Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Heart Is In Tumult: Reflections on Lamentations in the Age of Global Warming

Cross-posted to State of Formation.
Lamentations 2:11-12
11My eyes are spent with tears
My heart is in tumult,
My being melts away
Over the ruin of my poor people,
As babes and sucklings languish
In the squares of the city.
12They keep asking their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?
As they languish like battle-wounded
In the squares of the town,
As their life runs out
In their mothers’ bosoms.
The book of Lamentations (or, in Hebrew, Megillat Eicha) is one of the Hebrew canon’s five megillot, or scrolls, which are read at different points in the Jewish liturgical cycle.  In the Tanakh, it is situated between Ruth and Ecclesiastes; in Christian Bibles it is found between Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Traditionally read in synagogue on Tisha B’Av, (the fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple), Lamentations begins with a question—Eicha: How?! It describes the wreckage of a besieged Jerusalem in the wake of the destruction of the first temple, and its imagery would not be out of place in a horror movie: the old and the young alike, filthy and starving in the streets, children asking for sustenance that is not there, mothers eating their babies. This desolation and suffering is contrasted with Jerusalem’s former glory: “They that fed on dainties are desolate in the streets; they that were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills.” (4:5)
We wonder what could possibly have caused this suffering and horror, but the scroll’s initial eicha is a rhetorical one: almost immediately, we learn that “Jerusalem has grievously sinned.” (1:8) The calamity is a consequence of human immorality, and the nations who have sacked the city and destroyed the temple are instruments of God’s justice and wrath. When there still might have been time to correct course, Jerusalem’s seers “did not expose your iniquity, so as to restore your fortunes, but prophesied to you oracles of deception and delusion.” (2:14) The only response, the text exhorts, is repentance; but this can only happen with divine help: “turn us unto you, O Adonai, and we shall be turned.” (5:21)
The verses quoted above describe in heartrending detail the suffering of the people in the besieged city. The town centers, once atria of commerce and activity, have become charnel houses: people come together there not to socialize, but to die. The verses give particular attention to the suffering of children. Even the weak and innocent among the people are not spared the consequence of Israel’s sin: “As babes and sucklings languish in the squares of the city, They keep asking their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’” Calamity has upended natural orders. Parents, who are supposed to provide for their children and keep them safe, cannot. Children, who should not know want or violence, “languish like battle-wounded.” Even the epitome of refuge and nourishment has run dry: the lives of children “run out in their mothers’ bosoms.”
Even the narrator (identified in multiple traditions, though not by modern scholarship, as the prophet Jeremiah) is not immune: “My eyes are spent with tears, my heart is in tumult, my being melts away”—the Hebrew for which phrase literally reads “my liver spills on the ground”—“at the ruin of my poor people.” Is his suffering sympathetic? Does he watch from afar, echoing his people’s torment in his own psyche? Or is it literal? Is his physical being actually melting away, the churning of his innards his body’s response to starvation and the pestilence that comes with widespread death? Even in the midst of his own slow demise, is he able to feel sorrow for his fellow humans, to think past his own survival instinct and toward moral behavior?
This Tisha b'Av, the extreme heat many of us are experiencing in North America forces us to confront the reality of climate change and the consequences of environmental degradation. Generally speaking, Lamentations is not the first book that comes to mind when one is asked what the Tanakh has to say about the environment. Yet, I believe that this text has some significant things to say about environmental ethics—specifically about the consequences of environmental destruction for humans. (We might thank the recent film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for bringing this aspect of the issue into the public consciousness).
These particular verses point us, I would suggest, in three specific directions. First, the wrenching description of how the people of Jerusalem suffer for lack of basic resources pushes us, to appropriate Jonathan Schofer’s words, to “[confront] vulnerability as a basis for ethics.” (Schofer, 2010, 187) As physical beings, we cannot live, or flourish, or serve God if the basic needs of our bodily survival are not met-- and the resources that enable us to meet these needs come from the world that God has created.
Second, in emphasizing the particular suffering of children, the text reminds us that our actions have consequences for the innocent. Even if we decided that particular people who behave immorally deserve everything they get as a result, this text forces us to see that they are not the only people punished for their behavior.
Third, the perspective of the narrator, whichever way we decide to interpret it, reminds us that there is still room for empathy and moral choice within a crisis, even one as grave as we see here. If the narrator is watching from afar and suffers in the abstract, we learn that we can feel for and try to ameliorate the suffering of others, no matter how grievously they have sinned. And if the narrator is speaking from the midst of the horror, we learn that, even in the most dehumanizing situations, there is nevertheless room for humanity.
A version of this essay was presented on March 16, 2012, at the Mid-Atlantic AAR regional meeting in New Brunswick, NJ.
This image, by Gustav Dore, is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

The Wronging of Alan Turing: Sex, Shame, and the Complexity of a Human Being

Cross-posted to State of Formation.

