Shabbat ITANU


Shabbat ITANU is celebrated in May of every year. This is a Shabbat where we focus on the values of inclusion, through self-assessment, outreach, drashim and sermons, poetry, text study, programming, and more.




Resources Union for Reform Judaism

Developed in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center is an open resource for all to use. The website is a  comprehensive source for information, resources, and webinars. URJ congregations that

have excelled in one or more areas of inclusive practice can apply to be recognized as an Exemplar Congregation.


United Synagogue Of Conservative Judaism

United Synagogue has launched an initiative to transform Conservative congregations into truly inclusive communities for people with disabilities. The Ruderman Inclusion Action Community of 16 synagogues is advancing inclusion in congregations across North America.

USCJ also has resources available online.


Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

JRC features a plethora of text and parshiot commentaries on disabilities and inclusion. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College offers a  free online course on disability inclusion with video sessions with Rabbis Judith Abramson, Evan Jaffe and Dan Grossman.


Orthodox Union/Yachad

Through Yachad, communities and schools are engaged in concrete ways to include all members of their Jewish community activities and services. Resources are shared with synagogues and temples about strategies to make their environments and ideology inclusive.


The Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad Lubavitch by providing Chabad communities around the globe the education and resources they need to advance inclusion of people with disabilities. RCII engages Chabad’s network of human and educational resources to create a Culture of Inclusion so that  all Jews feel welcomed, supported, and valued throughout their entire lifecycle.


B. READINGS AND COMMENTARIES for services and newsletters


1. Commentary from Rabbi Ed Elkin:


  1. Following are several sources that colleagues might find helpful in preparation for Shabbat Itanu, which falls this year on May 14, Shabbat Kedoshim. Some pesukim to drash on in this parasha are


  1. Lev.19:1: Holiness, phrased as a plural commandment, is practiced in community. How can inclusion of people with special needs help us to be the holiest community possible? How can it help our “whole” to be greater than the sum of our individual parts? Nehama Leibowitz: Full implementation of this commandment depends on the whole community, no one can do it by themselves – what role can we depend on the people with special needs to play in our construction of holy communities?

How can we avoid being נבל ברשות התורה? (See Ramban)

We don’t start out automatically holy, we have to become holy. Here, and Is.5, holiness is associated with morality. Everywhere else it’s cultic purity.

  1. Lev. 19:14: לא תקלל חרש ולפני עוור לא תתן מכשול. The Sages broaden the meaning of this mitzvah to include all kinds of situations beyond physical the physical handicaps described, such as avoiding leading another person to transgress, and not knowingly giving bad advice. But going back to the pshat, how do we ensure that we are not putting stumbling blocks before those with special needs? How do we remove the stumbling blocks that they already face?
  2. Lev.19:18: ואהבת לרעך כמוך: how do we want/expect to be treated? What kind of access do we want to institutions and in the Jewish community and the wider society? That’s the kind of access people with special needs want and expect as well.

Is “love” here an emotion, or an action? – if the latter, what kind of actions flow from this commandment? Who is our רע?

R. Akiva – כלל גדול בתורה

  1. Lev.19:17 הוכח תוכחח את עמיתך – are there practices and assumptions in our community that merit reproof? If so, how do we do it most properly and effectively?


  1. An article from Tikkun about Inclusion: ​

Inspired by Moses: Disability and Inclusion in the Jewish Community


III. An article about the halachic aspects of Inclusion by Rabbi Micah Streiffer of Temple Kol Ami, Thornhill


A Mitzvah of Inclusion? Halachah Surrounding Children with Special Needs

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

CCAR Convention 2014


Does a child with Down’s Syndrome have a right to be called to the Torah as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? Is a child with Autism or a cognitive developmental delay entitled to a religious education? To the modern mind, the answers are clear. But in the halachic literature, they are less straightforward.


In this paper, we will explore the evolution of the halachic approach to inclusion of children with special needs. Attention will be paid to the way in which this approach has been impacted in modern times by the intersection between the modern notion of “rights” and the Jewish legal emphasis on religious responsibilities.


On “Inclusion” in Halachah


In many ways, inclusion is not a native Jewish concept. This stems from the fundamental reality that Jewish law is focused on obligations rather than on rights. Western law is built upon the notion that all human beings are endowed with certain basic rights. This is famously expressed in the United States Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Because many modern legal systems are predicated upon these rights, their legal and justice systems are concerned with the protection of those rights and with ensuring that all citizens are afforded them, regardless of mental or physical ability.


The halachic system reflects a very different focus. The renowned Israeli jurist and Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohn writes:

… the particular structure of Jewish law qua religious law – with God as the central object of love and veneration, and the worship and service of God as the overriding purpose of the law – postulates a system of duties rather than a system of rights.[1]

This is of systemic importance, because it means that Jewish law is concerned less with whether a person is “entitled,” and more with whether he or she is “capable.” And the law is apt to exempt persons found incapable of a certain act or ritual, rather than searching for extraordinary ways in which they may participate in them. Exemption generally translates to exclusion, which has obvious implications for individuals with disabilities or special needs.


This does not mean, however, that the concept of “rights” is absent from Jewish law. To the contrary, rights are implied by obligations. Cohn writes:

…prohibitions such as “thou shalt not steal”…may be read to imply a right to property and possession…. Similarly, the duty of learning and teaching is reiterates several times (Deut. 6:7, 20-25), but there is no right to education articulated anywhere.

Thus, where the halachah assigns to an individual a requirement to participate in an activity or ritual, we may infer for that individual a corollary right to be included.


Exemption Based on Disability


In this formulation of “rights” lies the challenge for inclusion. When one’s right to be included in a ritual or activity is directly related to his or her responsibility, then that right exists only insofar as the person has the physical and cognitive capacity to hold a responsibility. Individuals with special needs may have impairments that prevent them from participating fully, and it is for this reason that the halachic starting place is often one of exemption or exclusion.


The Mishnah, in Chagigah 1:1, sets up a series of categories of exempt individuals:


All are bound to appear [at the Temple], except a deaf person, a shoteh, and a minor, a person of unknown sex [tumtum], a hermaphrodite, women, unfreed slaves, the lame, the blind, the sick, the aged, and one who is unable to go up on foot.


Among these categories are several that are defined by physical or mental health, including the deaf, the lame, and the שוטה (shoteh), which might be best understood as a person of questionable mental or emotional capacity. The Talmud defines the שוטה as a person whose strange or illogical actions call his/her mental fitness into question:


Our Rabbis taught: Who is [deemed] aשוטה ? He that goes out alone at night, and he that spends the night in a cemetery, and he that tears his garments.[2]


Rashi makes explicit that this person has a special status for reasons of mental capacity:

            איזהו שוטה – האמור בכל מקום שפטור מן המצות ומן העונש, ואין קנינו קנין, ואין ממכרו ממכר.

What is שוטה? That word, in every occurrence, means that the person is exempt from the mitzvot and exempt from punishment [for failure to follow the mitzvot]. His purchases are not legally considered as purchases, and his sales are not legally considered as sales.[3]


Form this comment, it seems that the שוטה is exempted from responsibility for the mitzvot, and from such aspects of public life as commerce and (according to the Mishneh Torah) serving as a witness,[4] because his mental and/or emotional capacity does not allow him to be trusted to participate in these activities.


The Talmud apparently includes both the mentally ill and the developmentally delayed in the category of שוטה. However, by the time of the Rambam, a new category has been introduced: the פתי (peti, from a Biblical word meaning “simple”) a cognitively impaired person, is a separate category from the שוטה, who suffers from some kind of emotional instablility. And while the שוטה continues to be considered exempt from the mitzvot, there are hints that some פתיים  might carry certain halachic obligations, depending on their cognitive capacity.[5]


Toward “Inclusion” of Children with Special Needs in Education

The shoteh and peti bayoteir are categories of people whose disabilities diminish their ability to participate in public life. In some ways, they have a halachic status very much like that of children: they are not considered responsible for following the mitzvot; they are not trusted when it comes to such legally binding transactions as commerce and serving as witnesses; and they cannot take on sh’lichut – halachic responsibility for fulfilling others’ mitzvot.[6]


When it comes to actual children who exhibit cognitive delays, there is thus a real question as to the extent to which they are to be included in the mainstream of Jewish life – in such activities as education and the ritual of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Certainly, a parent or community is responsible for the physical wellbeing of the disabled individual, but in a case where full participation in society is not possible, Jewish law often tends toward exemption/exclusion, and it does not seem in the traditional texts that these individuals have a “right” to be included.


