A Stumbling Block

I mentioned in an earlier post that I follow the Jewish Special Needs Education blog. That blog invokes the phrase, “removing the stumbling block,” a reference to the traditional commandment of lifnei iver from Leviticus 19:14, which warns not to place a stumbling block before the blind. This is interpreted, in traditional rabbinic law, to require something far beyond not causing blind persons to trip. (The rabbis viewed this as obvious without the biblical text commanding otherwise.) Rather, the text was interpreted to mean that one should not take an action that would cause someone else to sin, often by giving bad advice.

Friedman, in her blog’s title, means it somewhat more literally: removing from the paths of those with differing levels of need the obstacles to participation in Jewish life and education. While I appreciate the metaphor, I find it troubling.What is it that I find troubling about the stumbling block metaphor? It seems to me that it takes a problematic approach to addressing special needs by focusing too heavily on the obstacles.

When we talk about removing the stumbling block in this metaphor, we mean to say that we’re removing obstacles to access. That’s an important thing to do; it’s the goal of any number of approaches to special needs education. But in leaving behind the larger rabbinic content of the lifnei iver prohibition, we fail to make it our business to provide good counsel and enable independence.

In other words, by focusing our metaphors on the obstacles to access, we’re apt to get so busy running about removing stumbling blocks that we might forget to provide a useful road map once the block is out of the way.

This is why I prefer the oft-used Four Children of the Passover Haggadah.  It may be that some individuals with special needs simply need access. But they may be independent learners, advanced in ways that matter in some area but not in others, contemptuous of some things and not others. (Remember: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who can’t ask are the four children–and the wicked child is contemptuous.) And in those areas, they may need access. That’s true not only of individuals with special needs, but of individuals generally.

Access is not just about the opportunity to engage. It’s about providing an appropriate opportunity to engage and to continue engagement. It’s about meeting people where they are and providing resources that fit that context. That concept is what the Four Children provides us.

It’s not enough to remove the stumbling block, because real access isn’t about removing an obstruction: it’s about actively reaching out and welcoming others in.

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4 thoughts on “A Stumbling Block

  1. It’s something I try to communicate to my students: the particular words we use have meaning that goes beyond the dictionary definition. The metaphors are the meaning. (There’s actually been research done that indicates the human brain works on metaphor, not on literal meaning, which creates a whole new set of issues for us to deal with in terms of how we say something.) Excellent post.

  2. So interesting. This post reminds me of the dictum in Proverbs to “teach a child according to his way.” I know Rabbi Wolbe (whose parenting/educational philosophy I try to follow) was very clear that each child should be educated according to his or her nature and unique abilities.

  3. Pingback: What kind of justice do you pursue? Thoughts on parshat Shoftim and textual adoption. | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

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