A few years ago, I spent Shabbat in Lower Manhattan, and went to shul at Town and Village Synagogue, where I witnessed something I’d never seen before. The entire Shabbat morning service, including the Torah reading, was provided simultaneously in translation. The alternate language wasn’t English, or Russian, and it certainly wasn’t Aramaic (the language of the traditional Targumim, or translations). In fact, it wasn’t translated into any spoken language at all.
The entire service was conveyed in sign language.
This memory returns to me this Shabbat, when we read in the second of our two parshiyot, Kedoshim: “Lo tekalel heresh–you shall not insult the deaf” (Leviticus 19:14). The verse continues with a warning: “You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” What’s the need for this reminder? Rashi explains that we tend to think that devarim hamesurim lalev, private, internal matters, are easy to conceal. After all, the heresh can’t hear our insult; what she can’t hear doesn’t hurt her! So the Torah reminds us that God hears everything, so we better watch what we say.
The Torah’s warning seems weakened, though, by the status of the heresh in traditional Jewish law. The Mishnah exempts the heresh from important mitzvot, along with minors, women and the shoteh (mentally incapacitated), not as a favor, but as a statement about their cognitive abilities. In many particulars of halakhah, the heresh‘s activities are limited; for example, a heresh‘s testimony is only accepted if validated by a hearing person.
The general ethical principle of our Torah reading does not seem to find expression in practical terms. How can this conflict be reconciled? How can the halakhic inequities be addressed? Is a signed translation such as I mentioned above the upper limit the access we can provide to the hearing impaired, or can we go further?
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise