When 12-year-old Batya Sperling-Milner stood before her community at her bat mitzvah, a key coming-of-age ritual for Jews, she read from the Torah, just like any other Jewish kid. At the same time, the Saturday service at Ohev Sholom synagogue on a snowy D.C. Sabbath morning was absolutely unique to the little girl with the brown bob and the elaborate henna on her left hand.
The third of four children in a devout Modern Orthodox family, the daughter of a mother who is a Jewish educator and a father who is a lay cantor, Sperling-Milner never considered she’d not have a bat mitzvah, the ceremony marking the time when a Jew becomes responsible for keeping Jewish law. For kids in her crew, it’s also a key party, when you get literally showered with candy and gifts and receive a turn at the pulpit.
For Sperling-Milner, who is blind, and her family, it was just a question of how it would all happen.
It turned out that reading Torah in a service — and reading from the holy book for your community is a central ritual of a bat mitzvah — presents challenges for a blind person. The NW Washington family thought innovations might be needed, so they went on a journey to find them. By the end, Sperling-Milner’s mother, Aliza Sperling, wound up writing a 40-page paper that made the case for blind Torah readers and lectured from it in synagogue, launching a new conversation in the D.C. area’s Modern Orthodox community. And a software engineer created encoding and a computer program that may wind up transforming the Torah-reading experience for visually impaired people.
It all began last year, when Sperling-Milner, then 11, began to study the prayers and Torah section connected with the date of her bat mitzvah. She is already accustomed to often needing to get special school materials created — — on topics from Judaics to math, because they aren’t always available for the visually impaired. And to learn the nearly one hour of services she’d be leading in Hebrew, an organization called the Jewish Braille Institute was creating for her big fat, wide books of Braille Hebrew scripture.
But her family hadn’t known that there was no Braille system for the “trop,” the symbols that are above and below the Hebrew letters of the text that instruct the reader to sing the specific ritual chants, or sounds, to make at each word.
There are about 20 trops and each has several notes and sounds like a short tune.
Once Sperling-Milner started to practice last spring, she and her family realized they had a problem.
“How far did we get, Bat?” Joshua Milner, 45, a National Institutes of Health researcher of pediatric allergies and immunology, asked earlier this month of his second daughter during a practice session at Ohev Sholom.
“Not very far,” she laughed. Memorizing nearly an hour of the trops without being able to read them in practice (“read” in Braille) while learning the long Torah section seemed daunting. Forging ahead was the only option, they recalled.
“I didn’t think about it. I just knew I was going to do it,” she said.
The number of people in this situation is tiny. According to the National Federation of the Blind, there are about 62,000 blind children in the United States. Jews make up a little less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, according to Pew Research. But Sperling-Milner comes from a segment of the Jewish population that is even smaller — the segment that works to live very deliberately in decisions small and large by Jewish law.
It’s not that there aren’t Jewish kids — sighted or blind — who never really learn the trop markings. Some may listen to a cantor singing on a tape and try to memorize them. Sperling-Milner happened to get assigned a day with a longer-than-usual segment of scripture — called a “Torah portion” by Jews — and wanted to read the full thing herself, along with additional prayers that less devout children sometimes don’t learn.
That led a family friend in Israel, Danny Sadinoff, who is a software engineer, to passionately take up the question of how to quickly create a system she could use to study. Over time Sadinoff created two things. He made a Braille character to stick in the middle of a Hebrew Braille word that signals: “A trop is coming,” and then new Braille characters for all the trops. Then he wrote a computer program that translates the trop and combines it with existing Braille Bibles so that a reader can select any Bible verse and have the text with trop. Then a printer can spit out the corresponding Braille on paper.
The key challenge for the family is that they are Modern Orthodox — a group within Orthodoxy wishing to live completely according to the rules of the Torah, while also living and adapting to the modern world. For such Jews, messing up a single letter of the Torah or a single note of the chants would render her service problematic. For liberal Jews — which is the vast majority of American Jews — meeting every detail of the law wouldn’t matter as much.
But there were bigger issues for the family, that went well beyond Sperling-Milner’s access to materials and the difficulty of the task for her. The family also wanted the girl and her community to fully accept her reading. And in Orthodox Judaism, faith means religious practice, and there are rules and debates that go back millennia about who qualifies to carry out practices.
In preparing Sperling-Milner for her bat mitzvah, the family confronted the reality that there has long been a rabbinical debate about whether blind people — along with illiterate people — under Jewish law qualify to “read” the Torah before the community as public leaders. The debate began centuries ago, before publishing, and when many were illiterate. The rabbis banned public readers who memorized rather than read the Torah. God’s mandate was so important that nothing could be left to error.
“The rabbis felt there was a deep importance in seeing and reading the scroll. After all, [reading publicly] is reenacting God giving [Jews] the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every time we read, we are liturgically reenacting Matan Torah,” Lauren Tuchman, a blind Conservative rabbi from D.C., said of the Hebrew term for the biblical story of the Jews receiving scripture. “We want to honor the Torah, giving honor as we read it.”
This issue set Sperling, the girl’s mother, on a quest that resulted on Jan. 1 in a 2 ½-hour weekday lecture at the synagogue on the topic. She argued that blind Jews should be allowed to read from a Braille Torah. As a respected Jewish educator in the synagogue, Sperling’s case convinced some in the congregation that a blind person can count as a reader. For others, it simply opened up a topic they’d never considered.
Her paper argues that, in part, some of the older arguments against blind people reading have been rendered null by the creation of Hebrew Braille in the 1940s. She also argues for the pain felt by Jews who are kept from full access to the Torah.
Tuchman, who is part of the more liberal Conservative Movement and works with young Jews, said she can relate.
“When we say: ‘You can’t because of who you are,’ we are sending a very alienating message. And there is no question people are told they are spiritual outsiders,” she said. “If we are going to be in the highest degree of spiritual leadership, we have to know every Jew is part of the Jewish community.” Traditional Jews who care about following the law closely, she said, are balancing how to honor tradition along with being pragmatic.
Sperling-Milner, who grew up being read Torah stories at bedtime by her mom, said it was important to her to do what her friends could do, but also to do it by the book.
Holding close the thick text of white Braille papers created for her to practice, Sperling-Milner said during one weekday rehearsal that “when I stand up here, I think about people who read before me and I want to do what they did,” she said. “I want to do what you’re supposed to according to Jewish law. If this could become my Torah it would mean a lot.”
On her special day, friends painted her left hand — she uses both hands to read Braille but is a lefty — with henna to look like a ‘yad,’ or pointer device sighted people use to read from an actual Torah without touching the sacred page.
She gave an analysis in English about her segment, which included God plunging the Egyptians into darkness as one of the plagues set upon them as the Jews fled.
Of all the sections in the Torah on which her day could have been, Saturday was about darkness, she said with a sense of humor in her voice. It must be a sign from God!
Her reading impressed the congregation.
“Every single person in the synagogue showed up to hear her read, and we all felt we were in the presence of greatness,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi at Ohev Sholom.
That night at her party, Sperling-Milner’s parents played a special slide show of photos from her life. It’s a popular choice for such parties, and it’s what the girl wanted, even if she couldn’t see it herself.
Even so, she wanted to show her community the different parts of her life — just like any other bat mitzvah girl would. And Saturday, she did.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Sperling-Milner’s last name. This version has been corrected.