Book review: “Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces those with Special Needs” by Ora Horn Prouser, Ben Yehuda Press, 2011 Teaneck, New Jersey. Reviewed by Howard Blas.
All rabbis and educators have incorporated the story of Moses and his speech difficulties (aral sfatayim) into divrei torah and lessons about overcoming obstacles, achieving greatness (despite being imperfect in some way), and being created b’tzelem Elokim, in the Image of God. With God’s backing, Aaron’s support, and with Moses own ability to compensate for his weaknesses, Moses became a great leader of the Jewish People. But as Ora Horn Prouser points out in Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those with Special Needs, there are other biblical models besides Moses (who we only meet in chapter 6) and his speech impairment. Prouser discusses biblical characters with ADHD, mental retardation, giftedness, gender issues, conduct disorder, physical disabilities, and depression.
Prouser begins both the preface and chapter one with a most unlikely biblical figure, Esau, noting, “I have always felt great compassion for Esau.” Prouser acknowledges that traditional interpretation paints Jacob as the “wonderful son and Esau as the black sheep.” How did Prouser discover her interest in Esau? A lecturer in a Genesis class described Esau as impulsive, which fit right in to literature Prouser was reading at the time on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She leaned over to a friend and whispered and chuckled that perhaps Esau had ADHD. “Seen in this light, Esau no longer appeared an evil man with misplaced priorities, but rather…as someone with learning issues who had never received the gift of being understood.” This November 17th, when you are sitting in synagogue listening to the reading of Parshat Toldot, you will never see Esau, Jacob or their parents in the same light as before; you will bring new found understanding and compassion to the text and to its characters.
Prouser has spent her life studying and teaching bible. She holds a PhD in bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary of American, is the executive vice president and academic dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, and she happens to be both the wife and daughter of rabbis. Prouser points out that biblical interpreters and midrashim have developed a critical picture of Esau and view him “as a man with nefarious motives and an evil character.” Prouser views him ‘through the lens of special education,’ and sees a different Esau-a hunter with both intense concentration and easy distractibility (“qualities of good hunters and also symptoms of ADHD”), impulsive decision making without thought to long term consequences (he was hungry and wanted stew), inability to understand proper and appropriate social behavior (he didn’t understand the problem of marrying two Hittite women), and a person in need of special accommodations. Prouser, deals with Esau’s father, Isaac in her next chapter, shockingly titled “Isaac and Mental Retardation.” She notes that Isaac, perhaps intuitively, “seems to understand Esau’s deficiencies and makes an attempt to accommodate his son’s special needs.” For example, Isaac takes Esau’s learning and behavioral style into account by giving him explicit, detailed directions for his hunt. Prouser feels the Esau story is here “to sensitize us” and serves as “a cautionary tale about the improper approach” (to ADHD).
Prouser sensitively views other biblical characters through the similar, compassionate lens of those with special needs and challenges. Calling Isaac “mentally retarded” is a fresh, somewhat radical view. I have heard Isaac referred to as a “transitional figure;” I have never heard him called “retarded,” a term which has generally fallen out of disuse in favor of such preferred terms as “intellectually disability” and “cognitive impairment.” Some advocates of people with disabilities find the term “retarded” to be so offensive that they monitor what they consider the unacceptable use of the “R word” on Facebook and other places on the internet.
Prouser builds a case for Isaac’s mental retardation: “he is born to older parents, who are close relatives, a genetic heritage than can result in birth defects.” His mother, Sarah, picks up early on Isaac’s limitations and uses her “ferocious maternal attempts to shield Isaac from pain and trouble,” (namely Hagar and Ishmael). Further, Isaac was docile (during the akedah), passive (when it came to marriage and the only patriarch requiring the help of others), and he exhibited “poor social acuity and communication skills,” especially in his dealing with the Philistines. This may also account for how he was so easily tricked by Jacob over the blessing. Despite Isaac’s limitations, which God and Rebecca, his wife accept, he succeeds in agriculture, and he continues the patriarchal line an important reminder that people with special needs often have extraordinary strengths.
While readers may disagree with Isaac’s diagnosis of mental retardation (or even with Esau’s diagnosis of ADHD), Prouser makes a tremendous contribution to the field of biblical commentary. Perhaps Prouser’s greatest insight is in viewing the bible through the lens of special needs. It is unlikely that most readers have considered the possibility that Jonah, Hannah, and Naomi all battled depression. And readers will now be forced to consider the Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson, as a person with a physical disability (he lost both legs). Prouser notes David’s simultaneous pact to show kindness to Mephibosheth and his clear “distaste for the disabled.”
Other chapters address issues of gender (Miriam), conduct disorder (Samson) and an often forgotten special need, giftedness. Joseph exhibits two qualities of giftedness–an ability to generate original ideas and solutions to problems (dream interpretation) and a gap between his intellectual and emotional maturity; for that reason, he came off as showing superiority with his brothers.
Prouser’s unique book is the only one I know which is noted as Bible/Special Education on the back cover, meaning that it is equally “at home” in both the bible and special education sections of libraries and bookstores. And Esau’s Blessing deserves this designation; Prouser draws from classical commentators, such modern day bible scholars as Nahum Sarna and Everett Fox, modern psychological literature, and from her own experience; in her conclusion, Prouser discloses her own personal connection to disabilities. Esau’s Blessing will forever change the way we read familiar bible stories.
Esau’s Blessing is available at Amazon.com