Julia Watts Belser, LOVING OUR OWN BONES: DISABILITY WISDOM AND THE SPIRITUAL SUBVERSIVENESS OF KNOWING OURSELVES WHOLE, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2023, 276 pages, $29.95)
December 6, 2023
Wednesday, 1:00 pm–2:00 pm ET
WATER thanks Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser for her generous sharing of her book LOVING OUR OWN BONES: DISABILITY WISDOM AND THE SPIRITUAL SUBVERSIVENESS OF KNOWING OURSELVES WHOLE which has been published to early and enthusiastic acclaim.
WATER’s work brings feminist/womanist spiritual values and intellectual work to efforts at social change. This session focused on the intersection of Jewish studies, disability studies, and queer studies through Julia’s unique and well-honed perspective.
The video of this WATERtalk can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-2PSsXBMpc
What a joy to reintroduce Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser who was with us in 2012 with Melanie Morrison to discuss an article they co-wrote entitled “What No Longer Serves Us: Resisting Ableism and Anti-Judaism in New Testament Healing Narratives” in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 17:2, 153-170.
Julia studied at Cornell University, the Starr King School of Ministry in Berkeley, as well as at the Graduate Theological Union and University of California, Berkeley where she received a PhD from their joint degree program. She received an MA from the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.
From her Georgetown faculty bio we learn: “She is Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, as well as on the faculty of Georgetown’s Disability Studies Program. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs also at Georgetown. She directs “Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project,” an initiative that documents the wisdom and insights of disabled activists, artists, and first responders on the frontlines of climate crisis. Her work brings ancient texts into conversation with disability studies, queer theory, feminist thought, and environmental ethics.”
We also learn that she is “the” author of Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Power, Ethics, and Ecology: Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She has many articles and chapters in other books as well as articles for broad audiences.
“She co-authored an international Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities (Hesperian Foundation, 2007), developed in collaboration with disability activists from 42 countries and translated into 14 languages, designed to help challenge the root causes of poverty, gender violence, and disability discrimination.”
She describes herself as “an avid wheelchair hiker, a lover of wild places, and a passionate supporter of disability dance.” All of these passions emerge in the book at hand.
Our colleague Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow says of Julia’s book: “This is an extraordinary book: beautifully written and accessible yet filled with scholarly insights; profoundly spiritual yet also boldly critical; fiercely angry yet also affirming and joyous.”
I concur. I would add that this is what in the business is called “a big book,” that means a book that will have a large impact on readers and, in this case, on the fields of disability and textual studies. It has already had a big impact on me.
It is not often that I read a book that is so captivating in its creativity, so tough in its analysis, and so fluidly written that, like a good novel, I did not want it to end. Julia Watts Besler does not want the deaf to hear nor the lame to walk, as so many scripture passages would have it. Rather, she wants God to sign and the rest of us to get with the program in terms of inclusive architecture and design. This is my kind of theology.
I am not alone in my assessment. Julia’s book was listed by the Library Journal as one of its “Best Books of 2023” in the category of Arts and Humanities: “Belser’s eye-opening book sparks a much-needed conversation about interpretations of the terms “disability” and “normal.” She wants readers to see her disability, not look past it as she illuminates her firsthand experiences and the intersectionality of being a queer, feminist rabbi. Her perspective adds fresh insight and teaches how to read sacred Christian and Jewish writings through a different lens, leaving readers with a yearning for an all-inclusive world.”
Thank you, Julia. You imagine Miriam and others who have, as you say, “turned away from chasing beauty” (p. 196) for more important things. You observe of Miriam: “This is the one who knows magnificence as her own true name.” I say with all honesty, this book makes clear that “magnificence” is your “own true name.”
Following are Julia’s notes from the talk. We are grateful to have them as they allow an accurate account of her presentation.
“I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we’re gathering today
in a time of great suffering and heartbreak in the world—
I’m thinking especially of beloveds
in Israel-Palestine, in Gaza and the West Bank;
So just wanted to ground our time today
in the fierce hope for safety and shelter
and deep lasting just meaningful peace—
for all people, for all of us in this aching world.
I want to thank you, Mary, for this invitation to be together—
to share some reflections about my new book,
Loving Our Own Bones:
Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness
of Knowing Ourselves Whole.
