Tzemah Yoreh, So Compassionate It Hurts: My Life as a Rabbi on the Spectrum. N.p.,
Modern Scriptures, 2022.
“Nothing about us, without us”
These words have long
been the disability community’s mantra. But even now it is routine for anyone living with visible conditions to have “experts” tell “us” what we need. So it is
hardly a surprise that neurodiversity, being less visible, is one where it is
still routine to brush aside the thoughts of those who live with it. “We” are
categorized, labeled, given diagnoses of what is “wrong” and needs to be
“fixed.” We are rarely asked what would really help, and even more rarely is
there any acknowledgment that we have strengths and abilities.
Rabbi Yoreh’s story
begins with a story of self-discovery that is frequent for many of today's adults: knowing
they are different, but not having good descriptive terminology, all the time
seeking to understand differences. In the process of exploration, he upends the medical model of a deficit
to be fixed and brings us to a social model of having much to contribute. The book is his invitation to join a quest to learn if
his success is “because of” or “in spite of” the gifts which autism brings (35).
Central to discovery is the charge to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19). To the author's mind, surface answers are not sufficient. He finds resolution by realizing that the task is impossible, rather is it one to strive for. He finds strength from living in a world that has not been built for people like him, which has
resulted in better realization of the obstacles that others face.
From that realization he
finds other characteristics: a sense of fairness and equality coupled with an
understanding that while needed, authority is often balanced toward those with
various advantages. He is not a good liar, which is a “freeing” gift (40). But
while freeing, this gift has another side: a heightened sense of conflict and
of cognitive dissonance. In the end, it creates compassion for those whose
sense of equality leads to understanding and kindness in creating space for
those who are different.
Another step is the
perception that neurodiverse people wish to be left alone, and thus, we hear
again, that they lack compassion. The inside reality, however, is that social
interaction is draining due to the need to figure out what others are really
saying in a given situation. He gives an analogy to expending calories like an
Olympic distance runner, but being unable to sweat, and as a result, his CPU
overheats. One can love an activity but need breaks. This, in turn, leads to a
need for patterns in life—with the result anything out of the pattern is a
Finally, a theological
note (and complaint about history education). Many studies link autism to atheism or agnosticism. This is, as I read
it, not so much a lack of belief as an inability to grasp the idea of a great
otherness, stemming from that pragmatic nature. The early church “fathers”
include a school of apophatic theology—one
that is very similar, but recognizes some kind of source to all, however
inconceivable. Our systems don't do a good job of transmitting ancient wisdom, leaving us to continually re-invent the wheel!
In the end, whatever chasm lies between understanding the world of
neurodivergence and neurotypicality (whatever that might be) and one's idea of the divine, I am sure that she is thrilled with the rabbi’s
mantra of “being as kind as possible” (104). If more people had such a level of
compassion (or listened to those who do), this world would be a far better
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