Beacon Press: Loving Our Own Bones
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Loving Our Own Bones

Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness of Knowing Ourselves Whole

Author: Julia Watts Belser

A transformative spiritual companion and deep dive into disability politics that reimagines disability in the Bible and contemporary culture

An essential read that will foster and enrich conversations about disability, spirituality, and social justice

“What’s wrong with you?”

Scholar, activist, and rabbi Julia Watts Belser is all too familiar with this question. What’s wrong isn’t her wheelchair, though—it’s exclusion, objectification, pity, and disdain.

Our attitudes about disability have such deep cultural roots that we almost forget their sources. But open the Bible and disability is everywhere. Moses believes his stutter renders him unable to answer God’s call. Jacob’s encounter with an angel leaves him changed not just spiritually but physically: he gains a limp. For centuries, these stories have been told and retold in ways that treat disability as a metaphor for spiritual incapacity or as a challenge to be overcome.

Through fresh and unexpected readings of the Bible, Loving Our Own Bones instead paints a luminous portrait of what it means to be disabled and one of God’s beloved. Belser delves deep into sacred literature, braiding the insights of disabled, feminist, Black, and queer thinkers with her own experiences as a queer disabled Jewish feminist. She talks back to biblical commentators who traffic in disability stigma and shame. What unfolds is a profound gift of disability wisdom, a radical act of spiritual imagination that can guide us all toward a powerful reckoning with each other and with our bodies.

Loving Our Own Bones invites readers to claim the power and promise of spiritual dissent, and to nourish their own souls through the revolutionary art of radical self-love.

Plain Language Translations
Julia Watts Belser and Devorah Greenstein have created 3 short plain language pieces that lift up key ideas from the book in simple, straightforward language. Plain language is a crucial dimension of access—to learn more, click here.

Download “Saying Yes to Disability” by Julia Watts Belser with Devorah Greenstein, a Plain Language Piece from Belser’s Loving Our Own Bones.

Download “We Do We Each Believe?: Talking About Religion and Disability” by Julia Watts Belser with Devorah Greenstein, a Plain Language Piece from Belser’s Loving Our Own Bones.

Download “Disabled, Not Broken: Thinking Differently About Healing Stories” by Julia Watts Belser with Devorah Greenstein, a Plain Language Piece from Belser’s Loving Our Own Bones.
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“Belser’s book is a triumph of theological insight, disability activism, and honest, personal, hard-won wisdom . . . An excellent, impressive addition to the conversation around theology and disability that shines on many levels.”
Library Journal, Starred Review

“Written with a scholar’s deft touch and a poet’s lyrical precision, this book will draw you in to think and feel differently about sacred texts and disabled people’s complex and luminous lives, in the troublesome context of ableism’s strictures and structures. By the end, I was transported to new vistas, unimagined openings in my heart and understanding. Julia Watts Belser’s ability to move differently carries the reader to new realms: Loving Our Own Bones is a book that flies on wheels, a dazzling and revelatory ride.”
—Rebecca Ann Parker, co-author of Saving Paradise

“This book reaches back to the oldest stories of the Hebrew Bible and retells them through perspectives on flourishing in bodies considered disabled—the kinds of bodies we all inevitably inhabit. Loving Our Own Bones is a gift to us all and a call to love ourselves and one another in all our varied, distinctive, and entirely human bodies.”
—Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, author of Extraordinary Bodies

“Julia Watts Belser is a Wisdom Rebbe, a leader, an innovator, and a sacred guide to the deepest depths of all that makes us human.”
—Neshama Carlebach, award-winning singer/songwriter

“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. Readers of Loving Our Own Bones will not only come away with a deepened understanding of disability and ableism but will also likely have their views of many biblical texts challenged and transformed.”
—Judith Plaskow, author, with Carol P. Christ, of Goddess and God in the World

“An unapologetically embodied text, Loving Our Own Bones is essential reading for anyone interested in queer crip world-making. Seamlessly weaving together memoir, disability theory, biblical criticism, and activist practice, Julia Watts Belser offers readers vital new frameworks for understanding the textures of disabled life and the possibilities of story. Placing radically inclusive access at the center of her spiritual work, Belser reveals how loving our own bones is a collective act.”
—Alison Kafer, author of Feminist, Queer, Crip

