Through spiritually enriching re-encounter with Biblical story, Convivium contributor Keith Dow finds an opening to overcome crippling limitations in “hyper-normalizing” narratives about physical disability.
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“This is how the Holy moves through me, in the intricate interplay of muscle and spin, the exhilarating physicality of body and wheel, the rare promise of a wide-open space, the unabashed exhilaration of a dance floor, where wing can finally unfurl.” ~ Rabbi Julia Watts Belser
In the clash and confusion of stories; in the tangled intersection of the accounts of our lives, we receive both our roots and our wings. Stories grant us a sense of belonging that ground our identity within our “tribe.” Diverse stories can also provide the framework from which to critique any well-intentioned errors or inadvertent prejudices we may hold. To learn in this way, we must encounter others’ accounts as strange new friends rather than as threats to our sense of belonging.
As a temporarily able-bodied, straight Christian man, the perspectives that Julia Watts Belser shares on Judeo- Christian Scripture – as a self-identified feminist, queer, disabled bi-sexual Jew – crash into my own with resounding force. I enter worlds not my own, accounts not of my own making. In processing these words, I am changed; I grow, I become.
Throughout the past five years, I have attended the annual Summer Institute on Theology and Disabilityheld in various cities across North America. This conference is an opportunity for people who experience disabilities, advocates, theologians, and practitioners from diverse backgrounds to come together and consider the intersection of faith and disability. It was in 2015 that Julia’s storytelling first unsettled my reading of sacred stories.
In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks of the glory of the Lord displayed through a bizarre melding of flashing fire, gleaming metal, and four uncanny creatures with human and animal likenesses. These creatures have human faces and wings. They are carried along wherever God’s spirit goes. Ezekiel describes a vast chariot with each wheel “being as it were a wheel within a wheel.” Indeed, the “spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels” (Ezekiel 1:4-28, ESV).
We may be tempted to pass quietly by such weird and wonderful accounts in Scripture. We seek, instead, passages that are familiar and comfortable like intimate friends or well-worn shoes. In passing by these stranger-stories, little do we realize that we bypass opportunities to behold God and neighbour in new guise. Belser herself found little inspiration in Ezekiel’s passage until one Shavuot (also known as the Feast of Weeks) when she exclaims, “Ezekiel’s vision split open my imagination. Hearing those words chanted, I felt a jolt of recognition, an intimate familiarity. I thought: God has wheels!” As a wheelchair user, Belser delights in her intimacy and interaction with her chair. It is her wheels that give her body wings. In the “exhilarating physicality” of intertwining muscle and steel, Belser is poised to experience divine creation in ever-expanding ways.
Through Belser’s reflection, Ezekiel’s words take on new significance for me. I apprehend the communion and intimacy of the divine in a profound way; as the swirling together of form and mystery and revelatory grace.
Belser’s words carry my spirit into a world I could not have even glimpsed previously: the beauty, intimacy, and delight one’s body may find in close union with assistive devices.
Earlier this summer, at the 2018 Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, Belser again disrupted my notion of normalcy and obliviousness to nuance. In a sizeable air-conditioned room impervious to the hot North Carolina sun, Belser unpacked the Biblical account of Jacob wrestling with the angel (or God) in Genesis 32:22-32. Jacob’s, too, is a strange tale. A man wrestles with Jacob through the night, until the break of day. Seeing that he will not emerge victorious, the man touches Jacob’s hip and throws it out of joint. Jacob realizes that he is not wrestling with mere man, or an angel, but with God. He refuses to release his adversary until he is blessed: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel [meaning “he strives with God”], for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28, ESV). Again, my temptation is to gloss over the difficult questions in this encounter.
Would God not easily win a wrestling match? Why would God want to wrestle in the first place? Why such confusion between man, angel, and God? Would God cheat?
Rabbi Belser turns to face the provocation of this passage directly, though not as my questions might anticipate. Belser’s focus arises out of her embodied experience of the world, a world that I rely on her to reveal to me. Even in relating this passage to disability, one’s first instinct might be to locate disability in Jacob’s limp. Belser instead directs our attention towards the angelic stranger.
Disabled people (or people with disabilities, as is sometimes preferred) are too often associated with sentimental “angels,” as social media or popular misconception reduces complex lived reality to inspirational trivia. (Watch Stella Young’s challenging TEDx talk, “I’m not your inspiration,thank you very much” for more on this theme.) This is not what Belser has in mind.
“In ancient Jewish thought, angels are uncanny beings— their bodies both wondrous and strange,” she says.
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She goes on to observe that “Disabled people are often subject to a similar hyper-normalizing gaze, a gaze that denies our difference. When our difference is centered, it is commonly marked as a source of fear and threat.” Put differently, people with disabilities regularly face the confusion and disorientation of others who encounter their bodies. Disability is either disregarded and undermined or reacted to as threatening; as something to be feared. In the Genesis account of Jacob and the angel, we bump into God-with-skin-on; a God who wrestles with the physical body of Jacob and with the “hyper-normalizing gaze” of humanity. Where disabled bodies are often held at a distance, we find in this passage an intimate dance of flesh and the divine, vulnerability and strength, of disabling and disabled touch.
When she does turn to Jacob, Belser reflects on the “wholeness” he experiences upon arriving in the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18). This is a wholeness that might also be translated to arrive “peacefully” or “safely.” It does not mean that Jacob’s limp, his physical limitation, has been removed or cured in the way that non-disabled people tend to understand “health” or “wholeness.”
“Jacob arrives whole in Shechem not because he strides in, unaffected by his encounters of the road, but because he has integrated disability into his identity because he has allowed himself to be changed by the angel’s touch.”
I cannot help but wonder how often I have turned down opportunities to experience the wholeness of the world by rejecting the stories of people whose bodies are wondrous or strange to me. With my own hyper-normalizing gaze, I have overlooked and undermined accounts – even in sacred texts – that fall outside of my expectations or preconceptions.
In Chimamonda Ngozi Adichie’s insightful TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, she observes, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
While I could never recount or predict the ways that diverse perspectives have shaped or will shape my narrative, I am thankful for people like Rabbi Julia Watts Belser who generously and insightfully share their stories. Through this mysteriously intricate interplay of our embodied accounts and sacred texts, the Holy wrestles, moves, and dances in us and in our communities of faith.
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