 In the modern era, however, poskim from all major streams of Jewish life have begun looking for ways to include, educate, and empower such children. In the Orthodox world, one of the definitive statements on the matter comes from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Feinstein draws upon the Rambam’s category of peti to clarify the halachic status of the mentally challenged vis-a-vis fulfillment of the mitzvot:

ודאי איכא חילוק בין שוטה ובין פתי ביותר  

There is certainly a distinction between the [categories of] shoteh and peti bayoteir.[7]


Specifically, the distinction is twofold. First, as explained above, the status of the shoteh is related to emotional instability, while the peti is defined by a cognitive impairment. Furthermore the instability of the shoteh might come and go, while the peti’s cognitive capacity is fixed at an impaired level. For this reason, the latter – unlike the former – is “certainly obligated by the mitzvot when they reach the age of majority, 13 for boys and 12 for girls. And it is an obligation on their fathers to teach them, from their early childhood, what they are capable of learning, at an appropriate time according to their ability.”[8]


Having established that cognitively impaired children are required to be educated, Feinstein goes on in his teshuvah to make a number of salient points regarding their education:

  • Developmentally delayed children are not required to begin their education at age 6 like other children; rather, they should begin when their parents “recognize that it is appropriate [for them] to begin learning.”
  • Their curriculum should consist of “what is appropriate for them to know” based on cognitive ability, and must be undertaken slowly and incrementally.
  • They generally require a smaller class size than typical children.

On this third point, the rabbi recognizes that the costs involved in educating children with special needs will be higher, and enters into an extensive discussion on the question of whether the community is obligated to cover the costs, “since not everyone can afford such an expenditure without community assistance.” Citing a discussion of the Takanah of Rabbi Joshua ben Gamala in Bava Batra 21a, he explains that it is a community obligation to provide teachers for all children, regardless of financial wherewithal. This obligation involves providing one teacher per 25 pupils, the number the Rambam requires for for neurotypical children. [9]  Regarding developmentally delayed children, Feinstein argues that “it seems that it is not appropriate to make distinctions, and there is an obligation to provide from the tzedakah coffers for any special expenditure” in their education as well.  The caveat is that when funds are limited, the education of typical children should be prioritized above that of children with special needs. Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling thus requires that, at least on principle, such children will be provided access to education, giving them a better opportunity to participate in Jewish life and to grow up as productive and active members of society.[10]


Bar/Bat Mitzvah of the Developmentally Delayed Child


In Judaism, the “productive and active member of society” is known as the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. At the age of 12 or 13,the child traditionally takes on full responsibility for fulfillment of the mitzvot, thus attaining the status of adult in Jewish law.[11] What, then of the child whose cognitive capacity will never allow him or her to attain such a status? May he or she be counted as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah? May he or she be called to the Torah?


One of the earliest modern statements on this question is from Rabbi Solomon Freehof of the CCAR, who understands the traditional answer to be “No.”


[At a Bar Mitzvah ceremony] the father recites the blessing – generally interpreted to mean that from now on this boy will bear responsibility for his own sin and be in duty bound to obey all the commandments…. Clearly, then, a shota who is free from the duty of obeying the commandments and is free from punishment if he violates them cannot possibly be a Bar Mitzvah.[12]


It is worth noting that Freehof, writing in 1963, predates the teshuvah of Moshe Feinstein and much of the 20th century writing surrounding the status of the developmentally delayed. Perhaps for that reason, he simply places them into the exempted category of שוטה, which he understands to exclude them traditionally from the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah. Regardless, Freehof circumvents this conflict and arrives at a more inclusive answer. He does so by differentiating between the status of Bar Mitzvah and the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah:


The whole Bar Mitzvah ceremony is only a custom, a minhag….  The Talmud says clearly[13] that all may be… called up Saturday to the Torah, even a minor. The Shulchan Aruch, in Orah Hayyim 282:3… adds: Provided he knows to Whom the benedictions are addressed….. If, then, this unfortunate child has enough intelligence, not merely to learn the blessings, but to understand that the blessings are addressed to God, then he may be called up to the Torah at any time.