Claiming Disability
from Loving Our Own Bones

After synagogue one day, a visitor popped the question. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked, as her eyes flicked from my face to my wheels. I’ve been asked this question in an astounding array of inappropriate venues; I didn’t flinch. “I have a disability,” I said, though it was plain she’d already noticed. A firm stop follows that statement, though I know full well I didn’t answer her question. I’m more than willing to talk about disability, but I’m disinclined to do so while waiting in the buffet line for my salad.

In truth, my answer is something of a lie. What’s wrong with me has more to do with exclusion, objectification, pity, and disdain than with honest muscle and bone. Most folks I meet assume my disability is a medical story, that the place to start when we talk about disability is diagnosis. I take a different approach. A medical frame centers on bodies or minds that fail to measure up to certain expectations, focusing on symptoms, treatment, rehabilitation. I want to tell you a different kind of story: a story about social attitudes, architectural barriers, and cultural notions of normalcy that value certain modes of being over others. I want to tell you a story about power, about the thousand ways our cultures mark certain bodies and minds as normal, while designating others as deviant and defective. It’s a story about the way certain bodies and minds get shut out of public space, about the way we get discarded, shunted into care homes or locked up in prisons. It’s a story about the endless hours I’ve spent hunting wheelchair-accessible apartments, about the times strangers on the street have cut in on private conversations to tell me that they’ll pray for me. It’s a story about ableism, about the deep, entrenched structures of our society that presume it’s good and right and natural to live without a disability. It’s a story about violence, about harm that cuts against body, spirit, and bone.

It’s also a story about joy. I was in college when I first experienced disability community, when I forged my first disability kinships. Though I’d been disabled all my life, I had just experienced a sudden, significant disability change. I started using an electric mobility scooter, and soon after, I got my first wheelchair. I took my first disability studies class, where I led a collective mapping project that documented and analyzed inaccessibility on campus—an experience that finally gave me language to name and make tangible the structures of exclusion that have shaped my life. I fell into friendships with activists and artists, with political crips, disabled dissidents, and dreamers. I learned to dance, shedding the awkwardness I’d always felt on feet in favor of the whirl of wheels. Somewhere along the way, I claimed an uncanny kind of freedom: a recognition that my life, my body, my wheels were so far beyond the confines of the conventional that there was simply no point trying to press my bones into that facade.

Disability movements have brought together many who live brilliantly unconventional lives for activism, artistry, and passionate community. In these circles, disability isn’t a medical diagnosis, but a cultural movement. Approaching disability through the lens of culture allows us to recognize disability as a dimension of human diversity. This perspective has often been overlooked in religious circles. Religious communities have more often tended to treat disability as a problem to be solved than a perspective to be embraced. But I follow the lead of feminist, queer, womanist, and liberationist interpreters who have raised up the value of reading sacred texts through the prism of our own particularity. Reading the Bible through the lens of disability experience can transform the way we think about text and theology. Disability cracks open powerful new perspectives on spirit.

Before we go further, let me say a few words about how I use the term “disability.” I claim disability as a vital part of my own identity, as a meaningful way of naming and celebrating the intricate unfolding of my own skin and soul. Such a choice is surely a minority position in this world. Living in a profoundly ableist culture, in a world where disability still serves as a seemingly “natural” marker of inferiority, claiming disability as a significant dimension of self remains profoundly counter cultural. We’re often taught to “look past” disability, to not bring it up in polite conversation. But I reject both of those approaches. I want you to see my disability.

Disability is an ordinary fact of life and an essential part of my being. Like most identities, it’s a mixed bag: sometimes painful, sometimes frustrating, sometimes flush with exquisite, unexpected joy. If you want to know me, you’ve got to know my disability. It’s a core part of who I am, how I experience the world.

