Autism, inclusion, and theodicy

(I will freely admit that this post is largely an emotional reaction. Tough. Go read something else if that bothers you.)

The “Daily Reyd” feature at Rabbi Gil Student’s Torah Musings blog has a link to an article at the Orthodox Union’s website. Titled “The Gabbai With Autism: A Living Lesson In Inclusion,” the article talks about Eli Gorelick, a young man with autism who serves as one of several gabbaiim in his congregation.

I will first say that the synagogue’s ability to adapt to Eli and to effectively welcome him to lay leadership is–or should be, anyway–a model for inclusion for those able and willing to serve with accommodation. I have no quibble at all with any of that, and it’s precisely that kind of thing that we’re missing in so many other places.

My problem, of course, is going to be the theodicy piece. Eli’s father is himself a rabbi, and when one of Eli’s siblings asked his father why God made Eli the way He did, the answer was, “Hashem wanted us to do chesed for Eli.”

And that, dear reader, is when I decided it was time to take the day’s lunch break.

Why? I simply don’t find as credible an interpretation of a disorder or deviation from the norm of any kind–natural evil, for you philosophy types–that would say, “God did this because ________,” where “________” is any combination of “you/she/he can handle it,” “so we can appreciate what we have,” “so we have more opportunities to be righteous,” etc. You can try to move things in any number of directions on this issue–divine justice is beyond our grasp, there’s a grand purpose, etc. I don’t buy it because it’s just not credible to me. I am not rationally persuaded of its correctness or of its necessity.

And your third rail with me is my child. I find it offensive that my child’s difficulty is someone else’s divinely-granted opportunity to be a better person. Why? Because it means your righteousness cloaks a sense of pity.

Our discourse on disabilities should not be colored by the idea that it’s an opportunity for those who do not have a disability to be better persons. It should be colored by the idea that individuals–of all types and of all abilities–have inherent worth and should be treated as such. Your opportunity to behave righteously–ethically–exists because you and the other exist, full stop. What righteousness looks like will differ from case to case. When you put a precatory spin beyond “the other’s value demands I act, and my acts should be based upon their needs,” you can easily limit what you might do.

Be a better person because you should be a better person, and because each person’s value demands it. Don’t treat it as a test, or disability as an opportunity for more merit for you. This simply is not a difficult issue.

This is why I’m a humanistic Jew.


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