Guest Post: Reflections on being Jewish and Autistic: Different minorities, same critique

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is a wife, mother, writer, editor, artist, photographer, and leader of the Vermont Chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). She blogs at Journeys with Autism, and her latest book, The Uncharted Path: My Journey with Late-Diagnosed Autism, was published in July of 2010. Her last guest post for FWD was “I Do Not Suffer From Autism.”

In writing this piece, I in no way wish to imply that my approach is the only approach, that having a religion is better than having no religion, or that Judaism is right and that other paths are wrong. As long as people act consciously and ethically, I really don’t care what they believe, or whether they avoid religion like the plague. I have been involved in social justice work on behalf of all people from a progressive Jewish perspective for much of my life, because that is the culture in which I find myself at home and because it provides me with a useful framework for action. I abhor proselytizing and fundamentalism of any variety; I reject violence, no matter who carries it out; and I support a just, two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, may it be in our lifetimes.

For almost two years now, I’ve become increasingly aware of how other people regard autistics. As you all know, the news is not altogether good. As I’ve waded my way through all manner of error and nonsense, I’ve had the most familiar feeling, as though I had heard it all before. The other day, it finally occurred to me: I’ve encountered the same basic stereotypes and misinformation about Jewish people as I have about autistic people.

All minority people, to some extent, have to endure similar false charges, but the similarities between my experience of prejudice as a Jew and my experience of prejudice as an autist are striking. Here are some of the most damaging myths:

We don’t love properly. In the larger, mainly Christian culture in which I’ve lived my life, the view seems to be that the Jews of the “Old Testament” were all about strict justice, and that the Christians of the “New Testament” were all about love. (I put the names of the books in quotation marks because I don’t see one as being old and outmoded and the other as having superseded it; I see them both as valid traditions in their own right.)

The Jewish God, the critique goes, is only a God of judgment, a God of punishment, a God who lacks forgiveness, and we are just like our God: cold, judgmental, merciless. The Christian God, on the other hand, is a God of love and forgiveness. When I was growing up, without much of a Jewish education, I actually believed all of this. I believed it until I was in my late thirties, and I asked a rabbi whether there was anything in Judaism to help me heal my broken heart. His reply? “Yes. Our people brought the truth to the world that there is a God who loves us and cares about our lives.” I nearly fainted. When I began to study and practice Judaism in adulthood, I was startled to find that we are instructed to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to love mercy, and to make right the wrongs of the world.

And what did I believe about autistic people until I found out that I actually am one? I believed that autistic people don’t have empathy, the very basis of loving relationships. The lack-of- empathy trope has been at the core of autism theory for a number of years, and it’s appalling how many people still believe it. Of course, they don’t appear to have met any of the autistic people I know, nor do they seem to have much empathy for the pain and suffering this canard causes autistic people on a daily basis.

We think terms of black and white. Now, the interesting thing about this particular myth is that it betrays some pretty black-and-white thinking on the part of the people who accuse us of black-and-white thinking. For example, when people say that Jews are only about justice, it’s justice of a kind that brooks no shades of gray. Christians, on the other hand, are said to be all about love, which encompasses many, many shades of gray. But the truth is that Jewish tradition has always been concerned with a concept called tzedakah, which is essentially an action that combines justice (righting a wrong) with love (easing and, ultimately, healing the suffering of other beings). We do not think in black and white about justice and love; in fact, we combine them. To split them apart is an example of black-and-white thinking at its best.

Now, consider the myth that autistics think in black and white, usually expressed as our being all about logic and systems. In fact, some researchers believe that we have Extremely Male Brains that are high on systemizing, while non-autistics have brains that are high on empathizing. And yet, when I look at my own life, and that of other autistic people, I often see a capacity for high levels of both systemizing and empathizing, and I see them working together. We don’t split them apart. Other people do, and then they tell us that we’re the ones with the black-and-white thinking. It’s enough to make you weep.

We are excessively logical. Many people believe that Judaism is all about “legalisms,” and that it does not concentrate on coming from the heart. This particular myth is very old and very intractable, in part because most people believe that Judaism begins and ends with the “Old Testament,” ignoring thousands of years of mysticism, story-telling, discussion, ritual, and practice that are all about opening one’s heart. I’m not saying that all Jews come from the heart, any more than all Christians come from the heart. I’m saying that Jewish culture has its own ways of combining head-thinking with heart-wisdom that are little known or understood by others.

Of course, autistics are constantly stereotyped as being overly logical—except when we’re stereotyped as being out of control. And yet, somehow, we manage to have friends, families, relationships, children, and ethical lives.

We insist upon being different. For a number of years, I wore garb that clearly identified me as Jewish. For awhile, I wore a yarmulke and tzitzis (ritual fringes) every day, all day. During another period, I only wore headscarves and dresses. I now dress in a thoroughly secular fashion. When I didn’t, I got all kinds of attitude about “setting myself apart.” Of course, I wasn’t setting myself apart. I was just being myself. And I wear what I wear now because I am just being myself.

I grow. I change. I morph. I explore. I’m inconsistent. I’m human. Go figure.

Not surprisingly, I have gotten similar messages regarding my autistic sensitivities to all things sensory. I’m told that I’m “choosing” to be so sensitive, that I’m setting myself apart, when I’m really just being myself. And when my sensitivities are not as troubling, I’m also just being myself.

I grow. I change. I morph. I explore. I’m inconsistent. I’m human. Go figure.

Other people are normal, and we are abnormal. Many years ago, when my daughter was small, her father used to pick up one of her friends after school and bring him home. One December, on the way home, the young man said, “We celebrate Christmas at my house. We don’t celebrate Chanuka. We’re not like you. We’re normal.” My ex-husband took the long way home and patiently explained the concept of diversity to the young man until he got the picture.

And of course, we autists get stuck with the “abnormal” label all the time—more evidence of that dualistic, black-and-white thinking that “normal” people aren’t supposed to engage in.

We are all alike. In response to all the many myths surrounding Judaism and Jewish people, I did interfaith work for a number of years, teaching workshops in areas schools and churches. Some of the most common questions I got began with the words, “So what do Jews believe?”—as though we all believe the same thing! That was the moment I’d introduce the mantra of “You get two Jews in a room, you get three opinions.”

Likewise, it seems, people have an excessive need to see autistic people as being all alike. It usually expresses itself in terms of narrowing the definition of what autistic means. (I recently saw a YouTube video in which the mother of an autistic young man actually said that you can’t be autistic if you can speak. I was flabbergasted. ) At other times, this need to see us as alike expresses itself in conclusions by researchers that autistic people are a collection of deficits and impairments without any strengths at all. If we have strengths, they are usually called “splinter skills” (a term I despise, even though it’s got some cool alliteration and assonance going on).

Of course, we’re as varied as any other group. I’m not sure what kind of impairment, oops, I mean, neurological difference keeps people from seeing that variation. It might be interesting to do some genetic research on the matter.

We are not fully human. I first became aware that some people believe that Jews are not fully human when I was in Hebrew school and saw a piece of Nazi propaganda in which Jews were likened to vermin. I felt such pride in who I was that I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Who could really think that Jews weren’t people? Apparently, at certain times in history, a great many people.

I was reminded of this experience when I happened upon some writing by Dr. Ivar Lovaas, the psychologist who pioneered the treatment now known as Applied Behavioral Analysis. In discussing the basis of his treatment, he wrote of autistics in 1974:

“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.”

I shudder to think of how many people still believe this kind of thing.

Of course, Jews, autistics, and members of any other minority group share similar experiences: we are vulnerable no matter how well we “pass” and live up to the standards of the larger culture, and we constantly have to fight against the appropriation of our own voices. Moreover, the solution to whatever problem we appear to pose consists of attempts to do at least one of the following: a) efface our differences to make us indistinguishable from others, b) demand at least a pro forma conversion to the dominant paradigm, which means that we can stim/rock back and forth in prayer/be ourselves, but only out of the public eye, or c) isolate us in ways both visible and invisible.

There are many, many autistic people who cannot do a “pro forma conversion,” who cannot “pass” as I do, and who have endured severe levels of bullying, assault, and isolation as a result. I shy away from the word Aspie and I use the word autistic to describe myself in order to make common cause with people across the spectrum (in the same way that I refer to myself as a Jew, not a denominational Jew, in order to make common cause with other Jews, no matter how differently they may think and practice, and how vehemently I may disagree with them). I will continue to do both. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and that makes me autistic. I had Jewish parents, and that makes me a Jew. I may present differently from others in my group, but then again, so do trees and birds and rocks. Why should people be any less diverse than the whole of creation?

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7 Comments

  1. Wow, thank you so much for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

    I’ve always wondered if the “Christianity has the lock on LOVE!” people have actually *read* the “Old Testament”. The books of the prophets talk a LOT about the duty people have to take care of others, and if that isn’t love I do not know what is. I suspect the main problem is they’re sticking to Leviticus.

  2. @Andrea: Don’t a huge number of Christians do exactly that, too, though? I mean, every time I’ve been told that I’m subhuman or going to hell by a Christian because of my sexual orientation and gender identity they pretty much quote right out of leviticus. Same goes with lots of other instances of theology being used to justify lack of tolerance or love, so…

    Anyway, if only it were just parents and other lay people who believed that the only real autistics are those who can’t speak. I was sent to a neurologist by my psychiatrist because he wanted them to screen for some stuff for a differential diagnosis and when I informed the neurologist that I’m autistic and that I have a diagnosis he parroted back to me that I was misdiagnosed as autistic. When I told him, no, I’m autistic he told me that I couldn’t be because I’m clearly able to form words and speak and that “real autistics” can’t speak.

  3. @The Untoward Lady Yeah, many Christian sects tend to cherry pick what they want out of Leviticus and ignore the rest of the Holiness Codes, and also ignore the fact that in the Apostolic Gospels, Christ has NOTHING to say about homosexuality, but a metric butt-load to say about loving your neighbor as yourself, helping your fellow human beings, and not judging. The antisemitism comes in when the same Christians try to pretend that the “Old Testament” has nothing to say about these same themes, when really it has quite a lot to say on the themes of justice for the oppressed and caring for other human beings.

  4. What a beautiful piece! Thank you so much for sharing it.

  5. Thank you all for your responses.

    One of the things that most Christians so badly misunderstand about the “Old Testament” is that to Jews, it’s something like shorthand for a much larger body of work. Nearly every “commandment” has been written about and discussed for centuries from every possible angle, and it’s these discussions that ultimately create the guidelines for communities.

    There are parts of the Hebrew scriptures that the ancients had trouble with in the same way that we do, and so our approach to Leviticus, in particular, is far more nuanced than people know. For instance, two women having a sexual relationship was not forbidden by all rabbis in the Talmud (although it was frowned upon). Obviously, this is not ideal, but considering that these writing are centuries and centuries old, Judaism was far ahead of Christian culture in his respect.

    And of course, nowadays, modern, non-Orthodox Judaism (which is what 93% of practicing Jews actually practice) has no issues with any of this. We tend to pay far more attention to the prophetic voice than to Leviticus, and to practice the things in Leviticus that make sense from an ethical point of view. Supporting people in their choice of partners and gender identification ranks very high on the list of ethical demands; giving people grief over who they are is not considered an ethical value.

  6. There was a comment I read on another site that I can’t remember, but I think it was that you can’t rank order your otherness. Usually, the same people who are intolerant of your health being different from theirs won’t tolerate your religion, ethnicity, sexuality or any of a myriad of things being different.

    But what really sticks out for me is others’ assumptions that they know something about which they don’t, and then act from those. I also really connect with the feeling of incredulity. How can people not think we are people? Or treat us with such dismissiveness and contempt that it seems they don’t think of us as people, but as something less.

    I’ve been dumbfounded as a professor went off on a twenty minute screed about my personal (disability-related) failings, just as I’ve been dumbfounded after finding myself surrounded by hostile lecture-goers who promptly blamed “you people” (Jews) for stealing America’s divinely endowed Christian heritage.

    I know good, persuasive arguments have been made again and again against the rightness or propriety of such things, yet just existing and opening one’s mouth brings it all out again. To keep up the energy to keep explaining Jewish sage Hillel put it so well: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

  7. Hi Kim,

    The idea of not being able to rank order our otherness reminds me of my favorite line from the poet Adrienne Rich: “They can rule the world while they can persuade us our pain belongs in some order.” Trying to figure out the question of my difference over the course of my life has often led me to assign my “otherness” to a single cause: my being Jewish, my being an abuse survivor, my being autistic/disabled, and so on. When I really look at it clearly, though, it’s all very much connected. I was a target for abuse in my original family because of my (undiagnosed) autism, which meant that I couldn’t be the person my family wanted me to be. And when I consider that the stereotypes about autistic people are often so close to the stereotypes about Jews, I realize that I also see being Jewish and being autistic in similar terms, although much more positive ones (i.e. my tendency to be outraged over injustices in a way that most people are not).