When I was a student at Yeshiva University many years ago, there was a rabbinical student that was blind. Because of his disability, I was not at ease in his presence. I did not know how to connect to him and so I said nothing. Gradually, however, I noticed that some senior students and my teachers spoke to him easily, with warmth and genuine friendship, engaging him on a wide variety of topics. They, by example, showed me that I had to leave my preconceptions at the door, and relate to the disabled as regular people, and not treat them as social oddities.
This memory resurfaced as I watched Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, a reimagining of the classic Tarzan myth but based primarily on the original source, Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel. The narrative begins in Scotland in 1885 where the newly married John Clayton of the affluent House of Greystoke is departing for a sea voyage to Africa with his pregnant wife, Alice.
Off the coast of Africa, the ship is caught in a storm and sinks, leaving John and his wife stranded in the jungle. They set up living quarters as best they can, and Alice bears a son. Soon after, she falls ill and dies, and John dies in a confrontation with a violent gorilla. The surviving baby, reared by a clan of apes, grows up thinking that it is an ape, emulating all their behaviors.
Many years later, Phillippe D’Arnot, a member of an English hunting party discovers the boy, Tarzan, and brings him back to Greystoke, the family estate, where he is reunited with his grandfather. The young man’s adjustment to his new home is not simple as depicted in a formal dinner scene in which Tarzan, now known as Johnnie, piles large amounts of food on his plate, is reluctant to return his plate to the waiter, and drinks his soup directly from the dish.
What is instructive and illuminating is the response of Johnnie’s grandfather to this bizarre behavior. He puts aside his soup spoon and also drinks his soup directly from the bowl. He understands immediately how strange Johnnie’s behavior appears to the rest of those dining and wants to provide a different paradigm of how to deal with someone who is different. Johnnie is not the other; he is one of us. Johnnie may not have a typical disability, but it is a social disability and the guests need to accept the “otherness” of the other, and make him feel at ease.
A similar story is recounted about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a great teacher of Jewish ethics and character development. When a dinner guest felt embarrassed because he spilled wine on the table, Rabbi Salanter spilled his own wine glass, claiming the table was not steady; therefore, the guest should not feel uncomfortable at his own faux pas.
The Torah does provide a general approach for relating to people with disabilities. First and foremost is the Biblical notion that we are all created in God’s image. This means that everyone, even those who are mentally challenged, deaf, or blind, have to be treated with respect because they all reflect an aspect of the divine. Moreover, understanding that we are all in God’s image implies that we accept the inherent diversity amongst all men, and we should do our utmost to connect to everyone, not only those who look and think like us. For example, the Sages rule that a blind man can be called to make a blessing over the Torah in the synagogue just like a sighted person even though the blind man cannot read the text. The goal is participation and integration into the community.
Greystoke, which deals with the odyssey of one man’s journey from the wild terrain of Africa to the civilized world of Scotland, is not a story of how to relate to people with disabilities. It is essentially a gripping tale of adventure that considers specifically whether Johnnie Clayton, aka Tarzan, can transition from the jungle to civilization. Can he survive all the emotional and psychological trauma that he faces in managing the dissonance between such disparate worlds?
The film presents no easy answers; but, along the way, considers the question of how we treat those who are different from us. Do we regard them as curiosities or do we welcome them into the family of man?