Cochlear Implants & Jewish Law

And the ears of the deaf shall Be unstopped.

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In short, Judaism teaches people to help the handicapped, which according to Jewish law, includes the deaf. Certainly proponents of the cochlear implant feel that they are doing exactly that in accordance with all of the principles of bioethics. Their perspective is that one's quality of life is substantially enhanced by virtue of being able to hear. If this view is correct, then from a Jewish bioethical perspective, a cochlear implant may not only be permissible, but also laudable in its attempt to help the deaf.

By contrast, since the most vocal members of Deaf culture don't see their deafness as a "broken" part of the self but simply as another aspect of themselves, any perceived attempt to "fix" that part of the self, which isn't broken in the first place, may be viewed as disrespectful at best and insulting at worst. Insult is clearly forbidden in the Torah in both the pshat and drash of Leviticus 19:14, "You shall not insult the deaf." Furthermore, attempts to "fix" deafness could be considered an affront to God.

Dorff, however, asserts therabbis' teachings that a physician has not only God's authorization, but also a moral and divine obligation to heal.Since those in the medical community view deafness as a defect, something that is broken, they believe they are justified in doing what they can to "fix" it. A logical conclusion of this argument is that, since we act "as God's partners in the ongoing act of creation,"43 the medical community is working with God to "make the deaf hear." One might even suggest that this process is helping to repair the world (tikkun olam), and that it is helping to fulfill the biblical prophecy that in the world to come (olam haba), "the deaf shall hear even written words," and, "the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped."

On the other hand, Exodus 4:11 states outright that God created deaf people on purpose. Exodus 4:11 reads, "[a]nd the LORD said to him, "Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?" One possible reading of this verse is that God created deaf people to experience life as such, as a deaf person, and divine providence in that respect ought not to be challenged. From one Jewish perspective, perhaps the goal vis a vis deaf people ought not to be to attempt to "fix" deafness, but to attempt to "fix" society's attitude with respect to deaf people. This would entail finding ways to make society as a whole more accessible to all those who are different, including those who are deaf. According to this viewpoint, it is possible to see the focus on "fixing" deafness asmisdirected.

Finally, relevant to the issues of deafness, difference, and the cochlear implant is the idea that Judaism teaches us to recognize the divine image inherent in all persons, including those who are different or disabled. To this end, there is a blessing (bracha) Jewish people are traditionally taught to say when they see someone who is different, or who has a disability. Dorff translates the brakha, which reads Barukh ata adonai elohaynu melekh ha-olam m'shaneh habriyot,as, "Praised are you, Lord our God, who makes different creatures," or "who created us different."Astor offers the following translation, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who makes people different."

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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.