Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Deaf Awareness Week: Challenges and Changes

Jewish teachers have played a dominant role in the special education of the deaf. I have therefore devoted this historical survey to looking at how Judaism understood the place of deaf people in society, and especially those who were both deaf and dumb.

It is a story which begins with Aristotle’s malign idea, which seems to have infected Jewish thought, that those who were deaf and dumb lacked intelligence, and should be treated accordingly. This was an idea that human nature was somehow fixed and immutable, something we see today in some of the literature on IQ, which still owes a greater legacy to Aristotle than Darwin, despite its biological pretentions.

Tzvi C. Marx in his book “Disability in Jewish Law” comments that:

The dignity of a disabled person in halakhic life is... largely determined by the extent of his inclusion in the obligation to observe the precepts. The precepts, we saw, regulate activities in a wide range of areas, including civil liability, serving as a witness, criminal exile for inadvertent manslaughter, capital punishment, and ritual laws. 

Various categorizations with respect to disability are adduced in Jewish law. In the Rabbinic literature, the seeing disabled, the hearing disabled and the mentally disabled are distinguished. Rabbinic perceptions of these disabilities determine the religious roles open to the disabled, which in turn impact on other aspects of their lives.

Bonnie Gracer’s study "What the Rabbis Heard: Deafness in the Mishnah" shows that even in the ancient world, distinctions could be made between different kinds of hearing loss.

She looks at the Tannatic scholars -  those Jewish scholars who were active in Palestine during the 1st and 2nd centuries, whose teachings are found chiefly in the Mishnah. As Gracer notes:

“Tannatic rulings demonstrate an impressive awareness of deafness specific issues. For example, the existence of a separate category for an individual who had "become a deaf mute" suggests an understanding of age-of-onset (of deafness) as a critical factor in speech and language development. “

“And it is clear that the Tannaim understood that deaf people communicated both manually and orally. For example, M. Gittin states, "A deaf mute (cheresh) may transact business by signs and be communicated with by signs" and then continues, "Ben Bathyra says, he may transact business and be communicated with by lip movements in matters concerning movable property."

And M. Yevamot states, "Just as he marries by gesture so he may divorce by gesture."

These activities - marriage, divorce, business dealings - require intelligence, reason, and knowledge. So we can see that at least some of the rabbis accepted that meaningful concepts could be communicated manually by gestures, and at least some deaf people could have access to those transactions in their own person.

The Mishnah appears to have been taken written form around 200 AD. This is the written compendium of Rabbinic Judaism's Oral Torah, what we might see as a codification of custom law as opposed to statue law. To this was added the Gemara (around 500 AD) which is a kind of commentary on the Mishnah and related Tannatic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible.

Together these formed the core of Jewish teaching – the Talmud, and it is here that we find the more thinking about deafness. The Talmud distinguishes between those who cannot speak, those who cannot hear, the loss of those facilities later in life or earlier in life, and those who are both speech and hearing disabled.

But it seems the Jewish scholars could not believe that someone who from birth lacked speech and hearing could also have intelligence. As Tzvi Marx notes:

“In the Talmud, lacking the ability to understand others is applied only to those who is both hearing and speech disabled, but not to the only deaf or only mute individual. Exemptions and disqualifications in the Talmud that refer to the heresh thus apply only to deaf-mutes.”

The deaf-mute (heresh) was thereby classed as mentally disabled. But all this was to be challenged in the 19th century. 

Hirsch Kolisch, the philanthropist, was born at Nikolsburg and in 1844 established there a school for deaf-mutes under the administration of Joel Deutsch (1844). The institute was transferred in 1852 to Vienna. This pioneering institution demonstrated that deaf-mutes could be taught to communicate to a far greater degree than was previously thought possible. Contrary to the earlier view that the deaf-mute lacked understanding, he or she was now shown to have a range of understanding virtually identical to that of his non-disabled peers.

Prior to this, any gestural communication by those unable to speak or hear was treated as purely an artifice of training. One scholar wrote that “the learned actions of the deaf-mute are like the actions of an old monkey that was merely trained by repetition without volition and free choice.”

But in a letter from Joel Deutsch to Edward Walter, Director of the Institute for the Deaf in Berlin, this hypothesis is contradicted. Deutsch asserted that while the capacity of some was limited, the capacity of many who had undergone their training programme showed a profound and keen intelligence.

In support of this contention, he sent an essay by one of his students, Bernhard Brill, and said that he doubted if any non-disabled person “could match his lucid and incisive style.”

As Tzvi Marx notes, following this Rabbi Hildesheimer argued that whether a deaf mute was competent or not depended on whether their intelligence was considered to be an essentially flawed part of their make-up, “or held to be normal, but locked in like a hidden treasure.”

Everyone at the time, both in the Jewish world and outside, accepted the first hypothesis, which had been stated so many years ago by Aristotle.

The first hypothesis was accepted by everyone, including the Gentiles, until Victor August Jaeger, professor at Wurtemburg, in his 1842 Guide to the Education of Deaf-Mutes and the Speaking-Disabled, in Religion and Other Subjects Taught in Schools, “showed that the deaf-mute has all the faculties for the acquisition of speech: intelligence, the capacity for learning a language and the requisite physical organs for doing so, the sensibility to absorb the forms of speech, and the means to communicate with others.”

The key breakthrough was the realisation that language and cognition could take place without an individual being able to speak, because a language is itself a form of signing, as Plato put it, gestures of the tongue.

And in 2011, Rabbi Pamela Barmash presented a paper on behalf of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. It was accepted unanimously. It stated that:

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards rules that the deaf are of the same ability as those without disabilities and that the terrible categorization of the deaf as mentally incapacitated be reversed. Sign language is undoubtedly a language, a means of communication equal to speech and satisfies what halakhah needs to have communicated in matters of personal status. The requirement that certain liturgical units, such the Shema, must articulated is met by the physical motions of sign language.”

And she concludes:

The Torah states that "Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind."(Lev 19:14) It is the responsibility of our communities, synagogues, schools, and camps to draw on the essence of this mitzvah in making our communities welcoming and inclusive of the deaf.

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