Courtesy Julia Watts Belser
I first met Rabbi Julia Watts Belser in 2016 in Boston before a keynote address she delivered called “Disability and the Art of Midrash.” In that talk, she laid out how she interprets text, tradition, and Torah from her perspective as a disabled woman. The approach, said Watts Belser—who uses a wheelchair—is “Torah told at a slant.”
Watts Belser continues her ongoing work in Jewish justice and, as her new book, Loving Our Own Bones: Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness of Knowing Ourselves Whole, notes, her “commitment to center the wisdom of queer, feminist, and disabled Jews.” In the book, she sources Jewish texts to contextualize and craft new conversations on disability.
As a rabbi, Watts Belser has taught Torah through queer, feminist, and disability lenses to communities across Jewish life, facilitating conversations about access, equity, and belonging. Watts Belser—who is also professor of Jewish studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University, core faculty in Georgetown’s Disability Studies Program, and a senior research fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs—told me in a recent interview that she aims for these teachings to be “revelatory and revolutionary.”
Watts Belser traces her activism to her undergraduate days at Cornell University, where she enrolled in a disability studies course. “It changed my life,” she told me. “I devised a campus-mapping project where a group of us documented barriers in the physical environment, focusing especially on wheelchair access. It was a visceral experience of understanding ableism as a system and structure that results in concrete acts of exclusion.”
Her early college experience, she added, “laid the groundwork for a life of activism because it helped me diagnose the problem differently. It taught me that we built this world in ways that disadvantage certain people. It also helped me see that we could build it differently. It’s an ethical imperative.”
According to Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, whose work includes the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, Watts Belser embodies the “belief that inclusion and understanding of all people is essential to a fair and flourishing community.” The Ruderman Foundation—whose advocacy for the disabled began in the Boston Jewish community with a gift to Jewish day schools stipulating that all children, including those with disabilities, were entitled to a Jewish education—advocates for “the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout society.” To that end, Ruderman said: “We admire Rabbi Watts Belser’s work to incorporate Jewish wisdom, ethics, and literature in her quest to bring about impactful social change for marginalized communities.”
Watts Belser opens and closes Loving Our Own Bones with the awesome image of correlating the wheels of her own wheelchair to those of God’s chariot. The insight came to her years ago at a Shavuot service, which traditionally includes a reading from the Book of Ezekiel. In her book, she highlights Ezekiel’s description of the chariot as vast and “lifted up by four angelic creatures with fused legs, lustrous wings, and great wheels. The wheels ‘gleamed like beryl,’ they were ‘wheels within wheels’ and the ‘spirit of the creatures was in the wheels.’” The image immediately dazzled Watts Belser and led her to the extraordinary idea that God has personally experienced disability.
At the end of the book, she comes back to God’s chariot wheels to invoke “a moment of representation and kinship—of seeing myself as a wheelchair user reflected in God’s way of moving through the world. While initially captivated by the idea that the text was a mirror to my own experience, I began to think theologically about the significance of God’s wheels. What do they offer? What do they allow God to feel and to know? For me, there is something about the physicality of my experience as a wheelchair user. I feel the ground roll up through my body in a way that most walking people do not. I feel the vibration of the ground coming up through my wheels and into my body. It’s a visceral sense of connection.”
In her readings of Moses’ and Isaac’s disabilities, Watts Belser discusses the implications of healing versus curing. For her, the distinction between the two words is not a matter of semantics. She asserts that Moses’ speech impediment is not a defect that needs to be cured. Moses will always stutter, and he is aided through a set of accommodations that include his brother Aaron as interpreter and a magnificent staff that Pharoah experiences as dangerous magic and Watts Belser says is “assistive technology.” The description is more than a clever bit; it places the staff on par with Watts Belser’s wheelchair embodying the wheels of God’s chariot.
In Loving Our Own Bones, Watts Belser is clear in her writing that she wants “to upend the assumption that lies beneath Midrash Tanhuma that when Moses delivers the words of Deuteronomy, he speaks with flawless fluency. Why should we imagine that Moses has lost the distinctive quality of his own speech? Why should we imagine his mouth remade?”
In an episode of the Association for Jewish Studies’ podcast, Watts Belser told her interviewer that Midrash Tanhuma “claims that Moses was cured because he learned Torah. ‘You said you were not a man of words,’ the midrash asserts, reflecting on Moses’ protest in Exodus 4, ‘and here now, you speak exquisitely.’”