Are you reading this on a computer? Then thank the guy on the left. The English mathematician Alan Turing, who would have turned 100 this June 23, is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of modern computer science. As Jack Copeland writes:
Turing conceived the principle of the modern computer. He described an abstract digital computing machine consisting of a limitless memory and a scanner that moves back and forth through the memory, symbol by symbol, reading what it finds and writing further symbols…The actions of the scanner are dictated by a program of instructions that is stored in the memory in the form of symbols. This is Turing's stored-program concept, and implicit in it is the possibility of the machine operating on and modifying its own program.
Turing was also a pioneer in artificial intelligence: the “Turing Test, in which an artificial intelligence would be judged intelligent if another human could not tell the difference between the responses of a human and the artificially intelligent machine,” remains the ideal toward which AI continues to strive. Additionally, Turing’s work in cryptography played a critical role in the Allied victory in World War II. He developed codebreaking machines and algorithms, which revealed the positions of Nazi Germany’s U-Boats and detailed Hitler’s communications with his generals. Copeland suggests that the contributions of Turing and his team may have shortened the war by two to four years, which translates, by his calculations, into 14 to 21 million lives saved.
For his outsized contributions to the war effort and for revolutionizing the shape of modern sciences, economies, and societies, you might expect Turing to have been lauded as a national hero. Instead, in 1952 Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” after reporting a petty burglary that a male lover of his participated in—homosexuality being illegal at the time. He was offered a choice between imprisonment, and chemical castration through injections of a synthetic estrogen. He chose the latter. In 1954, he died of cyanide poisoning; an event many suspect was a suicide—though Copeland contends that the evidence for this is scant. In 2009 then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for the government's treatment of Turing.
What does all this have to do with Jewish ethics? As it turns out, plenty. We can read Turing’s ordeal at the hands of British indecency law as a modern example of what the Talmud calls “verbal wronging.” Commenting on Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:10, which states, “Just as there is [fraud by] overreaching in buying and selling, so there is wrong done by words,” b. Bava Metzia 58b records the following discussion:
R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong…R. Eleazar said: The one affects his person, the other [only] his money.  R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: For [monetary wronging] restoration is possible, but not for [verbal wronging.]
A tanna recited before R. Nahman b. Isaac: He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he had shed blood. Whereupon he remarked to him, “You say well, for I have seen it [as a result of such shaming], the ruddiness departing and paleness supervening.”[1]
This passage does a couple of interesting things. First, and most obviously, it understands a form of unquantifiable, non-material damage as greater than material wrong—precisely for the reason of its unquantifiability. If I know exactly how much someone has lost due to a wrong, I stand a chance of being able to make it up to them; and if I know a person has lost something material, I know that there is a tangible means by which I might be able to make restitution. To use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s language, monetary wrong is a wrong done in space, and a change to a space at least stands a chance of being undone. Verbal wronging, on the other hand, is a wrong done in time.[2] Once someone has seen or heard something, I cannot (short of erasing their memory in some way, which would likely involve grievous physical harm) make them unsee or unhear it, because I cannot erase the moment in time in which the perception took place.
Second, it recognizes that not only a person’s psyche, but their social self as well, is integral to their being. Furthermore, these aspects of the self are just as vulnerable to real injury as the physical aspect—the text goes so far as to explicitly compare, in somatic, visual terms, the result of shaming to that of physically drawing blood. In doing so, the text recognizes that a person is complex and interconnected, irreducible to a single feature, and vulnerable in many different ways.
If Turing did in fact commit suicide as a result of his ordeal, this would be a case where verbal wronging quite literally resulted in bloodshed. It would also not be the only case in which bloodshed has literally resulted from verbal wronging—one need only look at the recent rash of queer teen suicides in response to anti-gay bullying. Even if Turing did not commit suicide, however, his case and others like it stand as testimony to the pettiness of such shaming, and to the tangible damage it can do.
Consider that Turing’s sexuality harmed no one. Consider that his sexuality was exposed in the process of his actually performing a civic duty—reporting an actual crime. For this he was rewarded with a prosecution that besmirched his name and wasted public time and money, as well as his own. In the end he was offered a choice a choice between two significant injuries: the loss of his freedom and career, or the loss of his sexuality. I would suggest we consider the number of lives he saved and his contributions to a discipline without which all our lives would be radically different, but the truth is, what was done to Turing would have been just as wrong had it been done to anyone else.
There is one sense, however, in which comparing the pettiness of Turing’s shaming to the vast weight of his accomplishments serves to highlight an especially sinister feature of verbal wronging:  it makes a person’s life entirely about the ways in which they differ from a prescribed standard.  The whole person—their accomplishments, their interests, their loves, their sense of self—become inconsequential. They are reduced to a single act or characteristic that has been marked as worthy of derision, and in this way they are marked as other, and dehumanized. This is true of the all-too-common phenomenon of slut-shaming, which I discussed in a previous article. It is true of the anti-gay bullying which continues to drive too many youth to suicide, it is true of Turing’s treatment, and it is true of countless other cases in which we publicly shame people over actions or characteristics which have no bearing on our own lives (but which may be immensely and legitimately important to the victim of that shame). And it stands in direct contrast to the broad and complex vision of humanity suggested by our Talmudic text.
This photograph, of a sculpture of Turing at Bletchley Park, England, was taken by Jon Callas. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons and is used in accordance with a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

