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Do Autistic Children Have Special Souls?

Do Autistic Children Have Special Souls?



This may sound like a silly question. I am the mother of two autistic children. I love them both dearly, but as any parent of children with special needs will tell you, raising them is challenging and can often be full of disappointment, hurt and frustration. I once heard somewhere that the Kaballah considers children who are autistic to be on a higher spiritual level, almost like angels. I found this idea to be extremely comforting and it gave me much strength to continue. I am trying to find out a little bit more about this concept -- is there any mention and/or allusion to autism anywhere in the Torah and/or other holy texts?


Every time I encounter a parent or guardian taking care of someone with special needs, I am in awe of their dedication and love. Reading your email with the preface "This may sound like a silly question…" is also inspiring. If your question is silly, then what am I to say of all my problems I imagine to be so important?

You asked for a source in the Kabbalah stating that the souls of these children are somehow special. In fact, there is just such a statement in the Zohar. But, as with most of the Zohar, it is not something immediately fathomable, so I hope you are up to a preamble and some explanation.

In the Torah reading of Emor (which happens to be the week in which you are asking this question) we find the laws of kohanim who have certain disabilities and are therefore disqualified from serving in the Holy Temple. The verse states "Any man among Aaron the Kohen's offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up G‑d's fire offerings" (Leviticus 21:21).

How can it be that one who has done nothing wrong is barred from serving in the Holy Temple just because of a "blemish"? The G‑d who taught us to look beyond appearances and treat all with equal love, the same G‑d who created this very kohen with his disability, tells us "Nope, due to his blemish, he cannot serve Me in the Holy Temple"?!

So here is what is written in the holy Zohar:1

Rabbi Shimon opened the discussion with the verse: "Only he shall not go in to the Veil, nor come near the to altar, because he has a blemish; that he profane not My holy places: for I, G‑d, do sanctify them" (Vayikra 21:23). "He shall not go in to the Veil." Come and behold: at the time the river is flowing and comes out, and issues the souls, the feminine aspect above conceives. And they all abide in a room …

When the moon is rendered defective by the same aspect of the evil serpent, like all the souls that are issued, although they were all pure and sacred, are flawed. Since they emerged at a defective time, whichever place these souls reach [i.e. bodies] are crushed, and suffer pains and afflictions. The Holy One, blessed be He, cares for those who are broken, although their souls are sad instead of joyous.

The secret is that they remain as they were above. While the body is flawed, the soul inside remains the same as above. The one state resembles the other. Therefore, they are to be renewed like the moon, as it is written (Isaiah 66:23): "And it shall come to pass, that every new moon, and every Shabbat, all flesh shall come to bow down to the ground before Me, says G‑d." "All flesh" assuredly, for they are in need of renewal along with the moon.

…These righteous are the constant companions of the moon and have the identical defects.... And "G‑d is near to them who are of a broken heart"2—that is, to those who suffer from the same defect as the moon, those who are always near her. "And He saves such as are of a contrite spirit,"3 by giving them a portion of the life …because they who suffered with her shall also be renewed with her.

...Those defects from which the righteous suffer are called "sufferings of love," because they are caused by love and not by the man himself…Happy is their portion in this world and in the world to come...

As you can see, the words are quite esoteric. The thrust of them, however, is quite simple: There are souls born into the world that are whole on the inside, yet blemished on the outside. The reason is not for any punishment, but on the contrary, out of love. To understand further, you will need a little more explanation:

You need to know that the moon is a reference to G‑d's immanent presence in the world, otherwise known as the Shechinah. You also need to know that the Shechina, like the moon, wanes and waxes, as G‑d's presence sometimes shines brightly in the world, and at other times is shadowed and darkened. Some souls are conceived (not on earth, but above) at the waxing of the cycle. Those souls enter the world with a strong body and glide through life happily. Other souls are conceived with the darkening of the Shechina. Rabbi Shimon tells us that these souls share in the suffering of the Shechina—and that is why she is their constant companion. Eventually, this cycle of the Shechina will resolve in an everlasting fullness as G‑d's presence will shine in ultimate intensity in this world, and these souls "shall also be renewed with her."

So far, some answers. But many puzzles remain: Why must the Shechinah suffer? And what is the point behind these souls suffering along with her?

Concerning the suffering of the Shechina, Rabbi Yitzchaak Luria, the Ari, provided a deep and enlightening teaching. He explained that everything of our world is vitalized and sustained in existence by a divine spark. The higher the spark, he said, the lower it falls. The most intense divine light, therefore, is to be found in the darkest corners of our world. The Shechinah is both the light of G‑d's presence and the mother of all souls. The function of the human soul is to rescue these fallen sparks from their darkness so they may be reconnected to the Infinite Light. The Shechinah suffers as she descends into the darkness to perform that rescue. This, the Ari says, is "the secret of the exile of the Shechinah," as the Talmud says, "When the Jewish People go into exile, the Shechina goes with them."4

The Tzemach Tzedek5 uses this teaching of the Ari to explain the above words of the Zohar. Generally, he writes, there are two ways to rescue the sparks from the forces of darkness. He equates the spiritual task of the unblemished souls to an army which engages another in battle. Eventually, the victors subdue their enemy but do not eradicate them completely.

