guest post: ableism in kedoshim

july4My first guest post: a d’var Torah by the awesome Emily Fishman!

The oft-quoted Leviticus 19:18, “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ– love thy neighbor as thyself,” literarily comes to summarize a list of how to set up your world to be a just one, where the vulnerable are protected and the powerful have their privilege checked.

One of the specifics in the section is לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל, “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind,” verse 14. This verse, especially the bit about the stumbling block and the blind, is quote frequently in halakhic literature as a shorthand for entrapment, luring someone into sin. For example, an adult is forbidden to hit their parent, that is a matter of law. The parent, though, should not hit their adult child lest the child be tempted to hit back — that is a matter of lifnei iver. Another example: A nazirite is not allowed to drink wine. Therefore you are not allowed to offer wine to a nazirite because of lifnei iver.

By contrast, veahavta lereiacha kamocha is hardly heard in legal discourse, outside of a few citations by the Rambam. And I can imagine how helpful it could be! Don’t hit anyone — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t overcharge in business — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t throw loud parties at 3am — because love thy neighbor as thyself.

But no, it’s the bit about the blind person that gets dragged out time and time again.

In interpreting biblical verses, giants in the tradition, such as Rashi and Rambam, pull on the Talmud’s statement, “Ein mikra yotzei midei pshuto” (Shabbat, yevamot) — a verse’s interpretation may not contradict its plain meaning. Though it isn’t universally applied, let’s try it here.

What is the literal meaning of lifnei iver? The halakhic implications of not putting stumbling blocks in front of the blind would surely include tucking your backpack under your chair rather than leaving it in the aisle at the library. Making sure that all announcements posted on the bulletin board are also conveyed auditorily. Taping down the edges of rugs so they don’t get folded and become tripping hazards.

Using lifnei iver to name a category of situations where a person is drawn to forbidden acts not only obscures the simple meaning of the verse, it also subliminally erodes the esteem in which we hold blind people. They lose their agency, becoming faceless victims to circumstance, led into horrible situations because they can’t control their own environments.

We have a similar problem in English. We say that someone is “deaf to the cries of those in need” or “blind to the plight of people.” What we actually mean is “willfully ignorant.” We use “schizophrenic” to describe an incoherent argument and “obsessive-compulsive” to describe our coworker’s tidily organized desk.

But this leaves us open to harming others in our inarticulate use of language. How would it feel to be a deaf person and have your identity constantly used to mean “ignorant”? How would it feel to be struggling with anxious repetitive behavior that caused clinically significant impairment and have your diagnosis dismissed as behavior typical of precise or controlling personality types?

Perhaps we are drawn to expansive readings of lifnei iver because we convince ourselves that we would never be so careless as to place an actual barrier in front of an actual blind person. And it feels daunting to try to shift our language around any of these issues. There are too many people asking too many things of us. And maybe I don’t understand why they are asking me to change my language from an intellectual or emotional perspective.

How would the halakhic category of caring for each other’s vulnerabilities be different if we framed it as Veahavta lereiacha kamocha instead of lifei iver? If we came from an angle of thinking through and asking how we can be of service to another human like ourselves, rather than taking a patronizing tack and assuming we know how to best serve a person who is unlike us?

Veahavta lereiacha kamocha relationships are admittedly harder than lifnei iver relationships. It requires us to learn about each other’s experiences, act with compassion and humility, give benefit of the doubt, and trust that everyone else is doing the same. But what we stand to gain is a life where we learn about each other’s experiences and community characterized by compassion, humility, trust, and second chances.

Kamocha means that the person in question is fundamentally like me, relatable. It pushes against our instinct to view ourselves as separate from each other. Kamocha encourages us to see difference as incidental rather than fundamental. This solidarity lends itself to compassion. Problematically, the lifnei iver frame puts me in a place of approaching an “other” who is fundamentally different from me. On the other hand, the veahavta lereiacha kamocha tack lends itself to broadly defining who we mean when we say “us” and using language to both reflect and encourage inclusive notions of community.

In the mindset of lifnei iver, if I don’t understand the utility of putting effort into changing language, then it isn’t incumbent upon me to try. I don’t have evidence leading me to believe that what I do is going to trip them up. Additionally, I have no responsibility to be proactive, to think about and ask about other people’s needs. If I just care about avoiding stumbling blocks, then I am only responsible for the harm I do through action, but not the harm I do through inaction

But if we work the same situation from a frame of veahavta lereiacha kamocha, we come to a very different conclusion. A human being has told me that they want me to change my language around a particular topic — gender, mental illness, disability, race, income, whatever. They seem to have a real stake in the issue. Veahavta lereiacha kamocha does not invite me to weigh whether I think this language should or shouldn’t matter to them or whether it will or won’t radically change society.  It invites me simply to respect another human’s stated experience and join them in creating the world they wish to live in.

down-ton abbey

Spoiler alert: I reference events in episodes that have aired in both the U.K. and the U.S., but I include the caveat for any readers who haven’t yet seen the series.