Freehof thus gives his hechsher to the idea of a developmentally delayed child being called to the Torah and celebrating a “Bar Mitzvah ceremony,” based on his understanding of the ceremony as largely symbolic and spiritual.  Others, however, will employ a different rationale.


Rabbi Reuven Hammer, of the Israeli Masorti movement, takes issue specifically with Freehof’s characterization of the developmentally delayed child as שוטהHe argues that the Rambam’s conflation of the two categories in Hilchot Edut is specific to the issue of עדות – legal witnessing -  and that in fact (drawing upon the rulings of Feinstein and others), the פתי is not a שוטה and does bear responsibility for the mitzvot. Thus he concludes:


אנו מתירין את ה"טקס" על סמך קביעה הלכתית שהמפגר הוא כן בר-חיוב כל עוד הוא בר-דעת ולכן חייב בכל המצוות ורשאי לעלות לתורה כמו כל ילד אחר שמגיע למצוות.

We allow the “ceremony” on the basis of a halachic ruling that the cognitively delayed individual does have an obligation [to the mitzvot] so long as he has [adequate] cognitive capacity.[14] Therefore, he is obligated in all of the mitzvot and is entitled to go up to the Torah like any other child who arrives at the mitzvot.[15]


Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a prominent Israeli modern Orthodox rabbi, poskens similarly.[16] Thus, each of the mainstream movements of modern Jewish life has arrived  at the conclusion  a child with developmental delay can and should be called to the Torah, if his/her cognitive level makes it possible.


The Role of the Community

The stipulation of a minimum cognitive level is important. All of the major poskim cite a requirement – based in the Shulchan Aruch – that in order to be called to the Torah or education, the child must be בר-דעת. This involves two factors: a level of understanding of פעוטות (typically developing children of age 6 or 7), and the ability to grasp some (loosely defined) concept of God’s role in the blessings that are being recited.


This requirement, in and of itself, points again to an important obligation on the part of the community: where the child is בר-דעת, the community must provide an appropriate religious education. In fact, this is only the beginning of the community’s obligation to the child. Later poskim – undoubtedly influenced by developments in public opinion – recognize that society’s attitudes can strongly influence whether or not a child succeeds. Rabbi Cherlow, writing in 2006, addresses this issue specifically. He rules, following Feinstein, that beyond ensuring education and basic ritual participation,  the community is also obligated to treat the developmentally delayed child with the utmost of respect: to greet him with a kind face; to ensure that he is able to participate in worship; to show “double sensitivity” to the child and to the parents. He writes:


The impulse for their development is dependent in large part on society’s faith in their ability to develop. Thus, the community, in its support of the child and his inclusion in community activity, has the privilege of taking part not only in an act of loving kindness (גמילות חסד) toward the child but also [contributing to] his spiritual and intellectual development.[17]


This is an important distinction, and speaks to an evolution in the halachic attitude toward children with special needs. The inclusion of special needs children in the 21st century goes beyond tzedakah or g’milut chasadim – categories that are intended to provide basic needs – and is motivated in part out of the recognition that there is a causal relationship between the level of inclusion and the child’s ability to reach his/her full potential. Furthermore, that there is benefit for both the child and for the community. The child who is invited into the community’s activities and given the resources necessary to participate fully will have a better chance of reaching a higher level of accomplishment, which in turn will allow him or her to be a more productive member of society.




In Reform Jewish thinking, inclusion is a mitzvah – a religious obligation. The centrality of inclusion in Reform Jewish life can be seen in the writings and activities of the movement: in the ways that congregations have begun to open their doors to the developmentally disabled; in the committees that have been formed at all levels of Jewish life to encourage and facilitate inclusion. It is made explicit in a 1992 teshuvah from the Responsa Committee:


We should encourage the inclusion of all disabled persons in our congregations…. Our she’elah asks whether the community of congregation has an express “obligation” in this respect. The answer is yes with regard to the principle. We deal here with a mitzvah and include it under the obligations we have with regard to our fellow human beings (mitzvot ben adam l’chaveiro)….[18]


This is a remarkable transformation for a value that was largely an afterthought in the halachic literature until the second half of the 20th century.


