Guthrie Nutter grew up in Oregon a
half hour from the California border. Born deaf he and his family worked to
maximize his considerable intellectual and social gifts. The young man who sat
in my office had both a compelling story and personal style. Guthries resume reflected
two business degrees, significant experience in the field, as well as stints on
Broadway and television. His evident conversational abilities, punctuated by
frequent humor, conveyed the unmistakable impression of a person comfortable in
his own skin.
Soon the conversation turned to his
plans to trek across California. Wow, I thought to myself, look at what this
deaf man has accomplished. How far he has come, how far we all have come in
dealing with people of special needs in this great country.
I was not prepared for the abrupt
shift in tone. Push backs, he blurted out. All we get is push backs. To go on this trek, he continued with
rising exacerbation, they told me I needed a sign language interpreter at a
cost of $7000.00. Guess whos supposed to pay for that? If you dont comply, at
the first sign of danger they will kick you out of the group. Clearly this is
far from the first time that Guthrie felt driven away with little regard for
the feelings of this incredibly talented, accomplished and sensitive man.
Deaf people always have had to deal
with people and institutions who are deaf to their feelings as well as their
aspirations. Sad to say Jewish tradition is no better in this regard.
shalt not curse the deaf nor shall you put an obstacle before the blind, but
you shall fear the Eternal One, I am your God. [Leviticus 19:14]. In laying
out standards for holiness the Torah admonishes us not to speak in an
obnoxiously vulgar way because we believe the victim will not be able to know
or discern. A person might do this, suggest the famed commentator Rambam [Lev.
19:14] because one might be inclined to curse the deaf and put a stumbling
block before the blind since he does not
fear them because they know not neither do they understand.[ See Psalms
82:5] What an inexcusable insult to the deaf or blind person!
Trust me: even if in a particular
instance they cannot make out the specific words, deaf people will know by
facial expression and body language that they are being cursed out. Deaf people
I know have extraordinary sensory antennae.
Similarly in need of reorientation
is the Talmuds teaching that, All are
required to read the Megillah except the deaf person, a mentally deficient
person and a minor. The assumption is that since they cannot hear what
they are chanting they cannot represent the community. Why? The Talmud continues, R. Eleazar ben Azariah:
one who recites the Shma must do so
audibly as it says, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One, which implies
let thine ear hear what thy mouth utters. Rabbi Meir adds, According to the concentration of the mind,
so is the value of the words.
The Talmud here links the lack of
hearing with lack of comprehension.
Clearly these texts were written
long ago with little awareness of the Deaf Communitys incredible mental and
emotional capacities. But these texts are out there. Sadly they are presented
as Judaisms position concerning the status of deaf people in our midst and
become part of the misperceptions members of the Deaf Community confront every
Im not advocating ignoring these
writings, but in true Jewish fashion it is time to reinterpret them. Why dont
we read the text this way?
shall not curse the deaf with a self-congratulatory mindset that our society is
so much more sensitive and helpful than ever before.
shall not curse the deaf with push backs that seem to happen with aching
shall not curse the deaf with a lack of basic information on hearing loss.
shall not curse the deaf by lumping together all members of the Deaf Community.
Thanks to my friend and congregant,
Dr. Nancy Crown, a psychologist who has worked with deaf people, here are some
facts that will prove useful for those who truly want to know what deaf people
The population of people with hearing loss is
very diverse. In addition to the expected variations in ethnicity, gender,
socio-economic status, sexual orientation,educational level etc., major
differences result from such factors as the age at onset of hearing loss, the
degree of hearing loss, how good communication is between family members,
whether the person comes from a deaf or a hearing family, and what type of
school they attend.
The Deaf Community is a minority with a distinct
culture and language. There is a rejection of the idea of impairment or
Over ninety percent of children who are deaf are
born to hearing parents and for a variety of reasons most of those parents
never learn to communicate adequately in Sign Language. Therefore the child is
very isolated within the family and the most important vehicle for learning
about the world is severely compromised at best.The technology for assistive devices like
hearing aids and cochlear implants has improved vastly but depending on many
factors including degree of deafness, which frequencies are affected, etc. not
everyone is a good candidate for these devices. Deaf people often say that
hearing aids only amplify what they can hear and do nothing for the frequencies
where the hearing loss is. As computer technology has become part of our
everyday lives this has enabled people who are deaf to be better connected to the
world around them.