I’m an enthusiastic fan of “Downton Abbey,” the hugely successful British television drama set in the early twentieth century, the story revolving around the Crawley family and the servants of the eponymous estate in Yorkshire. The principle preoccupation of the family is the fact that Lord Grantham’s title, his estate, and his wife’s money — because of the ironclad English law of entail — all pass to a distant cousin upon the death of the previous heir and his son on the Titanic, which event opens the pilot. I love period drama, especially of the British late 19th/early 20th century variety. Indeed, I literally squealed with delight when I saw that Lady Mary Crawley references Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the upcoming episode.

There are so many wonderful things about this show: The accents. The fear of “new” technology (electricity! typewriters! telephones!). The gorgeous clothes (for the upstairs family, anyway, though the servants wear nicer things to wait on the Crawleys than most modern people ever do). The glimpse into a way of life that is so removed from a modern American audience. The well-developed characters: scheming Thomas and O’Brien, unflagging reformer Isobel Crawley, rebellious Sybil Crawley, the witty Dowager Countess — who it is universally acknowledged has the best lines of the series. (If you’re a fan and haven’t seen this video, you must. And you may appreciate it even if you’ve never seen the show.)

But — and I think with most mainstream entertainment, there is almost always a “but” — the latest episode to air in the U.S. gave me pause. Of course, there were issues all along. As one critic writes, somewhat contradictorily,

Even with its high-lather soap factor, no one would consider “Downton Abbey” a guilty pleasure — it’s “Masterpiece,” for heaven’s sake, the television equivalent of graduate school — though certainly creator Julian Fellowes makes it easy for an American audience to empathize with pampered members of the master class. . . . By conveniently blurring the class distinctions of the time with a lot of noblesse oblige and more than a dash of modern psychology, Fellowes and his writers allow their audience the benefits of a romantic period piece and none of the troubling drawbacks.

She then goes on to talk about the oppressive class system that bolsters the Crawley family — which I would certainly identify as a “troubling drawback” in even the most cursory critical examination of the show. For this reason, and others, I do consider “Downton Abbey” a guilty pleasure.

In “Episode Eight” of Series 2, which aired last Sunday, veteran Matthew regains his ability to walk after suffering severe spinal damage in the war. The ableism of this plotline — in service of giving viewers the long awaited, unblemished reunion of Matthew and Mary, whose on-again, off-again relationship drives a great deal of the show’s plot — is troubling.

We get a first glimpse in the pilot of the era’s anxiety around people with disabilities with the arrival of the new valet, who walks with a cane. The whole house is in a tizzy about whether Bates will be able to do his job, and he’s sacked towards the end of the episode — only to be saved, deus ex machina style by Lord Grantham, who seems to recognize the claims of an old friend more than the injustice of preemptorily firing a worker. And like magic in the next episode, all concerns about Bates’s performance are gone; they never come up again. It’s not clear if that’s because they were exaggerated, based on the prejudice of the times, or because accommodations were made for him. And since the villainous valet and lady’s maid find plenty of reason, besides his disability, to collude against him, one ultimately wonders why Bates was given this characteristic at all.

The issue returns in the latest episode, as Matthew (understandably) continues to struggle with the prospect of life in a wheelchair. I realize that these were different times and there were not the accommodations that now exist for people in his condition, but it struck me as extreme (and not a little sexist) when he sends his heretofore fiancee, Lavinia, back to London, citing his wish to keep her from a sexless, childless existence. But we aren’t afforded any view of the presumed obstacles that he must now face in an environment ill-equipped for his wheelchair. The very practical issues of how he gets around in a house full of stairs, of who is assisting him with bathing, dressing, and using the bathroom are not addressed. The heir presumptive must not be subject to these indignities, and the show acts as though it’s simply a matter of Bates — who in the pilot, we were told, wasn’t able to carry anything as might be required in the course of extra duties! — helping him move from wheelchair to bed. And when it becomes clear that Matthew will recover, though he’ll carry a bruise on his spine for the rest of his life, he quips, “But at least I’ll have a life” — which statement is at the very least hugely insulting to anyone in a wheelchair.

What’s more, the episode goes on to show that Matthew must be spared not only the wheelchair — only an able-bodied man is worthy to be the next Lord Grantham — but even the burden of having to appear ungentlemanly. In a truly horrifying development, as Lavinia lays dying of Spanish flu, having realized that he’s still in love with Mary, she manages to choke out, “Isn’t this better, really? You won’t have to make a hard decision . . .” So in the show’s really fucked up logic, it’s better that Lavinia die than Matthew have to do something selfish so that he and Mary can be together? This is the pinnacle of the show’s contortions to bring the protagonists to what I assume is coming: their marriage, securing Mary’s place in society and neatly resolving the problem that has propelled the series since the pilot. Hence my post title, “Down-ton Abbey,” as the show’s writers reach a new low in this episode.

I still plan to watch and enjoy “Downton Abbey” — if not just to delight in the swoon-worth Dan Stevens — but I’ll continue to do so carefully.