Equally remarkable is that it is not only in the Reform Jewish world – where social action is held up as paramount – that there is a sense of the importance of education and inclusion of cognitively challenged young people. A similar sense of obligation is apparent in the writings of Conservative and Orthodox poskim, although they do not necessarily use the language of mitzvah.[19]


From a traditional perspective, it should be noted that the rulings of Feinstein and Charlow are based upon ancient texts and upon categories that have existed from generations. In that sense, their authors might argue that the approach is evident the teachings of the Talmud and of Maimonides.  But to our liberal eye, it seems that there has been an important evolution in attitude and approach. Namely, what was once a matter of tzedakah – a one sided act of kindness by the more fortunate toward the less fortunate – has evolved into a recognition of the community’s power to positively influence the development of the young person. The goal of inclusion is not merely to provide for the child’s needs, but rather to help the child thrive and reach full potential, out of recognition of the benefit to both child and community.


This evolution in halachic thinking is most certainly spurred by the evolution in general societal attitudes toward the developmentally delayed. Can it be coincidence that the second half of the 20th century – a time that saw doors of all kinds beginning to open for people with disabilities – also saw a flowering of halachic creativity surrounding this issue? This is strong support for the notion that where there is a will, there is a halachic way. And it is strong support as well for the Reform Jewish notion that halachah – not only liberal halachah, but Jewish law in general – “has been an evolving process that deals with the changing reality of each generation.”[20]


Moving forward, it is clear that matters of inclusion will continue to be of importance to the Jewish community. Diagnoses of Autism and other developmental disabilities have reached an all-time high, even as children with special needs are achieving at greater levels than ever before. The Jewish community must continue to challenge itself to engage children with special needs in ways that will encourage their development and their full participation in Jewish life – because it is good for the children and for the Jewish community, and because it is a Jewish religious obligation to do so. By embracing the mitzvah of inclusion, the Jewish community has the ability to open doors, to educate, and to empower.


 Additional Sources Consulted

Karkoswky, Rafi. “Defining the Shoteh: A Talmudic Disorder in Modern Times.” Hashta.

Lau, Benjamin. “Disability and Judaism: Society’s Influence on Halacha.” Originally published in Hebrew in Bema’aglei Tzedek 11 (Jerusalem 1995). Translation: Jessica Sacks.

Rosen, Rabbi James. “Mental Retardation, Group Homes, and the Rabbi.” CJLS Teshuvah YD 336:1. 2000.

Tendler, Rabbi Moshe and Rosner, Fred. “The Physically and Mentally Disabled: Insights Based on the Teachings of Rav Moshe Feinstein.” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society – No. XXII. Fall 1991.


IV. An article from the CJN by Rabbi Jennifer Gorman about political problems around a special needs bar mitzvah in Israel:


Religious Intolerance Trumps Humanity in Israel

 Over the last three months, the Jewish world was again made aware of a shameful lack of inclusiveness and the significant degree of religious intolerance in Israeli society. This time the victims were nine autistic children and their families. 

While, as reported in the CJN, we were reminded that Jews in Canada make efforts to include all challenged children and their families in meaningful b’nei mitzvah ceremonies. We do not question which Rabbi they chose to officiate or where the service is held. We simply do the right thing and provide the opportunity. In Israel, in spite of a history of a similar sensitivity, a special Bar/Bat Mitzvah program created more than 20 years ago for challenged children by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement and accessed regularly by all religious streams, is now in jeopardy.

Rahamim Malul, the Orthodox mayor of Rehovot, decided that the service created expressly with and for these children and their families after months and months of preparation would not take place as scheduled because it would be overseen by a Masorti (read non-Orthodox) Rabbi in a Masorti kehilla (synagogue), in spite of the fact that many such ceremonies have taken place across Israel for 20 years and as recently as last year in Rehovot.

It gets worse.

