Please support our work with a fiscal year-end gift. Thank you!

Leviticus When Dropping Obligations is a Mitzvah

By Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman
Shoshana Friedman

“Neurodiversity is a movement to claim the many ways there are to be human.” —Amanda Diekman

My son and I are both Autistic with a PDA profile.

Though many prefer Pervasive Drive for Autonomy, PDA’s clinical name is Pathological Demand Avoidance. Along with many PDAers and PDA educators, I believe PDA is best understood as a nervous system disability in which a person is born with an overactive threat response that fires off when faced with a lack of autonomy, control, or social equality.

Learning about PDA transformed my family’s life.

This was why, despite all the sensory support we had in place, my child still went from calm to panicked at a wayward marker stroke on a drawing or a misplaced water bottle. This was why, no matter how many bedtime charts I made, the series of demands from pajamas to tooth brushing always triggered manic dysregulation.

This week’s Torah portion Bechukotai begins with promises of blessings should the people obey God, and goes on to list grotesque punishments if they don’t.

The portion begins with a seemingly innocuous preamble verse. But this year it’s these few words that catch me and won’t let go:

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe my commandments.” (Leviticus 26:3)

I stare at the open Hebrew Bible on my desk, breath caught in my throat, the entire premise of Torah falling down around me.

Because — What if you can’t?

What if an Israelite can’t observe the laws and commandments, not because they are unwilling or indisposed but because their disabled nervous system will not let them for the simple reason that the mitzvot are losses of autonomy and therefore perceived as mortal threat?

“And if you remain hostile towards Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.” (Leviticus 26:21).

The text makes no distinction between those who won’t and those who can’t. We are punished regardless of the root cause of our behavior.

Yet this is the exact distinction that is vital to supporting struggling people, especially those with hidden disabilities. Dr. Ross Greene, psychologist and founder of Lives in the Balance, champions vulnerable youth and challenges the status quo of punitive discipline in schools and homes. His underlying principle is simple: Kids do well when they can. If they can’t, something is getting in the way, and they need support, not punishment.

For PDAers, this premise is the difference between a livable and unlivable life.

This is because when faced with demands, a PDAer’s drive for autonomy will override other survival drives, including the instinct of young children to please their caregivers, or the drives to eat, sleep, use the bathroom, connect with loved ones, and stay physically safe. PDAers may even be unable to do something we want to do, since the wanting itself can be registered as a threat. (This is why my child sometimes says “Mama, my legs don’t work,” when it’s time to leave the house for an event he was excited about.) For PDAers, resistance to demands is a can’t, not a won’t, just as you would not be able to get your legs to run across a busy six-lane highway.

Now, I invite you to take a moment to consider our Torah portion — indeed, the entire Torah… no wait, actually, the structure of Rabbinic Judaism — from the perspective of someone whose autonomic nervous system goes into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (people-pleasing out of fear) when faced with demands.

Hold that in your mind for a moment as I tell you more of my story.

When we learned about PDA, we pulled our burnt out son from school and began a radical healing approach called Low Demand Parenting. In Low Demand Parenting, you proactively drop demands on your child and find creative ways to meet your own needs. We wholeheartedly let go of so much — family dinners, screen time limits, bathing, the list goes on.

As our son healed from PDA burnout, I recognized an internalized version of PDA in myself and began a practice of Low Demand Living. As I dropped demands for myself — from folding laundry (bins on the floor work fine!) to social eating (I now eat in front of a book or a screen) — my relationship with Judaism fundamentally changed.

It turns out, Judaism is a high demand religion.

Even the most liberal denominations place mitzvot at their center — Tikkun Olam, participation in community, the obligation to pass on Jewish identity. In more observant communities, mitzvot weave through virtually every moment of the day, from the blessings before and after eating to praying at certain times with certain words.

I remember my foray into observant Judaism while I was in rabbinical school. Graduate school was exhausting for my nervous system on so many levels already, but on top, I placed a high demand on myself to say all the words, do all the rituals, follow all the mitzvot I’d taken on.

I remember the chronic jitters in my chest, my racing heart, my restless body in class, my looping anxious thoughts, my need to lie down by lunchtime.

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe my commandments…” It’s not just this Torah portion, of course. Starting with the covenant, all of Judaism is premised on obligation. Yes, God loves us even when we mess up. But we are still held to high standards of behavior — whether by God, our communal norms, or our own expectations.

The paradox of PDA is that the more demands we face in daily life, the less our nervous system allows us to do.

This nervous system lens leaves me with big questions.

What would a true Low Demand Judaism look like? Is it even possible? How can we build Jewish communities that work for neurodivergent people without trying to shoe-horn us into neurotypical norms? How might my son and I stay connected to Jewish community when being in a group setting is often inaccessible to us?

My rabbinate has taken some surprising turns since I was ordained 10 years ago. Most recently, I began a coaching practice for PDA Autistic people, our family members and allies. Some of my clients are Jewish. Many are not. Everyone is starving for acceptance, understanding, and practical support.

For now, showing up to them is a mitzvah I can fulfill.

Shoshana Meira Friedman `14 is a rabbi, coach, writer, activist, and all-around passionate creative who has been published in many venues including The New York Times. Currently, she is unschooling her 6-year-old PDAer full time, running a small coaching practice, and creating The PDA Safe Circle™, a strengths-based approach to supporting PDA Autistic people of all ages. Her Instagram account on PDA Autism has over 21K followers. For her blog, coaching practice, creative Jewish rituals, and writing on the climate crisis, visit rabbishoshana.com.


Explore Graduate Programs Adult Learning Classes  Support Our Work

recommended posts

News Highlights Rabbinical School Leadership Team Realigns for the Future

Numbers Caring is Sharing

Numbers Outside the Camp and In Again