Then, the Tzemach Tzedek continues, there are those born with a blemish—albeit external, since their soul remains whole. Their task is to totally eradicate evil so that it ceases to exist. Yet to do so, they must come into direct contact with that darkness. They are like those special forces sent out in camouflage in order to entice the enemy into an ambush. Obviously these soldiers do not have the outside trappings of a burly navy seal, after all, would any half intelligent fighter follow someone who appears as a threat to them into an ambush? But on the inside, internally, they are the elite troops, charged with a special mission.

Another way of saying this: In order to battle face to face with the darkness, the soul needs to have some of that darkness itself. Yet only externally—in order that this darkness itself can be redeemed.

How does this apply to the special needs child? Certainly all of us have seen clearly how these children—who were until recently neatly quarantined away from society in secluded institutions—have given us so much now that we allow them to participate in society. A school that helps mainstream such a child is doing a great service to all its students, teaching them compassion and understanding of others. A community that helps out finds itself bonded together in their act of caring. You may have heard of the Friendship Circles that have sprung up to assist in this mainstreaming. The directors tell me that the ones who benefit the most are the teens that volunteer—and end up learning so much from these special souls. As a parent, yes it is hard, but in the long run you certainly have the most to gain.

You ask if your children can be compared to angels, but in fact they hold a position much higher. The rest of us serve as the foot soldiers in G‑d's army, which itself is position greater than angels. But your children are of the elite troops, completing a special task in this world. Their challenges are certainly no fault of their own, and neither of yours. On the contrary, you have been given the great merit of bringing these two elite souls into the world, nurturing them and caring for them as they complete their lofty mission. It is by no means an easy job, but G‑d only entrusts these souls into the hands He deems most appropriate.

Here is a short thought along the same lines: Gifted and Challenged.

Talking about Kohanim, and being a Kohen myself, I want to bless you with much nachas from your children, and with the strength to meet the challenge and privilege that G-d has presented you with.

Here is the link to the Friendship Circle official site.

1. Vayeshev 181
2. Psalms 34:19
3. ibid.
4. Megillah 29a
5. Derech Mitzvotecha
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Discussion (47)
August 14, 2015
To 'True Apologies'
I feel that what you wrote in your earlier post was very brave of you. It's not very often that a parent can be so honest and truthful about the difficulies in raising a disabled child/children.
Of course you do your best and love them, but you are allowed to experience mixed feelings. We are only human after all!
Have you found support groups that understand your feelings? We found a great group full of lovely, supportive people. It feels really good to talk through things with others that are in the same situation or have been there in the past.
As a society we seem to have preset ideas of how it will be to raise a child. We set development markers throughout their lives, which is fine for most people. When you have a disabled child that cannot hit those 'marks' it is very distressing and upsetting. I've just learnt that when we have a good day (just having fun most of the day) that's great, if we have a bad day (crying/difficult behaviour) then lets learn as much as we can from it! X
August 12, 2015
True apologies, anonymous
To anonymous, and many others - I felt the pain in your comment, and I understand your criticism ("I wouldn't want to be raised by a parent such as you." Just to clear things, my children have, and will never have, any inkling from me of my inner feelings. They were and are loved, supported, and I have fought like a tigress for them to have the accommodations they needed. I never let others bring them down. I was and am a fierce parent and advocate for their needs. But the part you may not understand is that parents have other aspects of themselves besides their parenthood. That part of me was the one that was commenting. For me, parenting these children was a calling, and I did and continue to do it to the very best of my ability and the last of my strength. But it has not been a joy, and that is the honest truth of my experience. I'm sorry though, truly, if it felt hurtful.
Thank you, Elisha
August 7, 2015
I have two daughters diagnosed with autism, my youngest has speech problems.
I feel so lucky to have them in my life. I don't feel any need to change any expectations. Yes, they may need extra help to get there especially with social situations.
I have found they don't suffer from Autism, but suffer because of a huge misunderstanding of other people.
They are both very connected to nature. Water is a huge draw for them and for me as I am also Autistic. From being in the bath, sitting by a pond, swimming in the sea, all has a spiritual meaning to us. We love to connect with our surroundings. The only way I can try to explain it is that our senses are incredably active. So when we go for a swim in the sea we are not just swimming. We are connecting to all those sensations and feelings of being apart of the world as a whole.
We prefer not to be interrupted during this period of time because of the intense feeling we are receiving. That's why we can become angry with other people.
August 5, 2015
Re: Thank you, Elisha
As someone who has struggled with autistic symptoms, I can say for many years of my life, I would have rather been an aborted fetus. One thing that kept me from committing suicide, such as by driving into a tree at high speed is the fear that I wouldn’t have been successful (at killing myself). In utter dismay, I recall getting angry at my parents for having allowed me to live. It was not until several years after I began gluten free casein free diet that I deemed that I thought all the suffering was worth it - and, by the way I know that the gluten free casein free diet does not work for everyone with autism – I was lucky that there was a cure for me.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
July 29, 2015
Thank you Elisha
" A parent with autistic children must cast off the typical dreams parents have for their children, and the day-to-day work is exhausting and generally isolating. Thank you."