Watts Belser acknowledges there is healing at the heart Moses’ story. However, she says, “Moses is freed of internalized ableism, that terrible sense of insufficiency that led him to tell God he wasn’t fit to lead because of his own stutter. But I also mean to name the way that the community is transformed—how people learn to listen more keenly to Moses’ voice and value him as a stuttering speaker.”
The essence of Watts Belser’s thinking about Moses’ stutter encapsulates her holistic thinking about disability. She noted in an email following our conversation that her readings of Moses and Isaac’s disabilities “ask us to reimagine the way we regard disability, to challenge the common perception that disability is a personal flaw or private lack that needs to be minimized or overcome.”
She considers Isaac’s blindness and Rebecca’s ruse in presenting Jacob as Esau to receive his father’s blessing of the firstborn in texts that associate Isaac with low vision or blindness throughout much of his life. There are virtually no visual cues in Isaac’s origin story and beyond. For example, Isaac’s name evokes the sound of laughter. On Mount Moriah, he asks his father where the lamb is—a natural question from a child for whom so much has been hidden. He intuits that Rebecca is beautiful, but his love for her is not attached to her physical appearance.
Watts Belser further explained in her email: “Of course, there’s no definitive claim to be made here about whether or how Isaac perceives during his early years. But instead of assuming that every biblical character senses according to the normative pattern, I’m inclined to let the available evidence invite us to ask: What if Isaac has never been secure in his sightedness?”
Loving Our Own Bones is also an intimate portrayal of Watts Belser’s relationship with her wheelchair. In the book, she describes how “I flow together with my wheels—two intertwined bodies becoming one as we roll.” She says that “over the decades, I’ve built relationships with many different wheelchairs—getting to know their preferences and particulars, coming to understand how they move through the world and what that means for how we live together.”
As Watts Belser and I discussed the mobility her wheelchair provides her—she has traveled the world on her own—we segued into a nuanced discussion of ableism. She firmly and rightly rejected my comment that I did not think of her as disabled. “When people tell me ‘I don’t think of you as disabled,’ it’s meant as a compliment,” she told me. “But it’s predicated on a very negative view of disability. It assumes the category of disability is horrible, tragic, limited, and disastrous. Disability is a part of life. It can be a source of great understanding—an opening to feel and know and explore things I might otherwise have never done.” She further explained she proudly uses the term disability “because I believe that living a vibrant unabashedly disabled life is a brilliant way of refuting ableism’s lie.”
Watts Belser cautions against “making a silver-lining story out of disability. It’s bogus and it does tremendous harm to people.” In the book, she refers to those stories as “inspiration porn.” She writes in her book: “Disabled folks aren’t on this earth to enlighten or inspire. We weren’t born to put other people’s troubles in perspective, to cheer you up, to remind you that it could be worse. We aren’t exemplars of courage or cautionary tales. We aren’t your heartwarming story, your feel-good click.”
Watts Belser told me that the idea of a disabled person as inspiring or serving as a role model brings comparisons that “do no one any good. We all have a stake in working to undo ableism. It would be a great service if the word ‘inspiration’ is not presented as an ideal.” She wants readers to “recognize and resist the kind of violence that follows when we force people to fit into a one-size-fits-all society.”
Her thinking on Shabbat observance is similarly forthright and unambiguous in refuting ableism as all-encompassing. “Shabbat is my antidote to ableism,” she pointed out. The beauty of Shabbat is to counter ableism’s emphasis on hyperproductivity. “Shabbat is a way of unraveling some of those assumptions that my worth is measured by my work; my value is bound up with my ability to make and earn and produce.”
For Watts Belser, Shabbat “unbinds” people from our fast-paced world: “Ableism isn’t good for anybody with a body or mind,” she said. “It has its claws in all of us, but it most profoundly targets disabled people.”
Among Watts Belser’s observations, perhaps the one that most concisely conveys the spirit of Loving Our Own Bones is the concept of disability “as spiritual dissent.” She explains: “Being disabled in a world that often treats disabled people with disdain has taught me to say no. Disability has taught me to say no to lies about who we are, to say no as unapologetically as I can. It’s a crucial lesson for all of us.”
Her ideal world is embodied in an anecdote from her book about a young deaf girl. Her teacher said that in the world to come, the girl would be able to hear. The girl countered that in the world to come, God would know sign language.
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and other venues. She is the author of Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets.