Call for papers conference Disability in Jewish Thought and Culture (University of Antwerp). Deadline: 30 September 2013

full name / name of organization: 
Institute of Jewish Studies, University of Antwerp

CALL FOR PAPERS: International conference 'Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind'. Disability in Jewish thought and culture
31 March - 2 April 2014
Institute of Jewish Studies - University of Antwerp

Please send your abstracts (500 words) and short bio to David Dessin ( by 30 September 2013

In sharp contrast to Aristotle's statement that there ought to be a "law that no crippled child be reared" the Mishnah never even considers infanticide as a possibility. The rabbis cherish life and see human variety as evidence of God's greatness. Despite this positive attitude towards the disabled, they were excluded from many religious practices. Access to the sanctuary of the Temple was severely limited for the disabled, as God's presence in the Holy of Holies could be lethal and physical perfection was required to even survive it. At the same time, there are several examples of people with disabilities who played a crucial role in Biblical history. Jacov limped his way into greatness, while Moses spoke some of history's greatest orations with a speech impediment. After 70 CE the Halacha left the narrow confines of priestly cult and started a long process of regulatory thinking on disability in daily life that continues to this day.

In the wake of the explosion of interest in the relationship between biblical and cultural studies in the past decade, biblical scholars have started to engage disability studies. Some conclude that Jewish law labels the disabled as outsiders, and argue that Judaism needs to be rewritten to include people with disabilities. Others focus on the narratives and find a system supportive of vulnerable people, one that seeks to empower the disempowered, often informed by the Biblical injunction against placing a stumbling block before the blind (Lev 19:14) nor to 'ridicule or curse the deaf, who could not hear the ridicule or curse, and therefore could not defend himself' (Psalm 38:15). The actual behavior and various attitudes towards disability that exist and have existed in religious communities show again a very different story.

The conference 'Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.' Disability in Jewish thought and culture aims to bring people together who in their research address the theology, history and practical experience of disability and Judaism. We will focus both on rabbinical theological debates, on practical implementation of religious beliefs and on the genuine experience of disability in the Jewish community, in order to understand the many tensions that arise between the different traditional sources themselves and between orthodoxy and practice. The conference will be focused on – although certainly not limited to – the meaning of deafness, and disabilities connected to childhood and old age in these discussions.

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