Loving Our Own Bones dives deep into ableism and disability injustice,
both in religious texts, especially biblical tests, and in contemporary culture—
And it lays out a spiritual and political invitation
to reimagine our world, our cultural and religious traditions
in ways that honor the vibrant complexity
of all our bodies and minds.
I wrote this book as a love letter to disability community:
to honor the way we push back against normativity,
the way we teach each other to let go of shame and silence,
the way we claim each other’s lives as worthy, beautiful, and beloved.
I wrote this book with fierce love for queer and disabled kin,
but I also wrote it for all of us.
So many of us have internalized the message that we’re not enough;
that our bodies and minds don’t measure up.
While I ground my work particularly in disability experience,
there are powerful connections here across communities—
Normativity and hegemony hit hard against so many of us:
Black and Brown people;
trans and non-binary kin
Jews, Muslims, minoritized folks of all kinds…
In Loving Our Own Bones,
I lift up the political and spiritual significance of “disability wisdom.”
the hard-won insights from navigating a world that wasn’t built for us.
I tread disability as an expansive category, one that includes
sensory, physical, cognitive and intellectual disability.
neurodivergence and neurodiversity
mental health, depression, anxiety, and more.
I myself am a wheelchair user: highly visible (for sighted folks)
but most disabilities not immediately apparent.
We live in a world that’s been set up
to accommodate certain kinds of bodies and minds—
disabled people live in a world that wasn’t built for us,
from the physicality of architecture to the way we structure time,
our schools, workplaces, cities;
disability exclusion is built into the very fabric of our lives.
The book intertwines the spiritual and the political;
the work of grappling with text and tradition,
with our own spiritual insights and understandings—
and the work of broader structural change.
In some ways,
this is a book about the revolutionary power of self-love.
But it’s also a book that claims:
the private, individual work of self-love and personal affirmation
are never enough alone.
We also have to challenge and reimagine
the broader cultural messages
and the tangible, physical social structure and constricting norms
of the world in which we live.
So many ways we can look at that—
but today, I thought I’d lift up one strand from the book to illustrate:
the politics of beauty (Ed. Note: See Chapter 11, The Politics of Beauty”)
We’re used to sayings that dismiss beauty, that claim it as irrelevant.
Beauty is only ‘skin deep.’
Or beauty doesn’t matter;
it’s surface façade, it’s what’s inside that counts.
But of course, as anyone who’s been judged not beautiful knows
judgements about beauty and desirability matter deeply in this world.
And beauty is also a really significant discourse
within Jewish and Christian traditions—
a striking, if often unspoken way of categorizing women’s bodies.
Biblical example: Leah
Leah is Jacob’s unloved wife, the one he doesn’t want.
In Biblical tradition – Leah’s ugliness, her undesirability—
may well be bound up with disability.
In Genesis 29:17, her eyes are described as rakot
a word that’s usually translated as “weak” or “delicate.”
Because it’s never elsewhere used to describe eyes… uncertain meaning.
But one common suggestion:
a visual impairment.
Disability, here as elsewhere,
gets intimately bound up with the knowledge
that Leah is undesirable.
Whenever I think of that story,
I think of a text I learned during my first year in rabbinical school:
a text from the Babylonian Talmud,
one of the most important post-biblical Jewish sacred texts.
It’s also a story about a blind woman, a blind bride…
Two rabbis, Hillel and Shammai,
debate how to properly praise a woman at her wedding.
Shammai says: You should praise “the bride as she is,”
Hillel says: Use a stock phrase.
Praise her, he says, as a “beautiful and graceful bride.”
Now there’s already plenty we could talk about here.
Hillel’s answer seems to take for granted
that the qualities of a woman are her appearance and her ease.
But as the passage unfolds, the Talmud adds a disability twist.
Hillel says, “Look, Shammai, your plan has an obvious flaw:
“What if the woman is lame? What if she’s blind?”
“Do you still say to her, “a beautiful and graceful bride?”
Doesn’t the Torah say: Keep far from a lie?”
I remember when I first read that text.
Working slowly to decode the ancient Hebrew…
How the words just slammed into my skin.
And also the silence the room,
the fact that my own disability—my own wheelchair—
never got acknowledged.
There was literally no space to name that pain
or to push back against the assumptions.
In Jewish tradition,
this Talmud passage gets understood as the classic legal discussion
of whether it’s permissible, according to Jewish law,
to tell a “white lie”—
to tell an untruth in order to spare another pain.
