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Jewish educator looks to the Bible for “valuable teaching moments” on treating those with special needs

By Cindy Mindell

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser was sitting in a lecture 20 years ago, listening to the speaker name the character traits of the biblical Esau, when she realized that the description fit a modern-day portrayal of ADHD.

Over the next 20 years, the Jewish educator would weave together findings. The resulting National Jewish Book Council Finalist, Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those with Special Needs (Ben Yehuda Press, 2012) reexamines nine biblical figures through the lens of special-needs education.

She will bring her findings to Beth El Temple in West Hartford on Sunday, Dec. 15, discussing how the symptoms of ADHD, depression, intellectual and physical disabilities, speech impediments, and gifted learning appear in the Bible, and how the Bible teaches us to respond with understanding and compassion.

Prouser earned her PhD from the Jewish Theological Seminary Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages and Literature and has been teaching Bible on the graduate level for more than 25 years.

A former adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary,   Prouser has consulted on the development of Bible curriculum through the Matok Torah Curriculum Development Project, and the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project for the teaching of Tanakh.

She is now executive vice president and academic dean at the Academy of Jewish Religion in New York.

Prouser believes that it is important to constantly look anew at the biblical text through different lenses, so as to find new meaning and help keep the Bible as a living text. In her current work, however, she sees an even greater obligation.

“The Jewish community has been a little behind the secular world in understanding the imperative to recognize the importance of serving populations with special needs,” she says. “While wonderful work has been done in specific areas, as a whole, there is a lot more work to be done. That is one of the reasons that I found this work so important. It is very valuable to us as a society to see that, in the Bible, some of our most important characters were dealing with their own challenges.”

An early lesson in how to be sensitive to those with special needs is clearly delineated in the Book of Leviticus: “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” Prouser says that she would not use the Bible categorically as a teaching tool to let us know how to respond to people with special needs, but does find some valuable teaching moments throughout.

For example, God can be seen as a master teacher in the stories of Joseph and Isaac, if the reader considers the two as gifted individuals. “Rather than clarifying the Divine role to Joseph, God allows Joseph to figure out the Divine plan, and thus, to be more invested and involved in his own life,” Prouser says. “This parallels educational principles today in how best to teach gifted individuals. Similarly, if we consider Isaac to be an individual with developmental delays, we see that God’s speeches to Isaac are less demanding, and more protective – after the Binding of Isaac, of course – than to the other patriarchs. Isaac is the only patriarch told not to leave Israel. God also makes clear to him that he does not need to do anything specific in order to merit the blessing and the covenant. He has it simply on the merits of his ancestors. Thus, perhaps God is relating to Isaac in a way that is making requests that are achievable, rather than demanding of him what he cannot produce.”

esau2These stories also help the reader understand the biblical text more fully and in new ways and be open to the many different approaches to the Bible, Prouser says, pointing to the examples of Jacob and Moses. “While we know the story of Jacob being injured while wrestling with a being before meeting with his brother, few readings of biblical texts have focused on how this disabling injury impacted on the rest of Jacob’s life,” she says. “When reading the text through the lens of special needs, however, we can see that perhaps Jacob’s behaviors following that point are a result of his disability and that he is a different man after that point than he was before. Similarly, while we recognize Moses as a person with a speech impediment, most readings do not continue to think about that disability after we leave the early texts of Exodus. Reading in this way, however, leads us to think about Moses having this difficulty throughout his life, and to different readings of later texts, like that of Moses hitting the rock instead of speaking to it.”

A quarter-century of teaching experience has shown Prouser that everyone wants to find themselves in the Bible, in some way. “Reading the Bible through the lens of special needs helps more people see themselves in the biblical characters and in their lives, struggles, and successes,” she says. “Seeing that our sacred literature understands and deals with issues of special needs also raises the moral imperative for our society to do the same in how we run our schools, our synagogues, our camps, and so much more.”

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser will discuss “Esau’s Blessing:  How the Bible Embraces Those with Special Needs” on Sunday, Dec. 15, 10 a.m., at Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford. The talk is free and open to the community. For information call (860) 233-9696.

A breakfast sponsored by the Beth El Temple Men’s Club will be served beginning at 9:15 a.m. Cost of breakfast: $10/non-Men’s Club member ($7 if received by Dec. 12); $5/Men’s Club member. RSVP: Joe Springut, (860) 676-9878, dr.EyesJoe@gmail.com.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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