Responsum: A Community Bar-Mitzvah Celebration for a Child with Cognitive Disabilities

 Community Bar-Mitzvah Celebration for a Child with Cognitive Disabilities [1]

Rav Zvi Koren, Rav Dov Berkowitz, Rabbanit Rachel Levmore, Rav Shmuel David, Rav Amit Kula, Rav Isaac Eisner, Rav Ronen Neuwirth, Rav Aviad Sanders, Rabbanit Ora Krauss, Rav David Brofsky, Rabbanit Batya Krauss, Rabbanit Nechama Barash, Rav Daniel Wolf, Rabbanit  Michal Tikochinsky, Rabbanit Karen Miller Jackson, Rav Moshe Speter, Rav Yoav Shternberg, Rav Shmuel Klitzner, Rav Meir Nehorai

1. The Bar Mitzvah

“At age 13 he is obligated to keep the commandments.”

Bar-Mitzvah age is the time when, according to tradition, a boy becomes a man and an adult, and becomes responsible for the rest of the people of Israel. Ancient traditions relate that this is the time that boys would be brought forth to receive a blessing from the elders, who would pray that the boy would grow to become a Torah-observant individual who keeps God’s commandments.

Various communities designed this coming-of-age ceremony in a way that expressed this set of values. The climax of the ceremony is when the boy is called up to the Torah, an act that symbolizes entry into adulthood. From then on, he also participates in communal prayer and becomes responsible for the preserving the Torah’s continuity and passing on its teachings on to a new generation.

Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are very exciting for families and communities, and this excitement encourages the boy to accept the yoke of Torah and the mitzvot. The community is blessed through its children, and expresses its values by welcoming this new member into its fold.

Can a mentally handicapped child go through this teaching process as well? Will he also be given an aliyah, to bless God and to declare “He who chose us among all nations and gave us His Torah?” Can his family feel that the education the boy received over 13 years bore fruit, as their child joins the community as an adult?[2] The document will use the halachah and the spirit of the halachah to try to respond to these questions.

2. What does the Lord your God ask of you?

 Part of the Mitzvah of improving the world around us, which we are charged with as Jews, is to right wrongs and welcome new friends to rest under the wings of the Shechinah. This issue was addressed in “Torah and Halacha’s approach to mentally handicapped individuals in light of ethical and scientific developments”[3]. Mentally handicapped boys challenge us to take initiatives to create a reality in which celebrating their Bar Mitzvah will be considered normal and commonplace for both their families and their communities.

The first step is to adopt a fundamental approach that clearly states that these boys have the right to celebrate their Bar Mitzvahs in our communities, and that they’ll celebrate as part of us. We should be as stringent as possible in keeping the commandment of “loving your fellow man as yourself” by including these boys as members of the community, like any other individual. In certain cases, when the boy’s condition does not allow him to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah like the other boys, we need to follow the biblical principle of “the law will cut through the mountain”, meaning that we’ll have to find a customized and meaningful solution for him. We need to tailor a Bar Mitzvah package to every boy, whatever his condition. It should suit his abilities, so that he and his families can celebrate his Bar Mitzvah in a dignified and meaningful way.

We must internalize the approach that handling a challenge presents us with an opportunity, not a problem. It’s an opportunity for us to do Tikkun for the individual – the boy with the disability, the family – which is waging a daily struggle for the boy to function as best he can, and the community, which can seize the opportunity to enrich its world by identifying and including others, and in so doing, advancing the tikkun of society at large.

With this kind of approach towards the boy and his family, they can truly rejoice at his Bar Mitzvah, and the entire community can take another step towards God, and His mitzvot.

3. The role of the congregation and its spiritual leadership (rabbis, teachers and other leaders of the congregation)

The congregation and its spiritual leadership play a key role in this issue.