I was born with cerebral palsy, and when I walked as a child, my heel used to strike ground in its own distinctive rhythm. My gait was subject to scrutiny and no small disapproval. Everyone wanted to fix it. I was a very compliant child: I tried to “walk right.” I stretched the thick anchor of my heel cord. I practiced over and over the motion of heel before toe. But as I did my exercises, night after night, I also remember this. I remember listening to the off-beat of my limp and loving the sound of my own step. The way my foot struck ground, the distinctive rhythm of my walk? They were my signature, something that was purely my own.

This was the first spiritual insight I trace to disability experience, this decision to cherish something about myself that other people didn’t value. Maybe you know this insight too. Maybe you know what it’s like to say yes to yourself, even in the face of disapproval or disdain. As a kid who couldn’t walk right, now as a woman who rolls through the world, as someone whose heart never learned to conform—I trace my own truest sense of self to the decision to embrace those quirky qualities of soul that some folks wished to eradicate, to do everything I could to make sure they survived.

Growing up disabled, growing up queer, the stakes were stark. It was either kindle tenacious love for my self or swallow the world’s projections whole. And, so, I chose. I taught myself to trace the lines on the palms of my own hands, a contour of the sacred. I found and felt and claimed the holiness of my own bones. I said yes to my own heart, to my own soul. I had the brilliant audacity to call it good and know it whole.

This book unfolds at the intersection of several worlds. I am scholar of disability in Jewish and Christian traditions, with a specialty in classical Jewish texts. I am a rabbi and spiritual teacher, passionate about bringing queer, feminist, and disability culture into conversation with sacred scriptures. And I am a disability activist, committed to building a world where disabled people thrive. For more than a decade now, I’ve been speaking and teaching about the intersection of disability, the sacred, and Jewish texts—in synagogues and churches, in college lecture halls and community centers, in theater arts circles and dance studios. In all of those contexts, one of the most common questions I hear is this: What does the Bible say about disability?

The Bible is a complex text, one that opens up to infinite interpretations. So do the religions that draw inspiration from its pages. People often ask me about “the Jewish view” on disability, but to get a meaningful response, we have to complicate that question. Like all religious traditions, Judaism is a vast and complex terrain, a shifting landscape, not a static body. How would we begin to answer? Would we look to the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible that, according to Jewish lore, God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai? You could certainly make a case that those texts are central to the unfolding of Jewish tradition. The Torah is read every week in synagogue, and its teachings are a bedrock of Jewish life. But to hold these texts up as some sort of final word on Jewish meaning runs counter to the heart of Jewish experience. Virtually every verse and every word of Torah has sparked a robust line of discussion and exploration, giving rise to a dizzying amount of sacred text: the Talmud, which invites the reader into intricate debates and arguments among the ancient rabbis over Jewish law and lore; the myriad books of midrash, in which every word becomes a springboard for creative interpretation, for probing the possibilities of sacred story; the medieval and modern commentaries, in which scholars laid out their understandings of Torah, verse by verse, line by line. All of this is part of the living body of revelation that Jewish tradition claims as sacred. To read Torah is to enter into a conversation, to participate in a practice of examining and contesting meaning. Torah is never a fixed, final word.

In some Jewish communities today, certain texts have become widely accepted as the authoritative word on proper Jewish practice. Jewish tradition orients itself strongly around right action—around rituals, practices, and embodied ethical commitments that shape and ground Jewish identity. Jewish law, known as halakhah, is a complex body of thought that debates and articulates expectations for Jewish practice in virtually all spheres of life, from prayer to proper business ethics. Is a blind person permitted to recite the blessing a Jew says out of gratitude for the sun, or does that act require being able to physically see and benefit from the sun’s light? May a wheelchair user lead the congregation in the Amidah, the standing prayer? What is a Jewish community’s responsibility to provide equal access to the mikveh, the pool for ritual immersion? Does Jewish law support the redesign of a sanctuary to make sure that all congregants can come to recite the blessings before the reading of the Torah? In observant communities whose sense of Jewish identity is forged in relation to halakhah, these questions are crucial. They shape the texture of Jewish life and directly affect disabled Jews’ experience in community. But these aren’t the questions that are central to this book.