With this shameful circumstance hitting the news waves and the majority of Israelis shocked and objecting, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s office agreed to hold the service at his official residence, all parties meeting and agreeing to a specific service format with an Orthodox rabbi co-officiating with a Masorti Rabbi.   

Then abruptly, with no communication with the Masorti Movement or the families whatsoever, President Rivlin, presumably under pressure from Israel's ultra Orthodox political faction, canceled the compromised service, unilaterally substituting a " hand shake" and an Orthodox rabbi, a stranger to the families, to officiate at what was clearly a non-service.  

One can only imagine the stress, distress, confusion and disappointment of the children and their families!

Yizhar Hess, the Masorti Movement's CEO said, "To slam a door on Jewish teens at the moment they are about to enter the fellowship of the Jewish People is terrible; to do so to a young person with disabilities is unforgivable. The insult to the dignity of these teens and their parents is egregious. Together with all those who believe that a tolerant and diverse Israeli society is the key to its survival, we are shocked and dismayed by this decision. The Masorti Movement has helped to create strong Israelis who are unfettered by the handicaps and challenges they face. Mayor Malul should be ashamed of himself."

“The Masorti B’nei Mitzvah Program for Children with Disabilities has a solid foundation of 20 years of service to Israel. Growing from one school in 1995 to dozens; thousands of students and their families have participated from all religious backgrounds, including Haredim,” said Rabbi Jennifer Gorman, Executive Director of Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism and MERCAZ-Canada. “We do this because we know children with special needs can be instructed. We do this because all of our children stood with us at Sinai. We do this because every parent deserves to hear that “mazal tov.” We are taught in Masechet Shabbat that ‘The world exists only on account of the laughter of children.’ To stifle that laughter, pride, and joy, especially that of the most vulnerable, is a hillul Hashem. Too often, lifecycle events are overlooked or considered impossible for many special needs children due to their individual challenges. The Masorti Movement program welcomes anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, ability, or socio-economic status.”

“We are all called upon to be just and compassionate, as God is just and compassionate. I am greatly saddened and disappointed in Mayor Malul’s harmful, unfeeling, and anti-Jewish decision,” said Ontario Rabbinical Assembly President Rabbi Dan Selsberg.

 If Israel through its leadership continues to reflect an exclusive and singular approach of who can be counted as a Jew, as this latest incident does, how can we, a people clearly divided by our beliefs ever grow stronger together and become “The light unto the Nations” that remains our collective mission?

 We ask you to raise your voices with us, to support the right of every Israeli child and its family to experience the joy and fulfillment of celebrating b’nei mitzvah, our right and rite of coming of age as a Jewish adult.

Rabbi Jennifer Gorman

Executive Director, Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism & MERCAZ-Canada

Ron Hoffman

President, Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism

Marion Mayman, President, MERCAZ-Canada

Postscript: In the end, the parents of one of the boys decided to close this ugly episode positively. On Monday, July 27, 2015, one of the families celebrated their son’s bar mitzvah at Masorti Kehillat Adat Shalom in Rehovot. Rabbi Mikie Goldstein and the dedicated staff of Masorti’s B’nei Mitzvah Program for Children with Disabilities presided.

[1] Cohn, H. Human Rights in Jewish Law. Ktav Publishing House, New York. 1984. p 18.

[2] Ibid 3b. A debate ensues as to whether or not the definition is inclusive – i.e. whether a person needs to perform one of these actions or all of them to be classified as shoteh.  This leads to the notion that one can be a “partial” shoteh, but be considered of sound mind (and thus obligated by mitzvot) in other areas of life.

[3] Rashi’s note to ibid. Our translation.

[4] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Edut 9:9 states that the שוטה may not serve as a witness “because he is not obligated by the mitzvot.”

[5] We know of this category from Maimonides’ ruling in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Edut 9:10, that the פתי ביותר – the person who is severely mentally handicapped – is regarded in the law as being in the same category as the shoteh. This, of course, implies that there may be a lesser form of peti who carries a different status. See also Kesef Mishnah and Radbaz to that halakhah; the category of peti is attested in Geonic writings that precede Maimonides.

[6] Strous, Rael, MC. “Halachic Sensitivity to the Psychotic Individual: The Shoteh.” ASSIA Vol IV, No 1, February 2001.         

