By Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer
When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1972, there was one person who had more influence on me than any other human being. It wasn’t my wife. I wasn’t married yet. It wasn’t my mother. She was living in Canada. It wasn’t God. It wasn’t any rabbi. The person who had the most influence on my life was a Baptist preacher, and everyone in this room will recognize his name. I was in my 3rd year of Rabbinical school. I decided to cut my class on education—too early in the morning. I had a late night date. Anyway, I’m lying in bed in the dorm at Hebrew Union College, and I turn on the TV. And there’s the man who changed my life. The man who indirectly made my ministry possible—the Reverend Pat Robertson. And I’ll never forget his words. He said, “There are over 40,000 Jewish deaf people. There are no rabbis serving them. We can save them for Christ.” You may well ask, why were there no rabbis working with the Jewish deaf?
When I told my fellow students that this was my plan—they were outraged. “Goldhamer, don’t you know what the laws of Torah and Talmud say about the deaf?” The law was quite clear during the time of Jesus that the deaf person, or the heresh, or the person who could not hear or speak—was exempt from all the rules and laws governing Judaism. And why was he exempt?
He was exempt because he did not have bar-deah. He did not have mental competency to assume bat mitzvah or leadership in any temple. He did not have the mental competency to be part of a quorum of 10. He did not have the mental competency to read a service where there might be hearing people in the service. The law was very clear, that a deaf person did not have the right to lead someone who hears to fulfill the mitzvah obligation. Every member of my graduation class, with the exception of the first woman to graduate as a Reform Rabbi—Sally Priesand, was not happy with my choice to become a minister of the deaf.
Over thousands of years, people who are deaf and grew up even in an observant Jewish home got lost because there was no special attention or focus for them and on them. It’s as if the deaf Jewish community has a present, but not a past. As a result, many deaf Jews have a minimal identity as Jewish people, or even no identity as Jews.
So, how does a deaf person participate in public prayer? According to most Jewish Halachic rulings, deaf people can be part of a minyan if they can follow the prayers, and with mouth, say Amen. However, don’t appoint a deaf person to lead prayers.
What about the Shema, the most important prayer of the Jewish faith—it affirms the Oneness of God. “Hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord Is One.” Does a person have to hear the Shema to fulfill his obligation, or is understanding enough? At Bene Shalom, we sign this important prayer this way. We sign “Hear O Israel…” We don’t sign Hear, which is this—but we sign understand—because what is most important is understanding. On Purim the Jewish community gathers to read the Megillat Esther. But, according to Halacha, you have to hear the Megillah read to fulfill the obligation. But the Deaf do have an obligation to read it themselves. But, they can’t read it for others.
Several years ago I received an email from a woman whose son was fluent in American Sign Language—but he couldn’t speak. Her son was 14 years old. Because he doesn’t speak and only uses American Sign Language, the Rabbi refused to call him up to say a blessing at his cousin’s bar mitzvah.
In Skokie, at Congregation Bene Shalom, we understand that the deaf person has full parity with the hearing person. It doesn’t matter if your method of communication is sign language or oral language, we are all one before God. Every week, we interpret God’s word, using a language of God—American Sign Language, together with Hebrew and English. And we have a loop system that enables those with hearing aids to better hear the prayers being communicated to God. The synagogue was founded by myself and a group of 12 deaf families who were members of the Hebrew Association of the Deaf. Originally the congregation was all deaf—a combination of oral Deaf and Signing Deaf. But over the years, we have added many hearing members. But we still make sure that the temple is accessible to everyone–deaf and hearing. I and my assistant Rabbi are both fluent in American Sign Language. Our Sunday school has a deaf teacher, who uses her voice when she teaches the hearing children. It’s especially moving when a deaf girl or boy from our synagogue comes to the Torah and receives bar or bat mitzvah. It is inspiring to see a deaf girl interpret the words of Moses and Aaron in sign language; it is inspiring to see the Torah of Moses read by a deaf boy using his heart and soul and hands to communicate the word of God. And our hearing children also learn to sign their Torah portion out of respect for their deaf friends.
You know, one of the most moving experiences in my ministry was my study with a deaf man named Steve. We studied together when he was an adult, so he could achieve bar mitzvah—when he was 13, his parents’ Rabbi said it was impossible for him to have bar mitzvah because he used Sign language. He was also oral, and loved to speak the Hebrew prayers—but his childhood rabbi said he could not have bar mitzvah. So, when Steve was 30 something, we studied together and he not only learned the Hebrew of the Torah and the blessings, but he learned Israeli Sign Language, so he could sign the Hebrew –not just in English transliteration. He drew the Hebrew characters in the air, and spoke them, “Baruchu et Adonai…” Every word brought him and us closer to God. And years later, Steve became one of the first students at the Seminary that I founded, Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf.
Each one of these wondrous happenings of deaf people reading Torah, learning Hebrew, becoming president of our synagogue, achieving bar mitzvah, defies what the ancient rabbis said about the deaf. During Talmudic times, when our religions was being established, the ancient rabbis misunderstood deaf people and deaf culture. During rabbinic times, a little deaf girl was brought before Jesus and the mother of the little deaf girl asked Jesus to heal her daughter. “My poor daughter is deaf. She will never speak. She will never hear. She will never communicate with the world. My poor daughter is deaf.” And so Jesus puts his hands on the little girl’s ears, and the book of Matthew tells us that an ugly and awful sound escaped from the little girl’s ears. It was the sound of an evil spirit. The girl was healed. The wild demon left the girl. She was no longer deaf. She could hear; she could speak. “Praise the Lord.” This was the thinking at that time about deaf people.
During rabbinic times, the rabbis questioned, “Who is a deaf person?”
And they ruled that a deaf person is “Anyone who can’t hear, can’t speak and is mentally incompetent.” Indeed, the Rabbis at that time said that because deaf people were “lav bene daya neenwho,” they were exempt from all the commandments of the Torah. The deaf are not required to read Torah, put on tefilin, observe the holidays and even pray. Furthermore, a deaf person was not permitted to lead a hearing person in prayer.
Because of his physical impairment, the deaf person was considered mentally incompetent and unable to actively participate in the religious activities of the community. This Jewish thinking prevailed for 20 centuries.
And then we established Congregation Bene Shalom—we are celebrating our 45th anniversary in May. We founded the only full time deaf synagogue in the world, where deaf boys and girls achieve b’nai mitzvah, where deaf men and women achieve leadership roles in the Jewish community. Where deaf Catholic and Jewish Senior Citizens come together every month to share lunch and talk together for hours. Where deaf and hearing people come together as equals in prayer and camaraderie. Where adult education classes are interpreted for the deaf and hearing. Where the Rabbi preaches using his voice and his hands. Where the signing choir interprets the Hebrew chants of our Cantorial soloist. Where the hard of hearing are totally comfortable because of our loop auditory system. And all this happens because deaf people are “bene deya.” In the words of the former president of Gallaudet University, King Jordan–Deaf people can do anything but hear!
And so, 20 years ago, Alan Crane, Joan and Stan Golder and I established the first seminary in the world that trains not only hearing people, but deaf men and women to become rabbis. There are deaf Jewish communities all over American and Europe—and I have seen that we need deaf and hearing rabbis to serve deaf and hearing communities. Hebrew Seminary recognizes that deafness is a unique culture and part of the Jewish multi-cultural experience. Right now, we have 10 students studying to become rabbis—and two of them are deaf! One wants to work with deaf children, and the other wants to start a congregation for deaf and hearing Jews in her community of Englewood.
The ancient rabbis identified speech with thought. The ancient rabbis maintained that the rational soul – that part of us that thinks – is called nefesh mi da beret – the soul that speaks. Even Greek philosophy used the same word for thinking and speaking, logos. Even Moses identified thought with speech. When God chose Moses to liberate the Jewish peole, Moses was dumbfounded and said, “I am a man of heavy speech.” But God recognized there is no correlation between speech and thought. God gives Moses a speech interpreter—his brother Aaron. Moses confronts the pharaoh and liberates the people from Egypt.
Many Jewish deaf people are unable to do the mitzvah of saying the required blessings—every Jewish person is mandated to say 100 blessing every day. And even though there are two ways to articulate a blessing, with each way being legally legitimate, the deaf person cannot embrace either of these 2 ways. They could either say the words themselves, orally, in order to do it themselves—which most ancient deaf could not do – or, they could hear the reading of others—aurally —so as to do the mitzvah through listening. However, the ancient Jewish law provides an alternative way of doing the mitzvah. Those unable to say their prayers and blessings with their mouths, should think them in their heads instead. Their thought is accepted in place of the spoken word. This was the way that our ancient rabbis included the deaf into equality. This is the way we include the deaf through two contemporary methods—1. A sign language interpreter who is fluent in her work, or 2 an equally valid method of interpreting—the loop system which amplifies sound to someone wearing a hearing aid.
Our seminary follows the thinking of God, and we know that hearing and debur or speech is not necessary for a rabbi. The language of signs is exquisite and inspiring. It brings us close to God. It touches our souls and hearts.
I dream that every deaf Jewish boy and girl in America will have bar mitzvah, and will interpret his Torah portion in sign, Hebrew and English, and they will be taught by deaf and hearing rabbis dedicated to teaching our faith. I have a vision that Jewish deaf leaders will sign Torah in their synagogues, sit on the boards of major Jewish organizations and become spiritual leaders of deaf and hearing congregations, which are fully equipped with loop auditory systems. I have a vison where rabbis who assume pulpits will make their congregations deaf friendly by introducing sign language in the religious services, using captioning devices, and loop systems, teaching Torah and Hebrew to deaf children in their religious school using sign language and sign language interpreters. I have a vision where every synagogue in America will be accessible to deaf people because sign language and deaf culture will be part of the curriculum. I have a vision of hearing and deaf rabbis establishing deaf congregations across the country so that deaf people will have a choice of going either to a deaf congregation or a hearing congregation that is deaf friendly. I have a vision of a seminary in America where rabbis and Ph.D. scholar are in daily contact with deaf Jewish men and women and that God’s prophecy is realized, because, through our Seminary, the deaf shall understand even though they do not hear. It is true that deaf can do anything but hear.