Having autism I sure wouldn't want to be raised like a parent such as you! I was given a diagnosis of severe autism and my mom advised to put me in an institution. She was thus prepared to treat me as a child forever. She held me back socially for fear I would be taken advantage of, and I was the family 'embarrassment'. I used the gifts I was given that I could cope with my autism with to accelerate through my studies to escape her grip early but it was still a near thing as I faced her threat of a conservatorship if even as an adult I disobeyed her. I had to drive away to the far side of the country so I could begin a real life. If you find people like me such a hardship and embarassent, then I'd just as soon be surrendered to foster care where I might be treated more fairly.
July 29, 2015
Thank you, Elisha
Like Elisha, I am an older mom (51, 7 kids), three of whom are autistic, one is quite severe. I did read carefully and respectfully this article and I understand the complexity of the spiritual argument, but I have to say that bringing up these children has not been a "gift", but an incredible hardship. Their lives are difficult and parenting them, I'll say anonymously does not bring much joy to me, but lots of sorrow. A parent with autistic children must cast off the typical dreams parents have for their children, and the day-to-day work is exhausting and generally isolating. Thank you.
July 26, 2015
I think that it is so important to realize that autism is a social struggle. Chesed was the reason for creation and the path to love and understanding is through communication. Since our spatial world is directly opposite from the logic in heaven, these social disabilities are heaven trying to communicate with our world. This is the task of mashiach and therefore, the entire purpose of creation.
It's like how hebrew reads in an opposite direction to english. An english speaker must learn to flip around his orientation to learn hebrew; the same is true for learning english. Heaven reads both at the same time, going each direction, and making sense. This is the level of logic we must strive to attain and glorify even though there is no worldly logic in it.
Remember that Moshe had such communication difficulties that often only Aaron and Miriam could understand him. Most likely, there were numerous things that Moshe knew that couldn't be understood at all. The time to listen is now.
Yitzchak Chaim
April 23, 2015
The soul is where G-d is
I have a friend who's child has autism. He used to be nonverbal until the age of 8, and only started speaking recently. Singing lessons helped a great deal. But the point I'm trying to make is that he is an amazing child. Long before he started communicating, he was drawing in Perspective and using texture and color in a way that no regular child could. Now he is developing and it is becoming easier, although every day is still a struggle. Faith and perseverance helped a great deal, and the constant knowledge that he is special. no ill or damaged. They also got a lot of help by using Kabbalistic amulets by this gentleman.
March 22, 2015
IQ Test Inconsistencies
I’d clear up a mistake: Technically my Verbal I.Q. was 118, while my Performance I.Q. was 99. My overall I.Q. was 110, not 120. The reason I claimed my I.Q. was 120 was because I was trying to calculate my I.Q. without the inconsistencies I exhibited - these inconsistencies were a part of my illness. For example, on block design, scored a 2nd percentile; but when given the more complex 3x3 designs I correctly solved the four most difficult, 95th percentile difficulty level. 2nd percentile was not a reflection of my true skill, yet it was factored in on my Performance I.Q., 99! In others parts of the test, as well, I was inconsistent by missing easier problems and solving harder problems. I tried to mathematically correct for this, so that is where I came up with "120." However, I don’t know the official way of calculating I.Q., so 120 was probably off.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
November 19, 2014
Dear "autism and Leviticus 21:21"
How dare you lecture us adult autistics who can function moderately well, beause we have already endless compassion for those not as lucky as us.

Since society only sees the 90% who remain children forever, a huge stigma attaches to the 10% of Jewish autistics who want nothing more than to live independent lives and to marry as Jews.

Condescending articles such as this rabbi's, however reassuring it would be to many individuals and families, is not helpful when it comes to the rest of the Jewish community allowing a Jewish autistic as full access to everything Hashem (I'm not Orthodox, but I will be courteous to those who are with this usage) has to offer as He would offer anyone in the general population.

Judaism is historically slow to accept innovations in either interpretation or basic attitude. The rabbi's conflation of severe autism with mental retardation is similar to how Jewish parents in my day to not let an autistic marry thier child regardless of other gifts given.
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