Wednesday, October 05, 2016

A Talmudic Take on Hello My Name Is Frank

Over the weekend I managed to watch Hello My Name Is Frank, a movie that I surely would have never seen had it not been on Amazon Prime. The movie follows Frank, a middle aged man with Tourette Syndrome, as he goes on a road trip with 3 recent high school graduates. Yes, the movie is a predictable road trip / coming of age movie, but even still, I found that I really enjoyed it.

There's no denying that when I first saw Frank on screen I saw little more than disability. No doubt this is exactly the reaction the director was shooting for. By the end of the film, again as designed, I couldn't help but see Frank as an affable and smart guy. His ticks, both verbal and physical, began to recede and you could see the person behind them. It all reminded me of a conversation I'd had a few months back.

In shul the Torah reading had included chapter 21 of Leviticus which outlines various 'defects' that disqualify a priest from service:

17. Speak to Aaron, saying: Any man among your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect, shall not come near to offer up his God's food.
18.For any man who has a defect should not approach: A blind man or a lame one, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs;
19. or a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm;
20. or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or a commingling in his eye; dry lesions or weeping sores, or one with crushed testicles
21. Any man among Aaron the kohen's offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up the Lord's fire offerings. There is a defect in him; he shall not draw near to offer up his God's food.
22. His God's food from the most holy and from the holy ones, he may eat.
23. But he shall not come to the dividing curtain, nor shall he draw near to the altar, for he has a defect, and he shall not desecrate My holy things, for I am the Lord Who sanctifies them.

The implication is uncomfortable to the say the least. Put bluntly: if you look less than perfect that's because you are less than perfect. And while you're not disqualified completely from priestly responsibilities, you're also able to 'desecrate My holy things' just by being present. Ouch.

On the walk home from shul I made mention of this to one our members, who just so happens to be a professor and has studied this section in of the Torah in depth. In response to my questions she pointed me to Megillah 24b. In this section of Babylonian Talmud the sages get into a debate about who can lead the priestly blessings. Again, the topic of appearance comes up:

A priest whose hands are deformed should not lift up his hands [to say the priestly blessing]. Rabbi Judah says: also one whose hands are colored with woad or madder should not lift up his hands, because [this makes] the congregation look at him. ...

And it goes on from there. Again, being outside the normal appearance is seemingly enough to get you disqualified from being able to lead this practice.

And just when you think the case is closed, the sages throw in a curve ball:

But was there not one in the neighborhood of R. Huna who used to spread forth his hands? The townspeople had become accustomed to him. It has also been taught: A man whose eyes run should not lift up his hands, but if the townspeople are accustomed to him, he is permitted. Yohanan said: A blind person in even one of his eyes should not lift up his hands. But was there not one in the neighborhood of R. Yohanan who used to spread forth his hands?... The townspeople had become accustomed to him. It was also taught in a baraita: A blind person even in one of his eyes should not lift up his hands, but if the townspeople are accustomed to him, he is permitted. Judah says: A man whose hands are discolored should not lift up his hands. It was taught: If most of the men of the town have the same occupation it is permitted.

The problem, the sages explain, is that the above conditions are a distraction. Once the community becomes accustomed to these individual, the distraction falls away and the individual can participate fully.

Thus we have an antidote to this conundrum: familiarity. Very clever sages, very clever.

Turns out, my walking home partner didn't just study these topics, but apparently has written the book on them: check out Guide to Jewish Values and Disability Rights for a fascinating take on disability and Judaism.

As she explains on page 12 of this document:

Jewish law invokes the principle of “familiarity” (dash be’ iro) in modern rulings about whether priests with disabilities may recite the blessing. According to the Shulkhan Arukh, a widely accepted code of Jewish law, it takes only thirty days in a place to become familiar, as long he person intends to stay for a while. To put this principle into practice, the community has an obligation to see disability as commonplace and to recognize people with disabilities as a familiar presence in our midst.

In the hour and 25 minutes I spent with the character Frank, I gained just enough familiarity to stop seeing him as dangerous, unpredictable and unthinking. While this was certainly the result of a well scripted movie, there's no denying the power of simply being around those who don't look, talk or act like ourselves.

Black or white. Republican or democrat. Seeing or blind. Immigrant or native born. Never underestimate the power of familiarity.

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