My purpose here is different. Rather than examine what Jewish or Christian traditions say about disability, I flip the question on its head. I ask how disability experience can shape our inner lives, how disability can offer insights into the textures and tenor of spiritual life. This book is rooted in the bedrock claim that disability can be a generative force, a goad to creativity, a source of embodied knowledge. For those of us immersed in disability culture, for those of us who take disability as an ethical call to resist and uproot the structures of stigma and violence that constrain so many disabled people’s lives? Disability is spiritual dissent. Disability politics are a provocative challenge to prevailing conceptions of human value, a refusal to swallow the lie that some bodies and minds deserve to be discarded or disdained. In this book, I bring disability wisdom into conversation with my own religious tradition, with spiritual practice, with questions of the heart. Diving deep into my own disability experience has led me to unexpected insights as a teacher of Jewish text and tradition. Everything I know about God comes through these disabled bones.

I won’t spend my time making a case that disabled people deserve a place within religious communities, or that we have an equal claim to divine love and regard. All too often, minoritized peoples get drawn into this trap. We end up asking for acceptance, pleading for recognition, marshaling the case for our own dignity. But none of us should have to argue in this way for our own inherent worth. It corrodes the heart. It saps the soul. I’m not much for pronouncements about God, or for making claims to divine truth. But if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that disabled lives have value. We are cherished. We are beloved. Full stop, no prooftexts needed.

There are many passages within the Bible that affirm the dignity and vitality of people with disabilities. The biblical command in Leviticus 19:14 to “not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling-block before the blind,” lays out an explicit obligation to treat people with disabilities with decency and respect. The biblical call to care for the orphan, widow, and stranger has long been a touchstone for Jews and Christians alike, anchoring a commitment to ensure the well-being of people who are vulnerable and at risk, those who might easily end up on the social margins. Stirring words in Genesis call us to recognize all people as created b’tselem elohim, in the image of God. And biblical sources offer a vigorous support for the principles of justice and repair of the world. Tsedek, tsedek tirdof, calls Deuteronomy 16. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

But there are other passages that give me pause. There are traditions I find frustrating, principles I judge misguided, texts that feel like a slap against my tender places. In the pages that follow, I’ll invite you to explore some of that terrain, in part because I often end up tangling most deeply with the texts that have gotten under my skin. The choice to turn toward difficult parts of the tradition is a deliberate one, a strategy I learned from feminist interpreters who taught me the value of confronting pain and naming harm. Jewish feminist poet and cultural critic Adrienne Rich speaks powerfully of the urgency, the necessity of grappling with the full complexity of Jewish text and tradition. She writes, “To separate from parts of a legacy in a conscious, loving, and responsible way in order to say ‘This is frayed and needs repair; that no longer serves us; this is still viable and usable’ is not to spurn tradition, but to take it very seriously.” This is a book built of love and critique, a book in which I turn unflinchingly toward texts that have cut like razors against the softness of my life. This is a book that says yes, and also no. This is a book in which critique is itself an act of love.

This is a book that imagines disabled words and worlds where they were not built before. For most of Jewish history, Torah has been told by a nondisabled tongue. In Christian circles, the story is the same. Even when our sacred stories feature disabled characters, the texts themselves and the thinkers who interpret them almost always speak from a nondisabled perspective.

To shift this center, I have made a choice to deliberately disrupt the conventional rules for interpreting biblical text, to disrupt the canon of expected conversation partners. In the pages that follow, I dive deep into the worlds of traditional commentary on the Bible. But I also turn to the texts and teachings of disability activists and artists, to the writings of disabled poets and essayists, to disability studies scholarship and to disability memoir. Many of those voices are unabashedly secular. But I claim them as a crucial part of my own canon. The work of disabled artists, activists, scholars, and movement workers is driven by a commitment I hold sacred: the task of claiming the belovedness of bodies and minds that dominant culture all too often treats as disposable, as nothing more than trash.

