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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Shabbat Balak 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon here or read below.

 

What do The Phantom of the Opera, Red Skull from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Kylo Ren from Star Wars, Scar from The Lion King, The Joker, Captain Hook and Bilam from this week’s parasha have in common? 

I’m hoping I managed to get a cultural reference in there that works for most of the demographics in this room!

listen to the audio version to hear people's answers

They’re all fictional characters where a physical disability or deformity is part of the narrative ark of their character. 

In perhaps one of the most well known examples of this genre, the Phantom of the Opera from Gaston le Roux’s novel and latterly Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Erik (the phantom)’s mother is terrified of the way her son looks, his appearance is the central feature of his origin story. His appearance was seen as so grotesque that when the 1925 silent film of the story was released, movie theatres were said to have kept smelling salts on hand. The assumed public reaction to his physical appearance is central to the story’s ark- if people had reacted differently the story wouldn’t exist.

When the 2020 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches was released, people noticed immediately that the witches were portrayed as having missing fingers. The implication was- perhaps unconsciously from the people behind the project- that they looked more wicked if they had some observable physical difference. 

It’s a lazy trope. One where physical deformity (even that word has connotations that are problematic) or disability is used as a metaphor for wickedness, embedded in someone’s back story as the source of their evil, or sometimes a person’s appearance or disability is characterised as an outward expression of inner moral corruption. 

In other words, disability exists in literature not as a natural feature of a world where people are different and sometimes people’s experiences are incidental to the narrative, but rather it exists to prop up the narrative- it’s a lazy shorthand for a certain type of storytelling and it embeds a paradoxical visibility. 

David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, two professors from the University of Illinois in Chicago call this phenomenon ‘narrative prosthesis’. A prosthesis is an artificial body part, often used as a mobility aid. Here the word prosthesis is used as a pun to describe a story that is held up and aided very literally by someone’s experience of disability. 

This has an impact that they want to draw our attention to, they write:

“while other marginalized identities have suffered cultural exclusion due to a dearth of images reflecting their experience, the marginality of disabled people has occurred in the midst of the perpetual circulation of images of disability in print and visual media. “ 

In other words, cultural representations of disability, and particular the way they function in storytelling, perpetuate discrimination and prejudiced attitudes.

It felt important to talk about this today because exactly this kind of narrative prosthesis happens in the way our rabbinic tradition talks about Bilam, the prophet in our story this Shabbat, and in the way the humour dynamics of the story in the Torah are played out. 

Bilam is known in rabbinic tradition as Bilam ha’rasha, Bilam the wicked, but the wickedness isn’t in the Torah, it’s developed as part of the rabbinic exegesis of his character and some of it comes from their reading of the Torah’s depiction of his physical ability. 

Bilam is this guy who sees visions who lives slightly apart from society and who when asked to curse the Israelites instead does a lot of praising them. In the middle of this there’s the famous donkey story, where Bilam lashes out at the donkey who has stopped for no reason. The donkey can see the angel of god whereas Bilam, supposedly a great seer and prophet cannot. Part of the comedy of this moment comes from the fact that Bilam can’t see- so the audience has a higher level of awareness than the character and it sets up a slight slapstick comedy moment. 

The Torah story doesn’t get much deeper than this momentary blindness, but the rabbis spend a lot of time developing an image of bilam that uses narrative prosthesis. “Balaam was blind in one eye” explain the rabbis in tractate Sanhedrin. Rabbi Yochanan says Bilam was disabled in one of his legs. Who is this journeying prophet who cant see and can’t walk joke the rabbis- who is Balak this moabite king to ask this man of all men to speak truth. One contemporary rabbinic commentary describes Bilam as having a ‘physical deformity that reflected a spiritual deficiency’. It reads: “They wondered how such a prophet could be so foolish as to imagine that he could effectively curse God treasured people, the Israelites?

They concluded that Balaam was able to see clearly the world with his seeing eye but when considering the Israelites’ fate either he used his blind eye or allowed all the gold that Balak was offering him to blind him to the truth that he would not be able to curse Israel. The Mishnah explains that this deficiency of sight and insight was the reason Balaam was denied a share in the World to Come”

I’m fascinated by the way the rabbinic tradition employs narrative prosthesis, and by the uncritical literary lens that means that commentaries like the one I have just quoted flow freely. What climate do they contribute to? What does this kind of language do to our perception of disability, to the way it becomes subtly encoded in people’s minds?  

I read a piece written by a paralympian about limb differences and how they were depicted in the witches film, she wrote:

‘For someone who was born without their right hand and forearm, I can tell you that these depictions in the media really matter. Throughout my childhood, and still to this day, I encountered kids (and adults) who are at best shocked by my arm, at worst, terrified. I have had children literally break into tears just looking at me. I do not want this for future generations, and the film industry has a significant part to play in this. The disability community needs characters that represent us as the multifaceted, complex and beautiful people we are, not as one-dimensional focuses of pity or fear.’

What if Bilam was just blind, or just had a limp, and it wasn’t a character ark? What if his disability was incidental, what if we had a prophet who was blind in one eye and it was left as it is in Torah as just a detail of who he is with no grand narrative attached- no patronising and redemptive character ark that turns him into a heroic exception, and no narrative prosthesis that uses his disability as a literary device to develop an image of wickedness. 

Torah is here to create a meeting place for us in community, we go into the text and we learn together in community so that we carry something with us into the world outside. This Shabbat, I wonder if it might be an invitation to challenge ourselves to notice when disability is used as a prop in a narrative, and what connotations come with that literary usage that might impact people’s mindset in society. If we are able to notice these structures at play in the world around us, we are better able to be advocates and allies in the fight for a more equitable, more inclusive, and more understanding world.

 

Tue, 9 August 2022 12 Av 5782