Julia Watts Belser, a professor at Georgetown University, is the author of "Loving Our Own Bones."
Julia Watts Belser, a professor at Georgetown University, is the author of "Loving Our Own Bones."

A soul-crushing Talmudic tale about disability tells a bigger story

After services one day, a child’s voice cuts through the hum of kiddush conversation. “What’s that?” he asks, all curls and curiosity as he takes in my wheelchair. I turn, ready to show off the brilliance of my wheels. But his mother is mortified. “Don’t stare,” she hisses, as she tugs her kid away.

It’s a scene I know well, a drama played out in synagogues and on street corners. And it’s one of the ways disability gets swaddled in silence, wrapped tight in shame. I’ve been a wheelchair user for more than two decades, so I’m fairly impervious to other people’s awkwardness. But I often think about that kid and others like him, about the ways so many of us were taught to look away from disability, to pretend it simply isn’t there.

It makes me think of a story from the Babylonian Talmud, the story of a woman who had no hand. In Shabbat 53b, the rabbis tell us, “There was a certain man who married a woman whose hand was a stump, but he was not aware of it until the day that she died.”

Julia Watts Belser's new book is "Loving Our Own Bones."
Julia Watts Belser’s new book is “Loving Our Own Bones.”

The Talmud takes this as an example of striking moral virtue. Rav lauds the wife, regarding her decision to veil her disability even in the intimate context of her marriage as a sign of extraordinary modesty. Rabbi Hiyya disagrees. He thinks it’s natural for a woman to hide her stump, to conceal these imperfections of body and bone. In Hiyya’s telling, it’s the husband who becomes the hero of our tale. He does not scrutinize his wife’s body, looking for ways it does not measure up. He refuses to notice her flaw.

Like Rabbi Hiyya, modern readers are quick to extol the husband’s virtues. He’s a man who cherishes his wife without regard for her disability, who overlooks the irrelevant fact of the body. In a world of surface judgments, this man seems like a paragon of virtue.

But whenever I hear this story, it feels like a shaft to my heart.

The Talmud’s story assumes there’s something shameful about disability, something that has to be kept from prying eyes. Shame isn’t just a feeling that stalks us in the night. It’s also part of the architecture of ableism. When we treat disability as a secret to be hidden, it reinforces the powerful hold that normativity has in our culture. It wraps disability in silence, a silence that comes at a terrible cost.

Disability is an ordinary part of human experience. Some disabilities are present at birth, while others are acquired over the course of a life. Some change over time, while others are fairly static. As a wheelchair user my disability is hyper-visible. But most disabilities aren’t apparent at first glance.

Diabetes, depression, hearing loss, chronic illness, dyslexia — all these experiences often pass without notice in casual encounters. When disability isn’t immediately obvious, people tend to assume our bodies and minds mirror normative expectations. But that’s a lie, a devastating kind of cultural denial.

The presumption of normativity forces disabled folks to shoulder the burden of disclosure and do the work of negotiating access. Every disabled person I know has stories about the cost of living in a one-size-fits-all society, about being shut out by attitudes, assumptions and physical structures that demand everyone’s body and mind fit within the same basic norm. This isn’t only a disability story. Fat bodies, Black and brown bodies, Jewish bodies, Muslim bodies, femme bodies and queer, trans and nonbinary bodies — so many of us know the costs that normativity exacts.

Like the mother who shushes her child at kiddush, the Talmud’s story teaches us to refuse to register differences. Both laud the practice of overlooking disability, a practice that still has a powerful hold in contemporary culture. When did you first hear the words? Don’t look. Don’t stare.

Disability is an ordinary part of human experience.

Of course, there’s some truth to this caution. I know in my bones how deep a stare can cut. There’s a certain kind of look that pins me down like a butterfly tacked into a specimen book, just one more body to press into a collection of curiosities. That kind of cruelty? That surely has to go.

But while I’m all for rooting out the dehumanizing stare, I don’t want people to overlook my own disability. If you want to know me, you’ve got to know my disability. It’s a core part of who I am, how I experience the world.

I know so many Jews who’ve drifted away from Jewish community when our disabilities haven’t been acknowledged and honored: Jews with learning disabilities and neurodivergent Jews who’ve fled inflexible Hebrew school curriculums. A friend with depression who doesn’t go to shul because she can’t face the relentless pressure to be happy, to have her life all put together. Those of us who are at high risk for Covid-19, who are yearning for ways to be in a spiritual community.

The practice of turning away from disability refuses the intimacy of real relationships.

It also leaves the infrastructure of ableism firmly in place. Whenever we hear a disability story, we face a crucial choice. Do we assume the problem is a person’s physical or mental difference? Or do we flip the script and put the problem back where it belongs: on a culture that expects all bodies and minds to unfold neatly into standard sizes.

I don’t want you to overlook my disability. I want you to see quite precisely the way this world wasn’t built for me. Rather than trying to shoehorn disabled people into the narrow confines of the normative, I want us to change the world in which we live. I want us to challenge the policies and social structures that disenfranchise disabled people and make our lives more difficult.

Disability isn’t shameful. Ableism is.

This piece is an adapted excerpt from Julia Watts Belser‘s new book, “Loving Our Own Bones: Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness of Knowing Ourselves Whole” (Beacon Press, 2023) and is reprinted with permission.

Julia Watts Belser
Julia Watts Belser

Julia Watts Belser is professor of Jewish studies and core faculty in the disability studies program at Georgetown University.