[7] שו"ת אגרות משה יורה דעה ח"ד סימן כט

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:5.

[10] For a case study on the importance of education in giving individuals the ability to be contributing members of society, it is worthwhile to look at the development of the halachah surrounding the deaf. In Talmudic times, the cheresh had a similar exempted status to that of the shoteh, due largely to the lack of viable educational methodology and access to language of any kind. But with the advent of deaf education in the 18th century, the halachic world has largely redefined the deaf as included, rather than excluded. The argument is that the Talmudic cheresh, who is excluded from the mitzvot, is to be understood as a deaf person who has no access to education, where an educated deaf person who is taught to speak, read, communicate, and participate in society falls outside this category. Thus, the halachic status of the deaf person has been transformed – even largely in the Orthodox world - due to developments in the world of science and education. See Hildesheimer, Hammer, and Lau.

[11] Although 13 has become the accepted age of Bar Mitzvah in Judaism, and although the idea is attested as far back as the Mishnah (Avot 5:21), it was not universally accepted prior to the period of the Talmud. In fact, elsewhere in the Mishnah (Niddah 6:11), the Rabbis cite the appearance of physiological signs of puberty, rather than age, as indicating responsibility for mitzvot. For a full discussion on the development of this idea, see CCAR Responsum 5774.2: “Bar/Bat Mitzvah Observance Prior to Age Thirteen.”

[12] Freehof, Solomon. “Mentally Retarded Child and Bar Mitzvah.” Recent Reform Responsa. Hebrew Union College Press; Cincinnati: 1963. p. 25.

[13] B. Megilah 23a: Our Rabbis taught: All are qualified to be among the seven [who read], even a minor and a woman, only the Sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah out of respect for the congregation.

[14] See the next section for a brief explanation of the factors involved in defining someone as בר-דעת.

[15] "תשובה בעניין טקס בר בת מצווה לילדים מפגרים." הרב ראובן המר, תש"ן..

[16]   "עלייה לתורה של ילד מוגבל" .הרב יובל שרלו ב תמוז תשס"ז


[17] Cherlow, section 3.

[18] “Disabled Persons” CCAR Responsa 5752.5. (1992)

[19] Certainly the evolution is not complete; and certainly acceptance/inclusion of children with special needs in the Jewish community is far from universal. This is evident from the very she’elah that Rabbi Charlow was asked 2006, in which the sho’eil asserts that “in the opinion of the [leadership of our] synagogue it is an act of disrespect for the Torah and for the synagogue [to call a developmentally delayed child to the Torah.” And yet, important rabbis of all streams have written about inclusivity as a responsbility.

[20] Zemer, Moshe. Evolving Halakhah. Jewish Lights, Woodstock, VT. p 4.


V. Call to Action

More Than a Village…

By: Zachary Perlmutter, Shaarei Shomayim

Judaism prides itself on helping the needy, the disadvantaged and the stranger. Simply put, there’s a basic obligation to help those who are in need of help, not because they’re outsiders, but because it’s what God expects of us. It doesn’t matter how it’s accomplished, either by befriending the individual, or by helping the person move up in life, the expectation is that he or she is a human being and-therefore-deserves validation.

It’s also something that’s always struck me on a personal level. I have both Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette’s Syndrome. The former was diagnosed when I was in Grade 5, though I’d known I was different for many years prior. The latter I suspected I’ve had since middle school, although it wasn’t confirmed until many years later. Regardless, growing up was difficult, as I often found myself struggling to understand basic concepts (math, colours, social cues, simple patterns) that everyone else took for granted. I look back on it now and laugh, but when you’re 6 years old, you find it more tedious than humorous.

Which is why I’m so relieved that I had such strong support to keep me growing. An old African proverb states that “it takes a village to raise a child”. I found that to be literal and figurative at the same time. On one hand, my family, particularly my mom, was incredibly accommodating and adaptable to my unique situation. If I wasn’t progressing efficiently in school, they’d teach me at home after school hours were over. If I wasn’t developing social skills efficiently, they’d send me to a specialist for hands-on training. If I, essentially, felt like I was useless, they were there to remind me that I wasn’t.