I find both sides of the “debate” deeply objectionable.
I reject Shammai’s position:
that disability and beauty are contradictions in terms;
But I also reject Hillel’s counter position—
that the answer is to just be nice.
Look, say someone buys poor goods in the marketplace.
(Oh, friend, you’re going the wrong direction with this metaphor.)
But, okay, say someone makes a bad purchase.
When he shows it to you, Hillel says—
do you praise it or diminish it in his eyes?
Hillel advocates praise, even false praise—why?
Because we should always strive
to be pleasant to one another other.
Now Hillel has a long-standing reputation as a rabbinic nice-guy.
But Hillel has not solved my problem with this text.
He’s made it worse, I think:
He’s the saccharine sweet voice that praises anyone, for everything:
that swaddles us with kindness, until we choke on false compliments.
I don’t want Hillel’s niceness,
anymore than I want Shammai’s brutal honesty.
Neither man perceives the brilliant, shimmering, rock-your-world
power, beauty, and difference
of disabled women’s body-minds.
Neither one of them can tell the truth about our lives.
Disability difference matters—
not just when it’s palatable,
or when it’s marked as beautiful.
That brings me to another point that’s central to the book:
Disability and disabled people deserve love and regard and access
even when disability is complicated, when it’s painful;
when we’re not stellar or spectacular or brilliant.
We deserve a world that welcomes us, that cherishes us—
as we are, in the fullness of our actual, complex, ordinary selves.
So many disabled folks feel intense cultural pressure
to curate our lives—
to invest huge energy in performing competence,
to resisting imposed narratives that assume disability is tragedy,
that disability is always only a story about misery and loss.
One of the costs of that pressure
is that we rarely have the space to acknowledge pain,
to grapple with grief.
Loving Our Own Bones is both a spiritual companion,
an invitation to tell a deeper, more complex story about disability
and how it shapes our inner lives—
and a political call:
a call to recognize and resist ableism,
a call to reimagine community and care and collective liberation,
a call to build a world where all of us can thrive.
Ableism manifests in a thousand different ways:
it’s a complex system of power relations and social structures
that designate some people as ‘normal’ and other people as not—
that deny disabled people
access, agency, resources, and self-determination.
Of course, I want to be clear:
Ableism targets disabled people—
especially those of us who can’t pass, who can’t work,
who can’t tap the kinds of abilities our cultures most value.
But one of the key concepts in my book is:
Ableism isn’t good for any body.
Ableism is coming for all of us—
ready to sweep us up as soon as we start to falter.
Let me give just one example:
the way ableism runs hand-in-hand with productivity culture
to turn our ability to work into an assessment of our worth.
It’s so pervasive – and it’s such a lie.
It’s the lie that says we’re only as good as our last accomplishment.
It drives this brutal culture of efficiency,
a culture that treats our bodies as obstacles
to someone else’s bottom line.
Ableism hurts all of us.
None of us have bodies or minds that always run like clockwork,
that can always keep on pushing.
We all need rest and care and gentleness.
That’s part of why I argue that
we all have a stake in challenging ableism—
and why I believe disability wisdom can be transformative for all of us,
regardless of whether you have a disability at present.
Among the issues raised are the following:
- One participant expressed how changed and energized she felt because of the presentation. She described a day dedicated to people with disabilities at the United Nations and how much energy it engendered. She lamented the many losses there and elsewhere when attention to inclusion is missing.JWB It is important to recognize not just physical barriers but also “norms of expectation around speech, anagoge, cognitive norms, the among much time things take…” It is important to think what happens when people with disabilities are at the center of conversations.
- Another person described the life-changing nature of this work. She asked how the on-going problems of the Covid pandemic are playing out. When our spiritual homes are not accessible because people refuse to wear masks there is violence.
- JWB For persons who are at high risk for Covid, the loss of connection/community that comes with the restrictions is very real. In the early days of the pandemic there was rapid change that created access for many people. For example, the ease of working at home for everyone that disabled people had long pushed for was suddenly available to everyone. Yet now the attitude seems to be everyone needs to manage their risk on their own, which disenfranchises and marginalizes many disabled and high risk people. Another question arose about the very nature of the term “disability.”JWB I like the term and encourage its use. ‘Disability’ can be a valuable way to describe certain experiences; I use the term both as a neutral descriptor and as a positive mode of self-identification. It’s a term that names difference and experience of social disenfranchisement. The term ‘disability’ has been seen negatively, but I reject that. Instead, I think that identifying with disability can open up potent opportunities for both connecting with a broader disability community and for engaging in social and political organizing.
