What does the Biblical prophet Moses have to do with modern day disability, inclusion, and accommodation? “Everything,” says Maryland Rabbi Lauren Tuchman.
Tuchman believes that Jewish tradition provides a roadmap for inclusiveness: “In Exodus, when Moses tried to decline God’s commandment to negotiate with the Pharoah because of a speech impediment, God sent his brother Aaron to do the talking, fulfilling the task. Ancient texts are full of examples of figures identified as disabled,” she says. “What’s new is open dialogue on the topic.”
Rabbi Tuchman, now in her 30s, has been defying norms and smashing ceilings all her life. This is a story about the world’s first (as far as she knows) blind, female rabbi.
In the three years since Tuchman was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), she has focused on sharing her dual passions, Torah and inclusivity, and demonstrating their relevance to modern life.
She has been spending a lot of time recently delivering critical messages on inclusion to American institutions. Warm and personable, she doesn’t tend to dwell on her biographical journey from non-sighted infancy to iconic spiritual leadership, because “there are so many more interesting things to talk about,” she says. “Although I never deny or gloss over my disability—I am a blind, Jewish woman who is a rabbi. Each is part of who I am, yet not one of them totally defines me.”
The Covid-19 pandemic is one example of a topic she’s much more eager to discuss. “We are experiencing neither the first nor last plague to decimate civilization. How we protect the healthy and treat the ailing will determine our future,” she says. “How do those who are different access the services and treatments enjoyed by others? The Torah is clear. ‘If there be among you a person with needs, you shall not harden your heart, but you shall surely open your hand.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7).”
Yet she believes that America’s lack of inclusion is undeniable. “I’ve been ‘othered’ and left on the margins, despite my parents’ hard work and my own best efforts.”
In particular, Tuchman says, some of America’s religious and social institutions treat accessibility as a financial consideration rather than a humanitarian one. She notes that the monetary costs to institutions of providing Braille readers, deaf signers, or ramps into a building are weighed against other, “intangible” benefits. “Everybody benefits from diversity, not just the disabled,” she says, quoting Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Inaccessible buildings, and unavailability of hearing-assisted devices or Braille readers are today’s version of insults and stumbling blocks.
Many Jewish institutions agree, and are eager to hear her message on podcasts and an ELI Talks video, in Zoom discussions with Jewish organizations, and as a trainer. In professional consulting assignments, she shares her belief that inclusion is a Jewish value. As for her spiritual leadership, she says, “I believe that everyone has a shining light within.”
Tuchman’s background is unlike that of most rabbis. Born into a loving, interfaith family in the Maryland suburbs, Rabbi Tuchman was raised in her mother’s Catholic tradition. Her father Raymond, a secular Jew, is “pure Ashkenazi.” Yet, her mom, Kathy, taught Lauren (Tuchman’s twin) and their younger brother to light the menorah and to understand the High Holy Days. Lauren describes her: “Picture a fierce momma bear, protecting her cub. She saw no reason for me to be set apart, treated differently, or denied opportunity.”
One of Lauren’s teachers, Linda Elbaz, remembers Kathy’s unrelenting support. “It was simple: Lauren gets the same lessons, tools and materials as her siblings and classmates,” Elbaz says. “Even at age 5, she was undaunted … She was fun to teach because she was so hungry for knowledge.”
Lauren went to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania with only her cane and braille reader as guides. Her family believed she could do anything, she explains. “So I just did.” While it is hard to imagine the speedbumps she encountered, Lauren was intrepid, finding her way to class and meals, meeting new people, making friends. She doesn’t dwell on how hard it was. She landed at the campus Hillel with a group from her dorm and describes the excitement and fun of discovering her community. Finding Judaism was like “coming home.” With a bit of an enigmatic smile, she concludes, “When you know. You know. I knew.” She majored in Judaic studies, then enrolled in the masters’ program and eventually in rabbinical school at JTS in New York City.
Rabbi Dr. Burton Vistosky taught Lauren at JTS and became her mentor. “I knew that she was unique, not because she was blind, but because she was smart, savvy and funny,” he says. “She is sensitive to the needs of others, especially the marginalized.”
Today, Rabbi Tuchman speaks to groups about what she calls “the transformative power of inclusive Torah,” and consults with Jewish organizations seeking ways to include people with disabilities. On her blog, she brings the lessons of Torah and inclusion to an even wider audience. For her work as a Jewish spiritual guide, she has been honored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). She was also named to Washington’s Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 for her leadership concerning inclusion of Jews with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life.
Rabbi Tuchman has broad ambitions for the future, including to one day open a yeshiva. She says that the words of Rabbi Azzai, from Pirkei Avot (4:3), would serve as a guide for her ideal institution: “Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything, for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.”
Marjorie Weidenfeld Buckholtz is a retired EPA official who returned to freelance writing in her 70s.