Cochlear Implants & Jewish Law

And the ears of the deaf shall Be unstopped.

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This essay was the 2005 winner of The Whizin Prize, an essay contest open to all students from rabbinical training institutions around the world.

A cochlear implant is a device that is surgically implanted in the skull just behind the ear. There is also an external component to the device that is removable, and attaches to the skin above and behind the ear by means of an electromagnetic connection to the internal component. The external component has a wire connected to a receiver, which is worn behind the ear and looks somewhat like a conventional "behind the ear" hearing aid.

A Remarkable Transformation

The cochlear implant is designed to provide deaf individuals with the ability to hear some sounds. Although it is sometimes alluded to as a "cure" for deafness, it does not restore full hearing. At best, a cochlear implant permits a deaf individual to have access to auditory information, including environmental sounds, and to acquire speech skills with the proper intervention.

cochlear implants and jewish lawIn the best-case scenario when the implant is successful, the transformation in an individual can be remarkable. A cochlear implant coupled with speech and listening therapy and training may ultimately help an individual to function like a hard-of-hearing, and in some cases, like a hearing person. A deaf person can learn to speak intelligibly, understand spoken language, and in some exceptional cases, to talk on the phone. In short, the medical community contends that individuals with a cochlear implant have the potential to assimilate into hearing society with increased opportunities to take full advantage of all that society has to offer. Put another way, they contend that the cochlear implant increases the chance of improving a deaf person's quality of life. Implicit in this idea and technology is the sentiment that a deaf person's quality of life stands to be improved, and that auditory amplification can provide that improvement.

Deaf people have reacted to this new technology in a variety of ways. There are those who see deafness as a disability and handicap, and those who do not.  The medical community typically views deafness as a pathology and as an aberration. In this view, deafness is seen as a disability. According to this view, since people are expected to be able to hear, those who are unable to hear must have something wrong with them.

The deaf community or "Deaf culture/ Deaf world" asserts that deafness is not a disability; it is simply a part of the self, an aspect of identity. Members of Deaf culture self-identify as a culture under the rubric of a shared history, shared experience, and shared language. Within Deafculture, American Sign Language or ASL is the predominant language. The sharedexperience of Deaf culture consists not only of the shared minority experience of beingdeaf in a majority hearing world, but also of shared social norms and customs.

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Rabbi Darby J Leigh

Darby Jared Leigh, received smicha from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and was the first deaf man to be ordained as a rabbi by any of the major rabbinical seminaries in the U.S. He is currently the assistant rabbi at Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, New Jersey.