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  • Writer's pictureRabbanit Dr. Liz Shayne

And You Shall Tell Your Self: Narratives, Neurodivergence, and Passover Neurodivergent Torah for Passover

To be human is to be a storyteller. We are all of us people of narrative and what we want out of the confusing messiness of the world is a story that rings true. Our brains, after all, are wired to match patterns and then our minds turn those patterns into stories and those stories we tell ourselves become who we are. Children of immigrants, for example, internalize the story of how their parents came to live where they do and that narrative shapes their relationship to the past and to the future. When I talk about the process of choosing the rabbinate, I do not list a grab bag of experiences that happened in my life; I tell a story where these experiences led to one another and shaped me into the person I am today. I lived the sequence of events, but it is only in the telling that it becomes a narrative with a beginning, an end, and a purpose. 


Passover is the holiday when we, the Jewish people, tell ourselves the story of who we are: we were slaves and then we were redeemed; we were worshippers of falsehood and then we came into relationship with God.  We tell the story of how that happened and then we tell stories about the storytellers: the five rabbis in the cave, the performance art of Rabban Gamliel that involves the food on the table, and even the centuries of pilgrims who brought their first fruits and recited the story that we ourselves go on to recite and embellish.


This is not neurodivergent Torah yet. The idea that we are storytellers who are obligated to return to this story is not special to any particular neurotype. Rather, we are all asked to make this story our story and to come back to it year after year. From this perspective, the goal of the Haggadah and the seder is the goal of rereading. We read a story the first time to find out what happens. And we read the story again (and again) to experience its true depth. The beauty of the story becomes clear once we already know what is going to happen. 


This is an unintentional defense of the second seder outside of the Land of Israel, but it is also a reflection on what the seder is often imagined to be. We hear, sometimes, the exhortation to make the seder new, to get out of the Haggadah, to treat it less as a theatrical script with parts and stage direction and more like a frame in which we paint the picture of our individual seders. And it is here that I find myself, like a middle matzah, split by two competing impulses. The first is to lean into the spontaneous divergences and conversations and elaborations and, even, sometimes, arguments that pepper the seder and make our individual narratives works of art, unique and beautiful. But my other impulse, the part of me that thrives on order and direction and that thinks of the Haggadah as the thing that “tells” in the sense that it tells me what to do—that part of me rejects utterly the idea that we should be altering how we tell the story.


As with so many things, the true path lies somewhere in between these two extremes. And while expanding and tweaking the seder to meet one’s own needs and preferences is critical to making it a ritual that is both meaningful and accessible, I want to also maintain the Haggadah as an orienting structure that exists precisely to tell us what is going to happen. Within the context of supporting autistic people, a narrative that lays out what can happen in a given situation is called a “social story.” Social stories  exist to relate, through clear words and pictures, the order of everyday events. They replace the daunting avalanche of unknowns with a clear story of what the future can hold. These stories are invaluable for us as a way to create order and routine out of the messy chaos of unformed expectations. A social story can be simple, such as the story of what it is like to ride the bus. “Riding the bus” would contain a verbal and pictorial walkthrough of what riding the bus is like, from finding your stop, to ways to pay, to when to sit and stand. Social stories are not meant to be restrictive and they do not tell the reader how to react or feel. They do exactly what stories are meant to do: they give us a chance to experience something new from the safety of the page.  


Especially for those of us who struggle with sensory input, the amount of information coming in at all times from the world can be completely overwhelming and the task of figuring out what一within the deluge of experience一is important can feel impossible. Social stories provide a way to manage that influx through narrative. Social stories direct our attention towards the things that matter. To read a social story is to pre-live an experience so that, when it happens for the first time, we are already familiar with it. This is the story of how you ride the bus. This is the story of how you visit the theater. This is the story of how you tell the Jewish story.


The Haggadah is the social story of the Jewish people. The Haggadah takes the disparate and often overwhelming experiences of our nation and tells us how we can go on to tell ourselves our own story, complete with examples of how others have done this exact thing. When faced with the awesome task of telling ourselves into being as a people, the Haggadah sits us down and tells us to start with the bad and the ignominious, even if it makes us uncomfortable because that too is part of our story. Let this pain be the beginning of a narrative forward, rather than a trauma that keeps us in place. We may not be able to get from the bread of affliction to the fullness of the afikoman by ourselves, but the Haggadah can guide us. And if we know the way by now, it is because we have read our social story so many times that we have internalized this path and are no longer afraid.

To be human is to tell stories, but to be human is also to be subject to and shaped by stories. Although I said that social stories do not prescribe or proscribe behavior, the truth is more complicated. To know how to act in a scenario and how to navigate certain situations is to change who we are. We become the person who can take the bus. We become the person in the stories. 


To be both storyteller and main character is quite a responsibility and we go into the seder this year with the weight of the narratives we carry with us. There are such things as bad social stories. The more innocent ones are not so much bad as incorrect or incomplete. They forgot to mention what to do when the bus takes a detour around construction. The more insidious stories are the ones that tell us who we are against our will. The stories that tell us we are burdens or that we do not belong. The stories that tell us to suffer in silence, to play along, to pretend everything is fine. The stories that tell us we are broken.


We need the best of our stories now more than ever. I am, in a way, no more than the amalgamation of the best of the stories told to me. So much of who I am is grounded in the fairy stories I encountered as a child. So much of my identity and my conviction that we can leave the world better than when we entered it comes from the narratives I sought out my whole life. My ability to write Neurodivergent Torah is a gift from the stories that my autistic elders have told me, stories that countered the narratives that would have thrown me out. So when we open the Haggadah this year, let us allow our story to tell us what we need to hear. Let us hear the stories of those who are hungry and who we feed. Let us hear the stories of those who are in the narrow place and who find the way home. Let us tell ourselves, for one more year, who we are and who we might become.




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Rabbanit Dr. Liz Shayne is the Director of Academic Affairs at Yeshivat Maharat as well as a recent alumna. She came to Maharat after completing her PhD from University of California, Santa Barbara, where she studied the past, present, and future of digital reading. She loves old books in new forms, analyzes how halakha and technology can work together, and is a teacher committed to the idea that studying Torah can and must be for everyone. Rabbanit Liz has authored a series of thinkpieces on neurodivergent torah. You can read them here, here, here, and here.

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