Disability communities have honed a critical body of knowledge about what it means to practice interdependence, mutuality, love, and care. We know something vital about how to live on the underside of power, how to fight for lives that are often disregarded and disdained. Disability has taught me much about the potent spiritual subversiveness of being radically comfortable in my own skin, of daring to find the presence of God in this fierce and fragile flesh. Disability is a source of expertise, of insight. I mean not just the reality of living with an unconventional body-mind, but also the experience of contending with ableism, with the violent denial of disability as a source of value in this world. I teach Torah with that knowledge at the center of my heart. This is Torah, told slant. This is Torah, with a bold and brilliant limp. Unabashedly disabled.

Let me give you a glimpse of what I mean. During the holiday of Shavuot, Jewish communities around the world chant from the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, reciting the Israelite prophet’s striking image of God. In those verses, Ezekiel describes how “the heavens opened” and he “saw visions of God”: a radiant fire borne on a vast chariot, lifted up by four angelic creatures with fused legs, lustrous wings, and great wheels. The wheels, Ezekiel says, “gleamed like beryl,” they were “wheels within wheels” and “the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels.”

In Jewish tradition, Ezekiel’s wild, uncanny vision has been the site of much mystical speculation. In late antiquity, a group of Jewish mystics used these verses as a guide to spiritual practice, developing an intense regimen of fasting and prayer, to lead them closer and closer to the divine throne. I’ll confess: While the scholar in me finds that practice fascinating, I’ve never been tempted to follow their path. I don’t find Ezekiel particularly compelling as a model for my own spiritual life. But some years ago, sitting in synagogue on Shavuot morning, Ezekiel’s vision split open my own imagination. As I was reading that description of God’s divine chariot, I felt a jolt of recognition, an intimate familiarity, a whimsical sense of kinship. I thought: God has wheels.

When I think of God on Wheels, I think of the delight I take in my own wheelchair, the satisfaction I take from a life lived on wheels. My wheels set me free and open up my spirit. I draw a powerful, sensual joy in tandem with my chair: the way her tires grip into asphalt or concrete, the way I lean into a curve and flow down a gentle grade, the way I feel the twinned vibration of earth and wheel through the soles of my shoes or the balls of my feet. My sense of Spirit is bound up with this bone-deep body knowledge: the way flesh flows into frame, into tire, into air. This is how the Holy moves through me, in the intricate interplay of muscle and spin, the exhilarating physicality of body and wheel.

This is the fierce joy that fuels my activism, the body knowledge that grounds my ethics, the wildness that runs like a live wire through my life. It is an ethics bound up with the concrete work of justice, with an activist sensibility, a sense of obligation, a call to recognize and resist violence and oppression, to put my own flesh, my mind, my heart, my fire in service of a world made generous and loving and whole. This body knowledge fuels my hunger for a different world. A world where there are no disposable lives. A world where disabled bodies, Black bodies, Brown bodies, fat bodies, slow bodies, women’s bodies, immigrant bodies, Muslim bodies, Jewish bodies, silent, stuttering, blind, and queer bodies, old bodies, trans bodies, homeless bodies are all safe on the streets of our cities.

I dream a world where this is the cornerstone obligation of our souls, the ground of our commitments: a world, as the Psalmist says, “where justice and peace will kiss.”
Claiming Disability

Grappling with the Bible: Gender, Disability, and God

Hiddenness and Visibility: Passing and Presenting as Disabled

Ableism: The Social-Political Dimension of Disability

Priestly Blemishes: Talking Back to the Bible’s Ideal Bodies

Moses: Portrait of a Disabled Prophet

The Land You Cannot Enter: Longing, Loss, and Other Inaccessible Terrain

The Perils of Healing

Isaac’s Blindness: The Complexity of Trust

Jacob and the Angel: Wheels, Wings, and the Brilliance of Disability Difference

The Politics of Beauty: Disability and Desire

The Radical Practice of Rest: Shabbat Values and Disability Justice

God on Wheels: Disability Theology

Glossary of Jewish Terms
A Note on Translation

Loving Our Own Bones

ISBN: 978-080700675-7
Publication Date: 9/12/2023
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $29.95
Format: Cloth
Availability: In stock.
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