Not too far from where I live is Gallaudet University. It was founded in 1864 with a Charter signed by Abraham Lincoln. (And here’s a fun fact: to this day the diplomas of all Gallaudet graduates are signed by the presiding U.S. president.) Among its alumni are the actress Shoshanah Stern, the poet Dorothy Miles and Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, a member of South Africa’s Parliament. Oh, I forgot to tell you. Gallaudet is a university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Which brings us to today’s daf.
In a discussion of who may perform the ritual act of semicha - laying hands on an animal before its sacrifice, the Mishnah lays down the following rules:
מנחות צג, א
הכל סומכין חוץ מחרש שוטה וקטן וסומא ועובד כוכבים והעבד והשליח והאשה
Everyone [who brings an animal offering] places their hands upon its head, except for a deaf-mute, an deranged person, a minor, a blind person, a gentile, a Canaanite slave, the agent of the owner of the offering who brings the offering on the owner’s behalf, and a woman.
The Talmud explains why the deaf are excluded: חרש שוטה וקטן דלאו בני דעה “a deaf -mute, a deranged person and and a minor are not mentally competent.”
This is a widespread legal principle that appears often in the Talmud. For example, this group of three are not required to appear in Jerusalem three times a year, they may not write a get, (bill of divorce) and they may not serve as a ritual slaughterer unless properly supervised.
Which raises the question - what have we learned about the relationship between intelligence and hearing?
The Rabbinic and the Roman
To better understand the rabbinic rulings about the deaf, we must put them into a historical context. “In the early law of Rome” wrote the historian Albert Gaw (from Gallaudet) over a century ago, “the deaf-mute from birth was considered incapable; he was classed with the madman and the infant; he was unable to perform without assistance any legal act in his own behalf.” Hmm. Sounds familiar? Gaw continues:
It is evident that the deaf and dumb would naturally be debarred from engaging in such formal and solemn acts as the making of stipulations, testaments, codicils, executory trusts, and donations mortis causa, at least so long as the ability to spéak or to understand speech was requisite for the performance of these acts. In like manner, the deaf and dumb would be unable to take part in adoptions, emancipations, solemn manumissions, and would be excused from the duties of guardianship as long as verbal formalities were required to give validity to these acts. Also because of their inability to speak and hear they would not be chosen to act as judges, arbiters, witnesses, or procurators. They would also be barred from solemn entrance upon an inheritance because of the necessity of repeating the prescribed formula at the time of entry, which for a person both deaf and dumb would be physically impossible. Even for persons adventitiously deaf who retained their speech some of the above named acts were prohibited, as a person who could not hear was held to be unable to carry out the letter of the law as to the repetition of the formula made imperative on pain of nullity. The solemn forms of marriage, confarreatio et coemptio, could not be complied with by persons who were deaf and dumb; neither could a deaf-mute buy and sell by the formal emptio venditio or mancipatio.
Things got (a little) better under Emperor Justinian (527-565 CE). His code recognized different types of deafness and distinguished between them in law. Those deaf people who could write enough to conduct their daily affairs were granted legal rights.
Into the (Not so) Modern Age
The rights of the hard-of-hearing remained mired due to a lack of understanding about the nature of deafness, and an aversion to understanding their sign language. In fact, so strong was this aversion that at the infamous Milan conference of 1880, sign language instruction was banned. Banned. Instead, the members of the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf declared that oral instruction (lip-reading and speech) was to be used exclusively. Ignorance reigned supreme.
Alexander Graham Bell, (yes, he of the telephone) was one of those behind the Milan declaration. He later wrote a treatise “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race” in which he noted that many deaf people marry other deaf people. Sometimes these marriages produced children who were hard-of-hearing. Bell, the card-carrying eugenicist, found this unacceptable. And so in his paper (published by the National Academy of Sciences no less) he suggested outlawing the marriage of two deaf people. It’s enough to make you throw your phone across the room.
Research on the intelligence of the hard of hearing
In 1968 the psychologist McCay Vernon published a now classic paper “Fifty Years of Research on the Intelligence of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children.” He pointed out the biases in IQ assessment of deaf children resulting from improper testing methods, research participant sampling, and even the experience level of the evaluators themselves. He reviewed 37 studies that measured the intelligence of samples of deaf and hard-of-hearing children performed between 1930 and 1965. Here are some of Vernon’s conclusions (but keep in mind that he was writing this in the 1960s, and our notions of the utility of standardized IQ tests as a measure of anything have evolved considerably since then.)