  1. Every human being was created in God’s image. Spiritual leadership should teach this Torah value and stress its importance. It is in those very places where a gap exists between a theoretical ethical concept and its practical implementation that it behooves the community to teach and be inclusive of people with disabilities.
  2. The approach taken by a disabled child’s close family can have either a positive or a negative effect on the child’s development. Spiritual leadership and the congregation should support the family and encourage it to take a positive approach to including the child to the best of its ability.
  3. The active and positive participation of a spiritual leader in the integration of an individual with mental disabilities may determine the boy’s religious future and his connection to Jewish tradition and practices. “As in water, face answers to face, so is the heart of a man to a man.” (Proverbs 29:19)
  4. Children with mental disabilities are developing to a more advanced level than ever before. Beside the new tools that science provides us with, the family’s perseverance has the greatest impact. It is inspirational in how well it empowers the children and their capabilities. These families are coping with existing accepted boundaries in care facilities, educational facilities, and even the communities themselves, and at times, they feel isolated. A supportive community guided by a spiritual leader can help these families along this process, extricate them from their sense of isolation and encourage society at large to be more inclusive.
  5. Another matter that facing spiritual leaders is clarifying halachic issues on the status of mentally disabled boys and the prospects for integrating them in a Torah-observant community. The more Torah scholars dedicate themselves to studying this topic and dealing with it in practice, the more knowledge we’ll have as a society, which can lead to a halachic ruling based on a firm understanding of this new reality, with all of its human sensitivities.In parallel, it’s worth developing alternatives for cases in which, for various reasons, a boy can’t celebrate his Bar Mitzvah the way most do. These should be meaningful ceremonies that are adapted to the child’s abilities and dignify him and his family. A meeting with the boy’s family before the time of his Bar Mitzvah may help set the correct expectations and determine what is possible. We can honor the Bar Mitzvah boy by letting him hold the Torah scroll, or read a verse from the Torah portion – in other words, by doing whatever he is capable of doing. The ceremony can be postponed to adjust to the boy’s level of development, and there is no obligation to have it when he’s exactly 13 years old. The family can choose a day of the week to plan a get-together with family and friends. The basic goal is to set a time for the boy to meaningfully mark his acceptance of the mitvot.

4.Clarifying Halachah: a Bar Mitzvah celebration for a boy with developmental mental disabilities

Question: May a boy with mental-developmental disabilities celebrate his Bar Mitzvah by getting an aliya or by reading from the Torah, and does the community fulfill its halachic obligation when he does so? If the community does not fulfill its obligation, can he get an aliya anyway? Is there any value in that?

Answer: A Bar Mitzvah celebration is considered a Jewish rite of acceptance within the congregation. It is socially and emotionally meaningful for a teenage boy and his family. Mentally-developmentally disabled boys and their families often feel bewildered as the boy draws closer to Bar Mitzvah-age, because they don’t know if the boy is fit to join those who get aliyas, and they don’t know how the community will respond to this challenge.

In the next few paragraphs, we’ll present a halachic clarification on this matter, but first, we’ll present its conclusion:

A mentally-developmentally disabled boy that can learn to read the Torah and its blessings, and has a rudimentary understanding of the meaning of the mitzvah, is obligated to keep the mitzvoth, and may be called up to the Torah and fulfill the community’s obligations. Even children who don’t fulfill these criteria can be called to the Torah, or to recite maftir, and the blessings.

In order to commit to keeping the Torah commandments, one must have knowledge. This is why the Torah exempted “those who lack knowledge”, i.e., the katan “the minor” and the shoteh “psychotic”. Who is considered a “psychotic”? The accepted position of the poskim is that a shoteh is an adult who suffers from a mental illness that clouds his cognitive functions. So, what happens with someone with a mental-developmental disorder? Some would see him as a shoteh that is exempted from the mitzvot, while others categorize them as “peti” (“simple-minded”). Is a peti required to keep the mitzvot? Here, too, the rabbinic authorities are divided. According to Rambam and the Chatam Sofer,  it’s a matter of ability, so boys should be assessed on a case per case basis.

Later rabbinic authorities coalesced around a position that differentiated between various types of peti. You don’t need to have the knowledge level of an average adult to be obligated to keep the mitzvot; “knowledge possessed by children” is sufficient. By passing comprehension tests or demonstrating the ability to learn, the child can be classified as one of those required to keep the mitzvot. If he “knows that the Holy One Blessed be He gave us the Torah and that we are keeping His commandments”, he’s considered obligated, so automatically, the community can fulfill their obligations through him. Another possible thought is that even those who see the peti as a fool are referring to the lowest level of peti, namely, that the individual’s cognition is severely impaired, as elucidated by Maimonides:

Those who are ‘severely peti’ do not recognize things that contradict each other, and would not understand matters as any other would.

It would therefore follow that mentally-developmentally disabled boys that can learn to read from the Torah can understand the meaning of observing the mitzvot, on a basic level, and can clearly read properly. These boys should be allowed to get an aliya and fulfill the obligation of the congregation. However, even if a boy has a more severe disability, which precludes him from fulfilling the requirement of the congregation, there is great value in including him in the observance of the mitzvot and in communal activities. A congregation is also responsible for creating a warm and open environment, and extending an outstretched hand to these boys and adults, inviting them to be a part of the synagogue and the activities of the congregation.