What also helped was the strong, communal supports offered by the Jewish framework I mentioned above. Systems like one-on-one remediation, shul activities, social outlets for individuals like myself, breaking up tasks more efficiently, social work and, of course, changing schools helped me along the way. I wasn’t succeeding in a regular, Jewish day school, so my parents transferred me to a Jewish school for children with special needs. Initially, I was a stubborn bud, refusing to grow and sprout leaves in the sun. But my support kept on watering me patiently, so I eventually sprouted.

These days, social interaction isn’t as hard for me as it was when I was younger. That doesn’t mean I don’t still get my foot caught in the door on a regular basis, because I do, but it’s not as difficult to correct. Still, there are definite areas of improvement that I could benefit greatly from, and I’m always grateful to the Jewish community for helping me out along the way.

Which brings me to something that I feel needs to be addressed more: helping individuals with disabilities. I’m not talking serious disabilities, because that’s a given, but rather those with more invisible disabilities, who may need some assistance managing within society. Judaism preaches heavily about the need to help anyone who’s disadvantaged, regardless of whether or not it's obvious at the outset. I see a great deal of support going in to help extreme cases, while the moderates aren’t really attended to. And I think that’s a shame, as there’s real potential in the more obscure examples that need mining. All you need to do is look at me to see that. 

So let’s focus on continued integration. How can we ensure individuals like myself transition into adulthood like their peers? What are some ways for the Jewish community to invite higher-functioning individuals with special needs into larger social networks, the workforce or the dating sphere? I credit Yachad for helping me in some of those areas, but I don’t think it’s enough to rely on them alone.

God made everyone in His image, and individuals with disabilities are human beings too. The sooner we can collectively acknowledge and appreciate that they need a little guidance, the more likely that they’ll become active participants in Jewish communities and, ultimately, society as a whole. Because, while it might take a village to raise a child, I think it takes a supportive, Jewish community to raise someone like me. And I think that makes a world of difference.

3. Blog Posts


I. From Rabbi Noah Cheses (Shaarei Shomayim)*&utm_campaign=Mon+Aug+31&utm_medium=email


II. Everyone Has Something To Learn, Everyone Has Something to Teach


III. What Jews With Disabilities Can Teach the Rest of Us


IV. Look Through An Inclusive Lens


V. Making the Most of a Partially Accessible Building


VI. Seeing the Ones Who Are Not There




Pamela Schuller  ‘I am here, here me bark: Comedy Disability and the Inclusive Synagogue’


C. SHABBAT ITANU IDEAS – for this Shabbat and beyond:


  1. Create an Inclusion Committee in your shul and announce this during Shabbat Itanu.
  2. Announce and conduct an accessibility audit.  Seek participation from congregants.

3.    Hold a sermon and share readings on inclusion.

4.    Invite a guest speaker on inclusion.

5.    Invite residents of local group homes and clients of agencies to attend services – open your doors to all.

6.    Consider including ASL in your service, and reach out to the Deaf community.

7.    Teach your congregation to sign Shabbat Shalom and some key phrases.

8.    Invest in large print and braille siddurim and machzorim.

9. Honour people with disabilities during services with Aliyot, opening the Torah, carrying the Torah or giving a Dvar Torah. 

10. Celebrate the installation of a ramp to the Bimah or an access improvement to the facility.

11. Study a Jewish text relating to disability and accessibility.

12. Invite a person with a disability to speak.  Seek engagement around removing barriers.

13. Dedicate a Kiddush or Oneg Shabbat in honour of Shabbat Itanu.

14. Include a note or article in your shul bulletin about Shabbat Itanu.




  1. Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion

Drew Pinksy


2.      No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement 

Joseph P Shapiro



  1. Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities

Shelly Christensen


4.      Jewish Perspectives on Theology and the Human Experience of Disability 

William Gaventa


5.      Reflections from a Different Journey : What Adults with Disabilities Wish All Parents Knew

Stanley Klein and John Kemp


6.      Uniquely Human: A Different  Way of Seeing Autism

Barry M. Prizant, PhD  with Tom Fields-Meyer


7. The Mitten String 

Jennifer Rosner