To Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser, an expert in both Judaic studies and disability studies, being knowledgeable about multiple fields provides a unique opportunity to combine and compare disciplines; she analyzes each field in light of the other. 

On Tuesday, the annual Jewish Studies Colloquium convened to hear Watts Belser, assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University, and to discuss her ongoing work.

Introduced as someone whose scholarship “is a constant reminder of our intellectual, moral and emotional responsibility to break down barriers,” Watts Belser presented briefly on her new project, which attendees had read in advance. The project, an essay titled “Disciplining the Dissident Body: Disability, Gender, and State Violence in Rabbinic Literature,” discusses three “rabbinic stories” — Jewish theological tales — and their physical and symbolic portrayals of disability. 

Watts Belser explained that she’s interested in bringing disability theory in conversation with rabbinic text because they don’t always mesh seamlessly; theory can help her understand a story, but can also show her “a rocky spot,” something to grapple with in a source text.

Watts Belser added that “Dissident Body” is an effort to think about disability studies in conjunction with activist questions about state violence. She credited ideas emerging from queer communities of color for shaping her work. Those ideas about state violence against disabled bodies have led her to ask about “ancient state violence on the ancient Jewish body.”

She told the story of Shimon bar Yochai, a rabbi who spent 13 years hiding in a cave after criticizing the Roman government. In “Dissident Body,” she analyzed the story through a disability studies framework; she uses disability theory as a tool to analyze power and deviance and “things that happen to our flesh,” and explained that disability as a concept is culturally shaped. Disability is real, but the way a culture conceptualizes it “tells us as much about those cultures” as it does about disability, she said. 

Watts Belser also uses disability studies to look at how people marked as disabled are able to take back their own bodies and narratives.

Watts Belser said she thinks of bar Yochai’s body as disabled by Roman violence, despite its not being directly harmed.  That led her to think about God’s body, she said, and she did that through the other two texts mentioned in the paper.

One of the stories is a rabbinic tale about a Jewish boy arguing with Caesar. The boy quotes Psalms 115, saying of Caesar’s gods, “They have mouths but do not speak; they have eyes but cannot see.” The boy says that his own god does have the power to save him, but is choosing not to use it because he is insufficiently righteous. 

Watts Belser pointed out that this story calls the other nations’ idols worthless “because they are disabled.” Watts Belser asked whether one is supposed to interpret the boy’s response as legitimate, or whether it’s an opening to discuss the fragility of the Jewish body. 

Watts Belser went on to explain the other text she worked with, a discussion of why women die in childbirth. A few rabbinic sources say it’s a punishment for a woman’s sins, but ask why that punishment is inflicted in childbirth. 

The “classic rabbinic answer,” Watts Belser said, is that divine judgement is carried out during already-dangerous situations. Watts Belser said that the Talmud, an ancient Jewish theological text, explains this through a proverb of a “lame shepherd.” That shepherd (God) can’t catch lambs (people) running free, so instead the shepherd closes them in once they’ve returned to the pen or are otherwise trapped. Watts Belser believes this text uses disability as a path to creativity, rather than an undesirable condition to struggle with. 

During the post-presentation discussion, attendees and Watts Belser spoke about disability as a metaphor; she said disability language is now used “in ways … almost entirely separated from the physical body,” to the point where a blind Christian friend of hers often has to assert, “No, I actually am blind!” 

The discussion continued, covering topics ranging from spiritual blindness to women’s vulnerability to use of space in disability studies. One attendee pointed out that pregnancy is often referred to through disability language, and another asked about women’s pain in the stories cited. 

Watts Belser closed the discussion by asking what the texts say about divine capability, and whether “a willingness to imagine divine disability [is] reflective of, and expressive of, the world in which the late Antique sages were living.” 

The colloquium, hosted by the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, has been meeting since 2001, and Watts Belser’s talk was its third event this semester. Though Brandeis holds the meeting, faculty, graduate students and scholars from around the world are invited to attend.