May 16, 2022

Yevamot 56

Three years ago I attended a conference where Rabbi Dr. Rafi Feuerstein spoke about a topic close to his heart; a topic so close that he’d just edited a book on the subject.*
Titled, ‘Breaking the Glass Wall: Intimacy and Marriage for People with Disabilities’ (Hebrew), this book addresses the legal, halachic, social & practical questions relating to marriage with those with disabilities. And though it is always worthwhile sharing details of important books, the reason I mention this book relates to a remark in today’s daf (Yevamot 56a) discussing the case where two so-called ‘mentally competent’ people get engaged, and then the man became a חרש (deaf-mute).
Though the particular topic of חרש and our changing understanding of this status requires a much longer discussion than I can provide here, it is important to know that, according to rabbinic law, a חרש can marry (see Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 44:1). Still, the following statement in the Shulchan Aruch (see 44:2) appears to say that those with mental disabilities are seemingly unable to marry.
Admittedly, the statement in Even HaEzer 44:2 only speaks of a שוטה while halacha uses different words for different categories of disability. Still, all too often judgements are made and opinions are expressed which imply that those with disabilities are not ‘able’ to marry.
It is this topic that R’ Feuerstein directly addresses and challenges in his book wherein he – and the many authors whose articles are included in ‘Breaking the Glass Wall’ – are driven to present the importance of enabling those with disabilities to marry and the various systems that may need to be put in place in our communities to do so.
In terms of halacha, ‘Breaking the Glass Wall’ contains an essay by R’ Dr. Avraham Steinberg on ‘Halachic and Medical Perspectives’, as well as an essay by R’ Yuval Sherlow on ‘Marriage and having children’, and for those involved in community work, I suggest these – and so many more of the essays in this book – should be considered as essential reading.
As mentioned, I chose to discuss this topic because of a reference in today’s daf to ‘mental competence’ and disability. However, there is a further reason to do so, because the overall theme of Massechet Yevamot is about finding ways to help people who have experienced trauma, or loss, connect with a life-partner, and while our policy today is to prefer Halitzah over Yibum, there are sadly instances in our community where there has been no trauma or loss, meaning where no-one has died, yet there is nevertheless a reluctance to believe that things can be different and to enable such relationships. And it is this perspective and attitude that R’ Feuerstein seeks to change.
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