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Julia Watts Belser Rethinks Biblical Portrayals of Disability, Wins National Jewish Book Award

Professor Julia Watts Belser has been shaking up the worlds of theology and disability studies with her latest book, Loving Our Own Bones: Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness of Knowing Ourselves Whole. 

The volume, which offers a radical re-reading of both the Talmud and the Bible in light of lived disability experience, recently received the Myra H. Kraft Memorial Award in Contemporary Jewish Life from the Jewish Book Council

“People often ask me what religious texts say about disability,” said Watts Belser, a rabbi and a professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. “This book flips that question on its head and asks: ‘What does disability offer to Jewish tradition, to spiritual life and to the practice of building meaningful community?’”

Moses as Disabled Prophet

The cover of a book titled Loving Our Bones. The cover is yellow with the faint artwork of a tree in the background.

The cover of Julia Watts Belser’s most recent book, Loving Our Own Bones.

“Open the Bible and disability is everywhere,” Watts Belser says. 

One prominent example is the prophet Moses, who describes himself as “slow of speech and tongue”—and who fears that his speech disability will prevent him from carrying out God’s call. But God meets Moses’ access needs. Moses’ brother Aaron stands in as the first “reasonable accommodation” in the Torah, becoming an essential part of the prophet’s communication team. God grants Moses the gift of signs—an invitation to embrace visual language, rather than to rely on words.

God also promises to be with Moses as he speaks. For Watts Belser, this line is not about God fixing Moses’ tongue but relying on it. 

“I hear it as a claim that God’s presence is in the very particulars of Moses’ mouth, in the twists of his tongue, in the physical realities of the body God has formed for him,” wrote Watts Belser. “God has not undone Moses’s disability or erased it. God has promised presence, in and through the very tongue that Moses offers to the world.”

Throughout the book, Watts Belser not only dives into the life of Moses, but an array of foundational stories for Christian and Jewish thought, including the blindness of Isaac, Jacob’s struggle with an angel and the miracles of Jesus. 

The Lessons of Lived Disability Experience

Artwork on small, square pieces of paper featuring affirmations and bold colors. The work is displayed against a bold, blue backdrop.

Artwork from an event on Georgetown’s campus celebrating Loving Our Own Bones. Photograph by Leslie E. Kossoff.

Looking to disability studies and lived disability experience as a source of wisdom is a throughline for Watts Belser’s ongoing academic research. 

“This book aims to recognize disability wisdom as a generative, potent source of spiritual and political insight,” said Watts Belser. 

Watts-Belser recalls a moment in rabbinical school that shifted her perspective on how lived disability experience might inform, rather than be informed by, the religious texts to which she’d devoted her life to study. There is a famous debate in the Talmud about whether it is permissible to soften the truth to spare someone’s feelings.  When one ancient rabbi is asked how to praise a woman on her wedding day, he responds that it’s best to praise everyone in the same way—as “a beautiful and graceful bride.” Another rabbi contends that if the woman is blind or lame, those stock compliments will become lies. 

“The rabbi assumes that her disability makes her undesirable,” said Watts Belser. “It hit me so hard. Not just because that idea gets expressed in a sacred text, but because it remains such a ubiquitous assumption in contemporary culture. It’s a text that helped me realize that I would have to find a different way of reading these stories–one that would shake up those assumptions and showcase the powerful, subversive brilliance of disability culture.”

Lived disability experience is a wellspring of wisdom that not only enriches the realm of theology, but can improve all of our lives. “Ableism hurts all of us,” Watts Belser argues. She sees a powerful connection between the Jewish tradition of Shabbat and the disability community’s radical embrace of rest amidst modernity’s overpowering allegiance to productivity culture. 

“Immersing myself in the rhythms of disability culture, learning from folks with a whole host of disability experiences, including chronic illness, chronic pain and chronic fatigue, helped me recognize the radical edge of rest. So many disabled people experience significant limits to our energy and pace. For me, that has spurred an extraordinary invitation to detox from dominant culture’s claim that our worth is defined by our ability to work.”

“There’s a powerful synergy here with Jewish practice, with the way Shabbat honors and recognizes rest as sacred. It aligns so deeply with a principle that’s at the heart of the disability community — a commitment to honor people not for what we do, but for who we are. To recognize that regardless of whether or not we measure up to capitalism’s metrics, each of our lives have infinite value.” 

-by Hayden Frye (C’17)

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