During the week we read parashat Emor, I had the honor of speaking at a memorial for my friend Ellen Carlebach z"l who used a wheelchair in her later years, a delayed result of having been one of the last children in the US to contract polio before the vaccine became available.
She received only a minimal Jewish education as a child, but was raised with faith in God and a firm belief that things happen for a reason and that everyone, including herself – despite or because of polio – has a mission in this world. In recent years, I had the privilege of helping Ellen fill-in the gaps in her formal Jewish education. I am a text person, and one verse in the parasha tormented me as a tried write about Ellen:
Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring through the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God (Leviticus 21:17).
This is followed by several verses listing many disabilities. I could not put the text aside, I needed to understand it and Ellen’s life together. Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kossoy of Pardes pointed me to a text from the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 24b:
R. Huna said: A man whose eyes run should not lift up his hands [as a priest to bless the people]. But was there not one in the neighborhood of R. Huna who used to spread forth his hands? – The townspeople had become accustomed to him. R. Yoḥanan said: A man blind in one eye should not lift up his hands. But was not there one in the neighborhood of R. Yoḥanan who used to lift up his hands? – The townspeople were accustomed to him.
That helped but only a little. The rabbis were willing to soften the rule, but only for “insiders.” Ellen would not have been satisfied. She wanted to go everywhere and do everything. She was assertive about accessibility needs, and known to take site managers to task if a curb was not lowered sufficiently or the angle of an access ramp was too steep.
As the Torah, Talmud and Ellen raged at each other in my head, I began to think about them in the light of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s 3 cycles of Jewish history. The written Torah represents the time of the Temple when holiness was concentrated in one place. There was a more centralization, severity and emphasis on externals (not mention the actual physical work that the priests needed to do). The verse from Leviticus made a certain amount of sense its time and place.
After the destruction, holiness spread in the world, but also became more concealed. Rabbis took over the mantle of leadership, and endeavored to help the people maintain a connection to the Holy. To that end, they needed to bring their commitment to the text into conversation with real people’s lives (as described by R. Greenberg’s student, and my teacher, R. Shai Held). In the process they permitted the integration people with disabilities who were otherwise part of the community.
Now in the third cycle, not only is God distant, the covenant is weakened. It is a time of growing lay responsibility. Although Ellen spoke of her work as an art instructor at a rehabilitation center as the mission for which polio had prepared her, I think she had an additional mission: being visible and present in the public sphere, so that an increasingly large number of people would learn to be comfortable in the presence of people with disabilities. If communities everywhere become accustomed to people with a range of different physical and mental abilities and disabilities, the precedents of R. Huna and R. Yoḥanan will allow everyone to participate in public life.
The picture shows the Masorti Movement’s Simḥat Torah flag. Ellen loved this flag. The first time she saw it, and every year thereafter, it brought tears of joy to her eyes. She would point to the woman in a wheelchair carrying a sefer Torah and say, “That's me.” Ellen loved to dance and she loved to learn.
I strive teach a Torah of text, Ellen taught a Torah of life by example, and I learnt much from her. May her memory be a blessing.