Braille Sefer Torah

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    Leonard Sarko
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    I am asking for other to provide an opinion as to the creation of a Braille Sofer Scroll. I have provided lengthy discussion points to provide a foundation for this discussion. If you would like to comment directly you can email me at rabbi@templecav.org

    Thank you,

    Rabbi Lenny Sarko

    The Question of a Braille Sefer Torah

    The question as to how people with disabilities fit within the Jewish community has been debated for centuries. As scientific advances have occurred over time, the context of this question has changed significantly. I wish to focus on one aspect of this question as it pertains to our world today. Can we create and find acceptance of a Braille Sefer Torah?

    The question of blind people being called to the Torah in a community service has revolved around a number of directions. The first is the foundational point of can a blind person participate in a Torah service at all – or as a subtext – can a blind person be called to read Torah or for an Aliya?

    The approach of memorizing a Torah portion was not found acceptable. Most point to the argument found in Talmud Gitten 60B, “The words which are written you are not at liberty to say by heart”. What I find unsettling is that people who use this argument never quote the remainder of the line, “and the words transmitted orally you are not at liberty to recite from writing.” Talmud was originally an oral methodology. The individuals basing their opinion on this text are using a written document that began as an oral transmission. However, for the purposes of my base question, I will agree that a congregational reading of the Torah should not be done through memorization.

    In early Talmudic times and within the Shulchan Aruch, the perspective was that anyone who cannot read directly from the Torah Scroll cannot be called for an Aliya. This would exclude blind people. If applied across the board, it would also exclude members of the congregants who did not have the education allowing them to read from the scroll. As time moved forward, the honor of an Aliya was reinstated for congregants who could not read from the scroll through the use of a baal koreh, a master reader. The logic used was that although these people currently could not read directly from the scroll, they have the capability to do so in the future. This approach left out blind people as they did not have this possibility in the future.

    The general approach of most denominations and synagogues was to find ways to be inclusive, not exclusive, of people with disabilities. This was based on the Biblical concept that all people are created in the image of God and therefore should be part of our community. This approach would allow blind people to do an Aliya.

    There is an understanding that an Aliya and/or Torah reading is a community mitzvah and not an individual one. In this approach, anything that would cause the congregation to be distracted during the torah reading is unacceptable. This would include disformed people, people who are dressed inappropriately and potentially blind people. It is interesting that the commentary on this basis states that if a community is comfortable with the person who is disabled, then it is not a distraction, and the Aliya or Torah reading honor is acceptable.

    Scientific advancements has allowed other approaches to a Torah reading. There are electronic devices that can read text.. This is still an issue on a number of potential levels. First, they are electronic and many synagogues would not allow anything electronic to be used on Shabbat. Secondly, they have not been perfected enough to be clear in its function. A key element to a Torah reading is the communication of the text to the congregation. This equipment is not at the point to allow this to happen for the reader.

    Most commentaries on congregational reading of Torah takes the position that it should be done from a Sefer Torah and not a Chumash, except in very specific circumstances. I will not detail these arguments as it is not pertinent to my question. We will agree that a Sefer Torah should be used for a congregational reading.

    The point of reference for defining a Sefer Torah seems to rely on definitions found in Masekhet Soferim. Although Talmudic in approach, the authorship stems from post the Talmudic age, to around the eighth century. If we accept their definitions, what issues might be found with a Braille Sefer Torah?

    The use of parchment, its preparation and use, along with the wooden rollers and handles can remain the same in a Braille scroll. This reduces the argument to the letters.

    The letters of a Torah scroll are written in the Ashuri script, also known as “Assyrian” script. However, other scripts have been used across history and those scrolls were accepted as kosher. Hebrew Braille is not a different language nor is it a transliteration of Hebrew but in fact simply another type of Hebrew font. That it can be seen and/or felt is irrelevant. It is in fact a Hebrew script in every sense.
    In many sources, the specifications of the writing of a Sefer Torah is that everything in its production, including the letters, should be of organic origin. This can be applied with a Braille Sefer Torah. The letters can be produced by a totally wooden slate and stylus.

    There are also specifications as to the person writing the scroll – a sofer. This document will not deal with this question as I believe that if the scroll itself is found acceptable we can deal with the question at a later time.

    A Braille Sefer Torah removes the issue of the blind reading from memory – perhaps the largest argument against a blind person participating in a public reading. A Braille scroll would allow a blind person to read in no different manner than a sighted person.

    I have searched for the existence of a Braille Sefer Scroll and have not as of yet found one. I also have not as of yet found a reason why one could not or should not create a Braille Sefer Torah. It seems that such a scroll would provide an opportunity for a blind Jew to fully participate in a congregational service and that its production would and could meet all expectations of a kosher scroll. Judaism across the ages have adjusted to changes in cultures without removing the essence of Judaism itself. It seems to me that with the advances we have today a Braille Sefer Scroll is possible.

    I am asking others to provide their opinions to this question.

    Thank you,

    Rabbi Lenny Sarko

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