Self-Portraits by Dana Kearley,, insta: @danakearley

When the Accessibility Barrier Is the Law Itself 

When Batya Sperling-Milner, who is blind, told her mother that she wanted to chant Torah at her bat mitzvah, her mom, Rabbanit Aliza Sperling, got worried. The potential barrier to chanting Torah wasn’t physical. Batya, the third of four kids in her Modern Orthodox family, had access to Hebrew texts in braille. No, the hurdle was halachic. Halacha (Hebrew for Jewish law) says that Torah should be chanted in Hebrew directly from a kosher Torah scroll—and a person who is completely blind can’t do that. 

So can a blind person chant Torah? At first, Rabbanit Sperling wasn’t sure. “Batya wanted to read Torah, and I wanted to see if that would be possible for her in a halachic way,” Rabbanit Sperling told Lilith

Rabbanit Sperling is an Orthodox rabbi who teaches Talmud at Maharat, a yeshiva for women in the Bronx, New York. So to answer her question, she was able to hit the books, embarking on a research project that would lead her to write a responsum (an answer to a halachic question): “Can a Blind Man Read the Torah for the Congregation?” 

The individual whose path depended on the answer, of course, was a blind girl. 

I encountered Batya’s story while researching what synagogues can do to be more accessible to people with disabilities— things like installing a ramp to the bimah. The idea that Jewish law itself might bar a person with a disability from going up to the bimah and chanting Torah was distressing to me, a sighted person with various disabilities. I was born with a benign brain tumor and hydrocephalus. I also have some trouble reading social cues. Although I have not yet needed synagogue accommodations, I identify as part of the larger group of people with disabilities and see that group’s challenges as my own. 

It’s possible to understand, if not accept, that a synagogue doesn’t have a ramp to the bimah; there are material limitations. But Jewish law is immaterial, reflecting how rabbis have, over millennia, thought about right, wrong, and God’s will. When that system presents a barrier to those of us with disabilities, it feels personal. It feels as if Judaism at the level of ideas doesn’t want to include us. 

Once I learned that Jewish law had prevented blind people from chanting Torah, I wondered if halacha restricted the activities of people with other disabilities, too. Typing “Deaf ” into the Conservative movement’s responsa database quickly yielded an answer. Yes, this issue extends beyond blind people. How many others might be affected? In an effort that could not possibly be called comprehensive, I set out to learn something about how these halachic barriers originated and what can be done—and has been done—to change them. 

Two primary Talmud-based barriers exist to blind people chanting Torah, Rabbanit Sperling explained. The first is a prohibition on chanting Torah from memory. The sages were concerned that someone chanting from memory might mess up or be accused of making things up. But a person chanting from braille is not relying on memory. 

The second issue is that Jewish law places great importance on reading from a Torah scroll written by hand, in ink, in Hebrew, etc. But by looking at cases where rabbis have permitted people to chant from something other than a kosher Torah scroll, such as from a medieval codex, or book version of the Torah, Rabbanit Sperling concluded that in a pinch, it’s okay to use a non-kosher scroll and that “a braille text is like a non-kosher Torah scroll.” 

So, as is our tradition, Rabbanit Sperling uses Jewish law to push back on Jewish law. But her analysis makes clear that she wants to include people with disabilities on principle, too. 

For example, a group of rabbis once ruled that congregations could not chant from a partial Torah scroll (like a scroll containing just the book of Genesis) for the “honor of the congregation.” This implies, Rabbanit Sperling said, that it would be embarrassing for the congregation to chant from an incomplete scroll, perhaps because they couldn’t afford a complete one. 

But it’s to the honor of the congregation to include people with disabilities, Rabbanit Sperling retorts to the sages: “If you have a blind person who wants to read, isn’t it more honorable for the congregation to give them opportunities?” 

After Rabbanit Sperling presented her research at the family’s then-synagogue, Ohev Sholom in Washington, D.C., the congregation gave her a resounding yes. In 2019, Batya had her bat mitzvah and chanted from a braille version of her Torah portion provided by JBI International. “I was so proud of her,” Rabbanit Sperling said. “And so grateful to my community and my family for supporting us. Just very thankful that God and everybody else had brought us to this place.” 

Although Rabbanit Sperling’s responsum has influenced Ohev Sholom, where Batya had her bat mitzvah, as well as the 

family’s synagogue in Riverdale, New York, it doesn’t change the Orthodox world at large. Individual rabbis still make their own decisions about who gets to chant. 

As for what other movements say about blind people chanting Torah, those are separate questions. The Conservative movement ruled on the question in a 2003 responsum. In it, Rabbi Daniel Nevins states the same obstacles that Rabbanit Sperling identified. Additionally, though, he presents another way for blind people to chant Torah from braille, using arguments different from Rabbanit Sperling’s. Rabbi Nevins’ responsum states that a blind person could chant Torah from braille during the maftir reading, a non-obligatory Torah reading done later in the service. Since the maftir reading isn’t required, it’s not subject to all the aforementioned rules. Another rabbi, another halachic workaround. 

The Reform movement answered the question way back in 1992, essentially saying that blind people should be able to chant from a braille text, even though it violates Jewish law, according to Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., a Reform halacha expert. Today, he told Lilith, Reform rabbis tend to see things even more liberally. Braille can be viewed as a technology, analogous to eyeglasses, that allows a blind person to access the text of the Torah. 

Learning all this, I’m glad that rabbis have found ways for blind people to read Torah. It’s thrilling to learn how rabbis like Sperling use Jewish law to stand for inclusion. At the same time, I wonder how the justification for doing the right thing could be so complicated. 

Jewish law has also restricted the activities of Deaf people (many of whom do not identify as disabled). In the language of Jewish law, a Deaf person who doesn’t communicate orally is called a heresh. Through discriminatory halacha, people in this group “are disqualified, excluded, and recategorized as being unable to conduct themselves as equal to other human beings,” writes Rabbi Pamela Barmash, Ph.D., in a 2011 Conservative 

responsum. That document, “The Status of the Heresh and of Sign Language,” overturned those exclusionary laws. 

Traditionally, Deaf people who didn’t communicate orally were exempt from all mitzvot. The reason for the exemption is that people who didn’t speak aloud were thought to lack understanding and intelligence, Rabbi Barmash writes. (Deaf people who did communicate orally were treated like everyone else.) One might think that being exempt from mitzvot would be a relief. On the contrary, Rabbi Barmash calls this exemption the “most onerous” restriction placed on the heresh. Being exempt does not mean that you are prohibited from performing mitzvot at all. But it excludes you from performing mitvot on behalf of others who are obligated. Someone who is exempt from the mitzvot does not count toward a minyan, could not have an aliyah, or even lead kiddush. (Any Jewish woman can understand what it feels like to be exempt from mitzvot, since traditionally women are exempt from time-bound, positive commandments, such as wrapping tefillin.) 

Surprising to me, chanting Torah is not one of the things that a person exempt from mitzvot is prohibited from doing, Rabbi 

Barmash told me. Chanting Torah in sign language, on the other hand, wasn’t allowed until her responsum made it so. 

When asked how these laws had affected her life, Susan Cohen, who is Deaf and communicates using American Sign Language (ASL), mentioned her childhood exclusion from Jewish education. “When my parents tried to enroll me into Hebrew school, the rabbi told my parents, ‘We don’t accept that kind of a child,’” she told Lilith by email. 

Cohen pursued Judaism and a Jewish education for herself as an adult and, in 2021, became president of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center. It was then that she learned about the Jewish laws regarding Deaf people. “It made me angry and at the same time learning this allowed me to have a better understanding of the source of the attitude issues,” she said. 

It also galvanized her to continue working with hearing allies, like Rabbi Barmash, to push for greater accessibility and inclusion for Deaf people in Jewish community life. 

Not everyone is so resilient. “Countless” Jewish Deaf people respond to lack of communication access by leaving Judaism, Cohen said. 

With the 2011 acceptance of Rabbi Barmash’s responsum, the Conservative movement recognized that Deaf people are responsible for all mitzvot. “We rule that the prior record of discrimination against the deaf be reversed due to the increased understanding and awareness…” Rabbi Barmash writes. Since then Deaf congregants may recite the Torah blessings in sign language when called to the bimah; a minyan of Deaf Jews who are conducting a service in sign language may also conduct a Torah reading in sign language, regardless of how many hearing people are present. And there’s a flip side too: in a service conducted orally with sign language interpretation, a Deaf congregant could also chant Torah in sign language. In that case, 

Rabbi Barmash explained, someone else would read the Torah portion aloud in Hebrew, which could be done from a book, for the benefit of congregants who do not understand sign language. 

All this is heartening. But it’s not quite true that in 2011 a switch was flipped such that Jewish communities became inclusive and Deaf Jews could do all sorts of things that they hadn’t before. 

Although some Jewish laws, including the traditional laws affecting Deaf people, may seem ableist, “the rabbis of the Talmud [and] the sages of the Bible were not trying to exclude anybody. They didn’t have that consciousness,” Rabbi Washofsky told Lilith. “When it comes to performance of ritual obligations under Jewish law, some people are exempted from the obligation, in this case, because they are physically incapable of performing the action as that action is traditionally understood,” he said. This strikes me as an argument that from a certain perspective, things for people with disabilities weren’t so bad before. 

Another consideration is that halacha is just the law as written. What affects people’s lives, some might argue, is how the law is enforced, which is often up to individual rabbis. As Rabbi 

Washofsky said of the Reform movement, “Even if the movement has some sort of guidance or a group of rabbis have issued some sort of opinion, that may or may not have anything to do with what’s going on with congregations.” 

At Town & Village Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Manhattan I visited, halachic texts about Deaf people did not affect Rabbi Laurence Sebert’s decision to include Deaf congregants in services and synagogue life as much as possible, he said. “I don’t remember there being this aha moment, [when] we’re saying okay, ‘now we can do this’,” Rabbi Sebert said. It was clear to him always, regardless of what halacha said, that Deaf people could speak using ASL. “There was no reason why they could not participate equally,” he said. 

Gabrielle Cohn, who is legally blind and who will be ordained as a rabbi in May at Hebrew Union College, doesn’t buy the idea that discriminatory halacha is a problem only when it leads to actual ill-treatment. As part of her thesis, she is writing a responsum about allowing guide dogs in synagogues, refuting a previous Reform responsum that says they aren’t allowed. “I don’t know any synagogue that has actually turned people away for having a guide dog,” she said. But the very fact that they could be turned away, under the banner of Jewish law, is a problem for Cohn, one she is working to solve. 

Rabbanit Sperling, whose journey began with her own daughter’s bat mitzvah, goes beyond a double-negative framing of halacha as not preventing the inclusion of people with disabilities. After all, she was able to use Jewish texts to argue in favor of blind people reading Torah. “I thought halacha would be a barrier, and to my total shock and delight, I found that halacha actually provides many avenues for inclusion,” she said. 

Ashley P. Taylor