Rabbanit Dr. Liz Shayne
What is Neurodivergent Torah?
This essay is dedicated to the students of Maharat and YCT. Thank you for asking me what neurodivergent Torah is and accepting that it sometimes takes a month for me to put together an answer.
A few weeks ago, I was on a panel of neurodivergent rabbis and was asked by one of my students if I could talk about what neurodivergent Torah was. True to my autistic self, I responded, “Actually, I have an annotated bibliography.”
This is true. Over the past few years, even before I was formally diagnosed, I have been collecting essays, podcasts, videos, and other forms of divrei Torah that discuss neurodivergence. As my collection has grown, so has its impact on me. R. Elli Fischer’s essay, entitled “The Haunted Yeshiva: Abaye and the Torah of ADHD,” inspired my own analysis of R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, a Talmudic figure who is something between a role model and a cautionary tale for me. In talking about my article, I met Leah Ahavah, the Autistic Rebbetzen, and learned about her vision of Moshe Rabbeinu as autistic, which immediately made sense to me. She uses an autistic lens to examine the tension between Moshe as representative of the Israelites; Moshe as separate from them; and Moshe struggling to relate to them in very specific ways. But she tells this story better than I do in her video essay on the subject.
These works specifically are “neurodivergent Torah” because they analyze Jewish figures and stories in a way that gives rise to neurodivergent interpretations of Torah and Judaism. In contrast, I have also encountered essays arguing that certain characters in Tanakh are disabled or neurodivergent but that, in performing that analysis, do not use it to teach neurodivergent Torah. The difference is that neurodivergent Torah offers some kind of understanding or meaning beyond awareness of diversity. It is also a dvar Torah.
Neurodivergent Torah does not just read Moshe through an autistic lens. It invites us to interpret Moshe’s struggle to communicate in a new light and think about the work and reward of making oneself understood and teaching people how to listen. Neurodivergent Torah doesn’t just discuss Abaye’s different approach to learning, but articulates how his teachings reflect his identity. It looks at the story of young Abaye who, when asked where God was, runs out of the beit midrash to point to the heavens as a paradigm for a kind of scholarship that thrives outside of rigidity.
I want to emphasize that it is possible to have neurodivergent Torah without arguing that the person providing it is neurodivergent. Like feminism or Hasidism, neurodivergent Torah offers a lens through which to view a text even if the text itself was not produced by someone with that background. You do not need to be neurodivergent to say something that feels like neurodivergent Torah. But hey, it helps.
And neurodivergent Torah is not a singular thing. How can it be? The framework of neurodiversity, like biodiversity, argues that the world is better when it is filled with a wide range of minds rather than a singular normal; a normal from which everything else is not divergence, but deviation. Neurodiversity as an ideology acknowledges that not all forms of diversity are beneficial and that even good diversity can make the life of the individual difficult and require additional support. Yet the ideology remains committed to the principle that diversity as a whole is crucial to the human ecosystem. Moreover, we members of this ecosystem owe it to each other to support everyone in the way that best honors who they are rather than try to turn them into someone else. With a neurodiversity-oriented mindset, we recognize that it is better to help the shrub flower at its proper size than to stretch it into the tree it was never meant to be. But that very diversity does mean that the Torah I look for and can most easily identify is that of my brand of neurodivergence, autistic Torah. I will leave the rest of the forest to my esteemed colleagues, along with the fervent wish that you teach the Torah of your experiences, and not just so I can add it to my bibliography. As for me, I will tend to my shrub.
Autistic Torah is the Torah of the details. Well beyond ignoring the forest for the trees, autistic Torah hones in on the individual leaves. It is the Torah of focus and precision. It is the Torah of the wise child who asks about every single law of Passover first and for whom the value of Passover grows out of its minutiae. It’s the Torah of Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrcanus who knew three hundred laws regarding the magical planting of cucumbers. It is the Torah of Reb Zusha, who was thrown out of cheder as a child for repeating the verse “And God spoke to Moses saying” over and over again. It was this most common verse that caught his attention, the verse we usually skim past in search of what it is God is actually saying. Autistic Torah returns our attention to the verse of Vayomer. It wants to know the halakhic details of magical cucumbers (even if they are not real) because delving into the details is how we show that something matters. It sees the leaves on the tree of life and wants to interpret every single “את” in the Torah. Autistic Torah is washing one’s hands differently in the morning than for bread and attending to how one puts on one’s shoes.
The order of shoes, as it happens, is a great example. The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, a 19th century distillation (and often simplification) of the Shulchan Arukh that was written by R. Shlomo Ganzfried, quotes the rule that one should put one’s right shoe on before one’s left but, for shoes with laces, tie the left shoe first and then the right. He goes on to explain that this is because we begin with the right to commemorate the order of the Temple service, but that the shoe laces evoke tefillin straps, so we tie the left ones first because most people who wear tefillin wear it on their left (non-dominant) hand (KSA OC 3:4). There is, the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh suggests, specific meaning to be found in doing things the same way every time and in organizing one’s daily practice not in the most efficient way possible, but in the way that speaks to who we are as people.
This is not to say that every autistic person will find these specific examples meaningful. Rather, these examples reflect an autistic sensibility towards showing that something matters. We use repetition, ritual, and care when we do things that could easily be done quickly or in any order because the order is important, sometimes for reasons we know but cannot quite articulate, but often for reasons that no one bothers to ask us about. All we know about Rabbi Eliezer’s halakhot of magical cucumber planting is that only one of his students ever asked him to share it. We learn the intricacies of the things that we love—it may not be the laws of magically planting cucumbers for everyone—and show that love through intimate knowing. To collect information is an autistic way of showing care. Like God who—as the Psalmist says—“מוֹנֶה מִסְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִים לְכֻלָּם שֵׁמוֹת יִקְרָא”, counts the number of the stars and calls them all by name (Psalm 147: 4), we make things count by enumerating them. This is only one of the myriad aspects of God and yet it is the aspect that calls to my heart, the one that makes me think that this is the God in whose image I was made. “This, this is my God whom I will exalt. זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ.”
1 While there is still much research to do about Autism, there’s a growing body of evidence that is supported both by research studies and anecdotes that the autistic brain is marked by a bottom-up processing style. That is, if the non-autistic brain takes in the big picture and then hones in on the relevant details, the autistic brain sees the details first and constructs the big picture piece-by-piece. This perhaps explains why we struggle with things like social situations—too chaotic to isolate the cues that matter—or need quiet because we find the world overwhelming. It also explains some of our strengths and our abilities to make associative connections or to focus on the things that matter to us.
2 I am indebted to Isaac Mayer for pointing me to this story of R. Zusha and offering this interpretation.