The communication problems of profound hearing loss, the attentive set of deaf children toward psychological examination, and other aspects of test administration rule out the validity of group intelligence testing.
Almost all of the investigations involved only samples of deaf children who were in school programs for the hearing impaired. This approach involved incomplete sampling and left unanswered the question of the intelligence of deaf children not in these schools.
The work done by investigators who were experienced in the psychological testing of deaf children at the time they did their work (see the notations in this table) yielded results showing the deaf and the hearing more nearly equal in intelligence. As the experience of the examiner has strong direct bearing on the validity of test results, these studies must be given special emphasis in any consideration of the relative intelligence of deaf and hearing children on IQ measures.
Based on an understanding of the disease conditions causing deafness, it is apparent that many of the etiologies of profound hearing loss are also responsible for other neurological impairment which frequently results in lower intelligence. “The point to be made is that the relationship, if any, between developmental delays and deafness is not causal but is due to the common etiology which brought about both the deafness and the developmental delay.”
These studies indicate that there is no relationship between degree of hearing loss and IQ or the age of onset of deafness and IQ.
On one of the most thorough reviews of the literature since the publication of Vernon’s paper is found in a book called “Deafness, Deprivation and IQ,” by Jeffrey Braden from the University of Wisconsin. It is a deep dive into the methodologies of intelligence tests, what they measure and what they don’t. Braden found that deafness has very little impact on non-verbal intelligence; the impact of deafness is simply to lower verbal IQs and not affect non-verbal IQs. Which is what you would expect. His analysis of all the data also revealed that deaf children with deaf parents have performance IQs that are above the mean for hearing people. Above it. (Alexander Graham Bell, did you get that message?)
In her 2003 paper What the Rabbis Heard: Deafness in the Mishnah Bonnie Gracer noted that
The ancient Jews did live amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is therefore not surprising that the rabbis, as evidenced in the Mishnaic canon, incorporated into Jewish law Greco Roman beliefs linking hearing, speech, intelligence, and morality. It is clear, however, that the rabbis viewed all people, including deaf people, as unique individuals. The Mishnaic delineation of multiple categories of deafness resulted in not every deaf person being "categorically" disqualified or exempt from the performance of specific mitzvot. The rabbis observed deaf people, paid enough attention to notice detail, and deemed deaf people worthy of life, legal rulings, and protections. From the standpoint of deaf history, these are all extremely positive developments.
They are. But still not good enough.
On the Role of Science
In 1971 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that hearing aids would give a congenitally deaf person all the rights and obligations of one who hears normally. But five years earlier, in 1966, the great Torah scholar Yaakov Yechiel Weinberg published an article in the journal Hechal Shlomo about the religious rights and duties of a deaf Jew. He concluded by explaining that there were two approaches to this issue. Some rabbis believed deafness to be an organic deficit in the brain that also caused a degree of “mental handicap” (חסרון דעת) that remained despite any degree of education. Others believe that any degree of developmental delay was entirely due to a lack of adequate education. Consequently, once educated in school, the deaf were to be treated like any other Jew. Then he continued:
But we are not to rely on physicians or scientists to answer this question for us. For the measure of understanding required for a person to uphold mitzvot is entirely different for the rabbis than it is for scientists.
Rav Weinberg was of course correct: what is reality in halakha and what is reality in reality are often two very different things. But still, this was an unusual position to take, for as Marc Shapiro noted in his excellent intellectual biography of R. Weinberg, “the tendency to take into account modern social and educational issues is constantly present in his responsa.”Surely the religious status of a deaf person would be a test case for just that approach.
The Mishnah in today’s daf should make us uncomfortable. It raises many difficulties and challenges about the way Judaism once viewed - and often still does view - those with disabilities and people who were not free agents of their own time. The sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, influenced by cultural norms like those in ancient Rome, deemed the deaf not “mentally competent.” Two thousand years later, with the march of science we know that that this is factually incorrect. But you don’t need the science to tell you that. You just need to be lucky enough to know a deaf person.