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Deaf People & Halacha

The inclusion of Deaf people in Israeli society is not without its challenges. Like many other countries, the awareness of disability has been a more recent development and slow to come to full fruition. Indeed, many accessibility laws provide access but not full awareness of what a disability entrails. While a country's laws may be progressive in regards to accessibility, change in the larger society is usually slower and Israel is no exception.

Unique to Israel is the influence of Jewish or halachic law. These laws, based on the Torah, include everything from kosher food rules to marriage to modesty standards. In many cases, Deaf people are classified with children, minors, and the mentally disabled in that they are incapable of the responsibilities of a Jewish adult. These laws include, and in some cases exclude, the participation and presence of Deaf people in Jewish society. Indeed, halachic law makes many references to the rights and restrictions of Deaf Jews across a number of areas, including marriage and divorce, business, legal responsibility and culpability, and responsibilities and restrictions on Shabbat and holy days. The variation between congregations and interpretations means there is no wide-reaching standard for the participation of Deaf people in Judaism, even in Israel.

For many years, Deaf people were considered unable to fulfill many halachic requirements. Many of these attitudes have changed, though, with increasing awareness of deafness and the abilities of Deaf people to be fully informed participants in their rights and responsibilities as Jewish people. However, this change is still slow-going and many older and more Orthodox members of Jewish society still consider Deaf people to be halachically exempt from Jewish responsibilities and incapable from being counted as full members in Jewish life, such as being counted in a minyan. This leaves many Deaf people in a kind of limbo, where no one is sure where they belong in the greater Jewish world.

Marriage and divorce laws in Israel regarding the Deaf community have made significant changes in the the recent past, though many are still unclear. While some Deaf couples in modern Israel are given a version of the ketuba usually reserved for the mentally disabled, others are given the same standard ketuba that hearing people receive. Additionally, some rabbis have said that these standard ketubas can only be used for marriages in which the entire ceremony is interpreted or conducted in a signed language that the bride, groom, and rabbi understand so as to ensure that all parties are aware of their rights and responsibilities. This was a rabbinical provision, though, and, regardless, many rabbinical authorities regard the marriage as "imperfect", since the Torah law was authoritatively interpreted that Deaf people ("deaf-mutes") cannot marry. Separate accommodations were also made for the dissolution of a marriage between Deaf people: if the marriage was conducted by sign language then it could also be ended through sign language, and a rabbinical court could grant a Deaf man a divorce if they determined he truly wanted one. So too could a Deaf woman receive a get (the document of divorce) from the rabbinical court in this way.

Deaf people were also excluded from many business transactions. This was seen as a way of protecting all parties involved: that the Deaf person would not unknowingly enter into a transaction without full comprehension of the details, and that a hearing person would not take advantage of the Deaf person. Deaf people were also not held accountable for assault or if their "ox gored a man"; a hearing person would be assigned to be responsible for the ox in the Deaf person's stead. Similarly, Deaf people were not able to legally buy or sell their goods without first proving to the rabbinical court that they understood the details of the transaction. Deaf people were outright banned, though, from buying or selling property. They were also immune from being prosecuted for theft, though people were not permitted to take their property back from the Deaf person as this would be considered robbery. Deaf people were also not required to pray, as their inability to hear themselves prevented the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Obviously, many of these halachic rules do not apply to Israeli civil society, where Deaf people are held to the same legal standard as hearing people, but it does illustrate the overarching view of Deaf people within a Jewish and religiously Jewish context as being "less than" or incapable of independence.

Modern Israel
Despite the passing of civil laws requiring accessibility and equality for people with disabilities, the application of these laws have been slow and uneven. The law, which was passed in the late 1990s, has yet to be fully implemented and, when they are, they usually cover only the most basic of needs. The slower change, the societal one in which people learn to see past the disability to the person themselves, is, like in many places, much slower going.

Some changes have been notable, though. For example, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement found that Deaf people should be full members of the Jewish community, as advances in Deaf education and disability awareness have both increased equality for Deaf people and dispelled many of the misconceptions regarding Deaf people's abilities and intellectual capacities. Deaf people also take part in many of the cultural Judaic milestones as their hearing peers, such as bar/bat mitzvah. Change has been slow, though, in coming to an Israel where Orthodox Judaism is the law of the land and where halachic interpretations are much more literal. This discord has resulted in the persistence of stereotypes that Deaf people "can't" or "shouldn't", further isolating them from the majority culture and from their own Jewish identity. Though society is much more open-minded to diversity and the accommodation and inclusion of Deaf people, the influence of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel is still strong.