As for reading from the Torah, the Talmud states that if a minor knows whom he is blessing, even though he isn’t required to observe the mitzvot, he may be called up to the Torah, and he may read and say the blessing. Although the poskim placed certain limitations on this halacha, everyone agrees that it is permissible for a minor to get an aliya for maftir on an ordinary Shabbat, in which the maftir reading repeats the last verses of the weekly portion. Therefore, even mentally-developmentally disabled children, who may or may not be considered obligated to fulfill the mitzvot, can get an aliya for maftir, and make the appropriate blessing.

5. Conclusions:

In our contemporary reality, where disabled individuals are integrated within the community, it is imperative for spiritual leadership and members of the congregation to take action to integrate these individuals as much as possible in their communities. A Bar Mitzvah in the community is one event that we must pay attention to. The halachah allows boys to celebrate their Bar Mitzvah in the community, in accordance with their skills and abilities, and consequently, communities should help these boys’ families make the best of the options they have available for their child’s Bar Mitzvah, and bring about a change in the congregation, wherever needed. If we take more action in this regard, our society will be more civilized and more deserving of redemption, as we merit to play a role in the materialization of the prophet Isaiah’s prophecy:

Strengthen weak hands, and make firm tottering knees. Say to the hasty of heart, “Be strong, do not fear; behold our God, [with] vengeance He shall come, the recompense of God, that shall come and save you.

Once this is accomplished, we’ll merit seeing the entire prophecy materialize:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped..
And the redeemed of Zion shall return, and they shall come to Zion with song, with joy of days of yore shall be upon their heads; they shall achieve gladness and joy, and sadness and sighing shall flee.

6. Expounding upon the clarification of the halachah and its sources (halachic anchors for the ruling given in the previous section

1. The condition of knowledge

 To be held responsible for observing mitzvot, the Torah requires an individual to have da’at (intelligence or knowledge). Minors are not the only ones exempt from observing mitzvot – adults “lacking knowledge” are, too. One such adult is the shoteh (psychotic). The Talmud lists several signs that can indicate an individual’s “lack of knowledge” – like going outside at night alone, sleeping in a cemetery, tearing clothes that are worn, and losing whatever one is given. Are these the only characteristic behaviors, or are they just examples of an individual’s mental weakness? The rishonim held varying opinions, and this debate also affects how we clarify the halachah. Who falls under the category of shoteh? Rav Chaim Soloveichik postulates that the shoteh includes not only those suffering from a mental illness that impairs their judgment, but also those with a mental-developmental disability, though most achronim dispute this view and feel that the Talmudic shoteh only refers to those suffering from a mental illness. In their view, the status of a mentally-developmentally disabled individual is covered by a term coined by Maimonides: peti (simple-mindedness).

2. Peti (simple-mindedness)

In Hilchot Edut (the laws of testimony), chapter 9, halachah 10, Maimonides writes:

People who are very feeble-witted, who do not understand that matters contradict each other and are incapable of comprehending a concept as it would be comprehended by people at large are considered among those mentally unstable. This also applies to the people who are continually unsettled, tumultuous, and deranged. This matter is dependent on the judgment of the judge. It is impossible to describe the mental and emotional states of people in a text.

Sefer Me’irat Einayim (Choshen Mishpat, topic 35, subtopic 21) distinguishes between those with mental-developmental disabilities and the shoteh (who suffers from mental illness), in terms of the requirement of “knowledge” for observing the mizvot and maasei kinyan (transactions involving the legal transfer of ownership):

How do a peti and a shoteh differ? The mind of a shoteh is completely deranged and impaired with regard to a specific thing, while a peti isn’t completely deranged in any particular subject. However, the peti is inferior to the shoteh in one respect, because for all other matters, the shoteh is as intelligent as everyone else, while the peti, whose mind is incomplete, does not understand anything the way others do…

Maimonides identifies the peti as a shoteh. However, several poskim limit the scope of this definition. Rav Joseph Trani (the Maharit) states that Maimonides was only referring to those whose intelligence is very limited and have no cognitive ability, based on Maimonides words: “very feeble-witted”. Furthermore, he qualifies that Maimonides’ ruling only applies to the laws of testimony, whereas in the case of ownership and acquisition, and even with regard to marriage and divorce, if a matter is explained to a peti and he understands it, he is considered to be of sound mind.