Since communication is a real barrier, those of
us who are hearing typically have no idea how challenging or impossible many
simple things that we take for granted are for deaf people, such as: getting a
job, finding a doctor or lawyer they can communicate with, communicating with a
childs teacher if you are a deaf parent of a hearing child, going through
security in the airport and not hearing the Homeland Security officer ask you
to step aside for further screening, communication in stores, on the street,
and pretty much everywhere.
The Deaf Community is reacting to a history of
oppression and misunderstanding by the hearing majority much like other
minority groups. Becoming aware of and attuned to Deaf Culture is critical for
people wanting to be trusted, accepted and respected by this community. There
is a lot of hurt and anger over past mistreatment. Many deaf people are assumed
to be unintelligent and/or incapable of things that hearing people can do.
Guthrie is a real
case in point. I have two business degrees and a lot of experience and I still
cant get a job, Guthrie exclaimed in a tone of resignation. I also have a
strong Broadway background, I cant get a job. Even roles calling for deaf
characters go to hearing actors. Guthrie who speaks beautifully, signs
perfectly and reads lips magnificently is not even hired as a sign language instructor.
Those jobs, he states, go to other hearing candidates that may not be as
qualified for the same tasks.
and mates is also a particular challenge. Often we are curiosities, Guthrie
explained, people want to get to know us because theyre intrigued. But then
they move on. More doors slammed in our face.
Those who live
with and love deaf people have come to realize that their senses can be
enhanced and their lives enriched immeasurably through these relationships.
When Olympic gold
medalist Vonetta Flowers received the Childrens Hearing Institutes Hearing Hear-O-Award, she said the
Tonight I stand before you as
a parent of a child who has a hearing loss I accept the Hearing Hear-O-Award on behalf of all
the people who have been touched by your
medical advancements and technology, your financial contributions
and the life changing devices that enable our kids to hear. Just a few
years ago I knew nothing about the Deaf Community. I thought I had the
perfect life. My teammate and I won the gold at the 2002 Winter
Olympics, my husband and I were pregnant with twins, and all we needed was a
dog, a white picket fence and we would have our chance of living the
We never imagined
that at thirty weeks I would deliver twin boys, who weighed 2 lbs. 9 oz. and 3 lbs.8
ozs. that they would have to spend six to seven weeks in hospitals NICU that
one of our sons would be born with a profound hearing loss, that we would have
to learn sign language in order to communicate with him
with doctors in California, New York and Alabama, we were introduced to a new
procedure the ABI. Dr. Colletti, an Italian doctor, gave us hope the Auditory
Brain Stem Implant had been successfully implanted in adults in the U.S. but it
had not been approved by the FDA for kids under twelve. Finding this option
gave us a new enthusiasm and helped us to keep our dream alive of Jordan
hearing our voices and eventually learning how to speak.
Jordans life did
not turn out the way we planned it, and thats okay, because he has already
impacted more lives than we ever expected over the past few years he has taught
us how to be more thankful, hes helped us to be more appreciative of each gift
that God has given us and encourages us to fight for issues that affect our
community. No, our life isnt the way we planned it, but we couldnt imagine it
any other way
People who are deaf or their
families can hope and pray for such perspective precisely because of these
advances in medical knowledge and technology. But such scientific progress must
be accompanied by social progress, by the opening of more doors and reducing
push backs in every aspect of life by hearing people such as you and me.
We dont want pity, Guthrie said
with obvious emotion. We just want a chance, we want the power of real
Guthrie is going on the trek to
California and is not paying $7000.00 for a sign language interpreter. He is
hoping to prove them wrong and thus open doors for other deaf people who just
want the same chances that anyone else would expect. I am sure that Guthrie
would agree that instead of push backs it wouldnt hurt if deaf people would
get a push forward every once in a while. All theyre asking for is a chance.
May it be Gods will, but first may
it be our own.