- Another was impressed by Julia’s story of cradling the toad in her hand, seeing the world through the toad. It reminded her of Mary Daly seeing the world in a clover leaf. She suggested that JBW is a mystic as well as a scholar, rabbi, activist and wondered if ‘mystic’ is a term Julia feels suits her. The questioner likened her to medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, and others.JWB Julia loves the idea, resonates with the term. She is drawn to it by a sense of being both called and drawn into spacious relationship with the Sacred. Her spiritual life can’t be contained in a small box!
The moderator noted that Julia is “BIG like your book.” Julia goes on to suggest that God hates ableism and social violence in part because of the ways they constrict and refuse connection. The toad in question was fully alive. The moderator also underscored the theological aspect of the book, “God on wheels,” “a God who signs,“ “God who knows disability from the inside.” “Theology is a grammar of the imagination.”
- A self-described queer disabled woman looks forward to reading “a love letter to kin” which is how Julia has described the book. She asked Julia to speak about beauty as part of a “disability aesthetic.”JWB Julia wants both body neutrality and body positivity. She wants disabled folks to be able to recognize and see ourselves as fabulous and for us to be able to redefine beauty or to resist it Facing that the body, in all of its complexity, is not aways loved by the world or by the person who is embodied. There is a need to push back on what constricts. Beauty is fickle, magnificence lasts.
- Another participant continued the conversation about ‘disability’ by asking why we create boxes and labels which keep us from knowing the diversity of creation.JWB There is a lot of documentation of kin support by some animals, animals looking after other animals that are disabled. The need is for humans to learn more from other species about care. The matter of disability expertise is important. Disability has brought knowledge; it is a skillset. The compensatory notion of disability, one can’t do this but one can do that, is common but Julia is trying to move away from it to look anew at her experience.
- The moderator then raised a question: One of the most bold aspects of your work is your way of handling texts that are experienced by you and so many others, especially women, as against our best interests.You say of Talmud that you will never “trust it to know the truth of my experience” and of the Jewish tradition that you do not trust it “to side with me, to speak with competence about my own life. I do not trust it to protect, to value the lives of those I hold most dear.” (p. 21).
You note that feminists of many traditions have the same experience. Count me in as a Catholic. Imagine if I trusted Catholicism to see to my best interests. You go on to say about the texts, “If you cannot confront the violence, if we cannot come to the edge, look into the abyss, and feel the loss that is there, the anger, the grief, the rage—then we will end up doing harm, most likely wrapped in pious good intentions.” (p. 22) . This captures the experience of so many people for whom our traditions have been a source of our oppression. Then what? What next? Where do people go?
JWB Julia said that she has a high tolerance for confronting difficult texts, not needing a “good” outcome from any text. She has a “deep well” for holding contradictions in her own tradition, though she does not trust her tradition to have her best interests at heart. Still, she insists, it is important to confront texts out of obligation, to say with charity, love, and a deep desire to bring about repair of the world.
Julia finds it helpful to distinguish between the God who is portrayed as a character in the Hebrew Bible and her own deepest sense of God. Her bedrock assumption is that God loves and cherishes disabled folks and wants disabled people in the world. She resists the very idea of needing to find a text to prove this belovedness. By contrast, her work with sacred texts often focuses on calling those texts to account in ways that acknowledge the deep roots of ableism within our religious traditions.
Disability is an essential part of being human, and it is theologically and politically transformative to also recognize disability as an essential part of God’s own experience. (p. 178)
From the chat:
- Julia’s Website: https://www.juliawattsbelser.com/
- Subtitle of the book in the UK edition is: Loving Our Own Bones: Rethinking Disability in an Ableist World https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/9781399804240?gC=098f6bcd4&gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQiAm4WsBhCiARIsAEJIEzXtaDuY_ztYYRFe2bgbUnW3QEdS3abkR37UtM8qe-RiVz0vZeCdlZEaAs7UEALw_wcB
- A reading group in England has chosen this book to discuss.
- To buy the American edition of the book:Beacon https://www.beacon.org/Loving-Our-Own-Bones-P1974.aspx