Following the lead of Maimonides, the Chatam Sofer rules that a lack of intelligence, even if no “insanity or psychosis” is noted, disqualifies someone from bearing testimony or participating in any other Torah rulings. The precedent he presents is the Talmudic case of a deaf person. Although a deaf person isn’t a shoteh, he is considered to be lacking in intelligence.

And therefore, when we can note even the slightest clear thought, even if it is partial, they [peta’im] are considered of sound mind and are not shotim… any peti with clear thoughts, even if it is partial, is regarded as a person of sound mind.

Thus, the Chatam Sofer’s position is that when assessing a group of mentally-developmentally disabled individuals, we should distinguish between those considered to be “lacking intelligence”, who would have the halachic status of shoteh, and those in which a spark of wisdom or sound mind is noted – those people are considered to be of sound mind.

3. Intelligence testing

A widespread position held by the achronim is that the “intelligence” necessary for legal acts and becoming accountable for the observance of Torah law is da’at pa’utot (“the intelligence of toddlers”). Onat Pa’utot – the season of childhood – is a halachic concept that states that even children can make a purchase, as long as the child has “some capacity to discern”. However, most cases brought to a beit din may not be initiated by a child, since the Torah requires the individual to be an adult, and any provisions allowing a child to transfer ownership are due to the rabbinic decree of k’dei chayav (purchasing items required for the child’s basic sustenance). This level of intelligence may seem to be enough for certain other cases brought to the beit din as well, according to positions taken by several rabbinic sages, as attested to in a Talmudic passage.

Although the opinions in the Talmud differ with regard to the scope of “the childhood period” (which ranges from age 6 to 10), we conclude that the relevant criterion is the level of intelligence, and not the biological age, as the Talmud states: “each individual according to his winters”.

Can this standard be converted into a modern set of criteria? Some would argue that the required intelligence could be measured by an IQ test, so the requirement to have the intelligence level of a child is equivalent to the average IQ of an eight-year-old child. Others disqualify this suggestion, believing that a test of “intelligence” should measure an individual’s ability to learn. In the preface to their book, Professor Reuven Feuerstein and Rav Rafi Feuerstein ponder why the Chatam Sofer suffices with “some measure of having a sound mind” to consider a peti to be of sound mind.

How is the Chatam Sofer’s position psychologically logical? Why is “some measure of a sound mind” enough? … Why should a bit of skill be an indicative measure for the wider cognitive abilities of a human being?

This question is answered by Feuerstein’s theory of structural cognitive modifiability. This theory assumes that our cognitive abilities aren’t inherent – they are acquired. Therefore, the essence of “intelligence” is “learning”, since there is no intelligence if no learning process is underway. But we can restate the sentence in reverse: if one has intelligence, a learning process must be underway. And if there is a learning process, a boy can’t be a peti, since a peti is one who can’t learn. Someone who can’t learn can’t think as well, and would lack “intelligence”. However, someone who has proven his ability to learn by having even the tiniest island of knowledge in a sea of ignorance is considered to be like an island that has dried up the ocean. Therefore, the status of having a sound mind should not be determined through IQ tests, but rather on the basis of learning ability tests. This view is hinted at by the Talmud.

And in my view, one can conclude that an individual with a cognitive impairment, who has exhibited the intelligence of children and passed the age of accepting the mitzvot, is like an adult for all matters of Torah judgments and acts of ownership. This is what Rav P. Scheinberg writes in an important article published on this topic:

It may seem that a mentally retarded individual that is over 13 years old and has the intelligence level of a child is considered an adult, and is held responsible for the observance of the mitzvot like any other adult. The child therefore fulfills two conditions – he must be old enough, and he must have adult knowledge – and he isn’t considered a shoteh because he has achieved general knowledge.

Other poskim hold this position as well. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach concurs as well (Minchat Shlomo, part 1, chapter 34), though he supports exempting these individuals from receiving punishment.

All seem to believe that he understands and has intelligence, like children do, and that he knows that the Holy One Blessed Be He gave us the Torah, and that we are keeping His commandments, and this qualifies him as one who has the intelligence to observe the mitzvot. Once he reaches age 13, he is considered an adult… With regard to [liability for] punishment, his status is considered “the mercy of the Almighty on a child”, so for this purpose, a mentally retarded individual is considered a child, even though he is, in truth, an adult.

4. The value of the observance of mitzvot by someone that lacks intelligence

Is there any value in the observance of mitzvot by someone who isn’t obligated to do so? Is there any religious or halachic value in including a child in the observance of mitzvot if he hasn’t reached gil hachinuch “the age of education”, or if he isn’t considered “intelligent” according to halachah?

The achronim discussed the issue of whether a minor that became an adult during the counting of the omer should continue counting with a bracha. Rav Moshe Schick (the “Maharam”), in his response to Orach Chaim (p. 269), justifies the position of continuing to count with a bracha:

I feel that this [also applies to] a minor, if he has intelligence, but the Torah did not command him [to keep the mitzvot] until he reaches age 13. The Torah knew that not every minor’s mind is strong enough by the time he reaches 13, yet it is still a mitzvah akin to a mitzvah perform by one who isn’t commanded to do it. Likewise, we find that the Torah is considerate of the poor in its commandment to bring a variable sin offering. However, this mitzvah is not that strong, like a person who is commanded and performs the commandment. Yet a poor person is commanded to bring a variable sin offering. So, too, a minor is commanded [to count the Omer].

What we can understand from the Maraham is that someone who observes a mitzvah even though he wasn’t commanded to do so still carries the status of one who observed a mitzvah. There is an inherent value in him observing that mitzvah, even if it won’t be considered a mitzvah in the full sense of the word (e.g. he won’t be able to fulfill the obligation of the congregation). This view is hinted at by the Vilna Gaon, in his commentary on the Orach Chaim (124:6) –

A man should teach his sons to answer “amen”, since a child is promised a place in the world to come once he answers “amen”.

Even though this child hasn’t yet reached the age of education, there is value in his response of “amen”.  Rav Haim Pinhas Scheinberg also takes this view. He writes the following:

And here we see that several achronim hold that psychotics, minors and the deaf are considered liable for the performance of mitzvot. They are indeed liable, but because “their mouth hurts him”(i.e. there is something preventing them from performing the mitzvah), they are considered exempt.

Even if there is no halachic obligation to do so, including disabled individuals in religious life has religious value. It goes without saying that families who want to include their son in their set of values and in a sanctified way of life are also fulfilling a humanitarian and spiritual value.

Anyone who can influence, break down barriers and draw others closer must take part in this task. In his responsa, Rav Feinstein writes (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Da’at, part four, chapter 29):

When they come into the synagogue, it is clear that they must be warmly welcomed, even if they aren’t intelligent enough to learn. Even responding “amen” is a mitzvah, and they should observe whatever they can. Even walking to the synagogue and kissing the sefer torah is a mitzvah, which they should do for their own sakes and for the sake of honoring their families.

5. The halachah and being called up to the Torah

Here, we should review the rules of being called up to the Torah.

According to the Talmud, a minor may read from the Torah even though he isn’t obligated to observe mitzvot. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, with one condition: the minor must be aware whom he is blessing. The Shulchan Aruch (paragraph 9) explains that “[… a minor should] have at least some understanding that the bracha is meant for God”.

The poskim attached several caveats to this halacha. Some, who base their opinion on the kabbalah, say that a minor should be called up for shevi’i, the seventh aliyah. Non-kabbalist sages determined that minors may join the group of those called to the Torah, but they may not be the majority group, so minors can’t be called up for all seven aliyahs– the minority of those called up may be minors. This is why minors can only be called up on a Shabbat, and not on any other day. A minor may not read from the Torah while adults are called up to say the blessing (unless the congregation has no other choice).

All agree that a minor may be called up for maftir without hesitation. Some congregations place limits on calling up a minor, but in times of need, this is certainly permissible, since this is ruling of halacha. We should also mention the opinion of the Bayit Chadash, who holds that a minor who is called up to the Torah does not read from the Torah, but he can make the blessing, and this is permissible even if the minor does not know whom he is blessing.

Consequently, even for those who doubt whether a boy with a mental-developmental disability is obligated to observe the mitzvot, he may be called up to the Torah, read the maftir aliya, and make a blessing, just as any minor could. According to the Bayit Chadash, even a child with severe mental disabilities can make the blessing, without reading from the Torah.

We wish to thank everyone, both within and outside of Beit Hillel, who helped write and enrich this document by contributing their knowledge and experience.

[1] This category includes those classified as “mentally retarded”, “people suffering from Down’s Syndrome”, and certain autistic individuals. It is impossible to have a clear written definition, as explained later in this document. The document will also provide several parameters used to define the group.

[2] God-willing, future documents will discuss the situation of mentally disabled young women and Bat Mitzvahs.

[3] Published in the month of Sivan, 5774, in Beit Hillel’s seventh digest.