[1] Soncino Translation.
[2] See A.J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951, 1979)

Friday, May 4, 2012

"Rules By Which They Could Not Live:" My Bat Mitzvah Drash

Cross-posted to State of Formation.

The parshah I’ve worked on for my Bat Mitzvah is, given my graduate research, apt—and not entirely accidental. My research deals with sexual ethics—and queer sexuality in particular— in Judaism. And as you follow along in your Chumashim, you will notice that parshat K’doshim-Acharei Mot contains perhaps two of the most controversial verses in the Hebrew Bible: Leviticus 18:22—“you will not lie with a man as with the lyings of a woman”—and Leviticus 20:13—“If one lies with mankind as one lies with womankind, they have both committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death.”
In my research, naturally, I have had to deal with these verses, and with possible mitigating interpretations of them. I can tell you the following—first, many such interpretations exist. Second, all of them, to my mind, are some degree of unsatisfying.  There is always the feeling that these interpretations are trying to turn the text into something that it is not. They always, to my mind, fail to erase the stark punch to the gut these verses in their plain sense are to a reader.

At this point, I’d like you to imagine me, at twelve, just starting to realize that I like girls, reading Leviticus for the first time.  And then I would like you to imagine, after that experience, how you, as a twelve-year-old, would respond to the suggestion that you commit to a faith that holds this text as sacred. These verses are alienating. No matter how we try to turn them, they are disturbing. And if you are queer, like me—no matter the interpretation, no matter the academic distance you may try to put between yourself and your subject—ultimately, they still hurt. Any effective and honest response to them, therefore, must begin by acknowledging that.

Futhermore, such a response should, in my opinion, not attempt to retroactively paint the past meanings of the text as something it is not. We have, as a species, a strong tendency to confuse is and ought. That is, we assume that because a thing is the status quo—because it’s “natural,” or “traditional,” or so on—that it is therefore ethically valid. Or, conversely, we might assume that, because we find a thing ethically valid, that it therefore must reflect the natural or original state of affairs.
But these assumptions are erroneous. Just because a thing is “natural” or “traditional” doesn’t make it right—after all, murder, sexual violence, tribalism, and racism are all natural states of affairs. And just because a thing is right doesn’t mean it reflects some primordial state of perfection—racial and sexual equality, for instance (despite assertions to the contrary), appear to be fairly recent concepts.

Effective advocacy for equality or justice, then, needs to start from the understanding that there is a problem to be fixed—that there is something in the world that is wrong and broken. I would suggest that in some cases, the same is true for effective engagement with religious text. David Weiss Halivni posits that Rabbinic interpretation is generated in response to what he describes as the “maculateness” of the Biblical text—that is, the text, as a result of existing within human history, has problems or inconsistencies within it whose function is to generate interpretive responses. He writes, “When the people of Israel congregated once more—at long last and of their own accord—they found not Moses and the pure and perfect Torah of the wilderness, but Ezra and his composite Torah, mad maculate by centuries of human history.” (Peshat and Derash, vi.)
I’d like to go one step further—the text has actively unethical commands in it, whose purpose is to teach us to recognize them. These texts are meant to reflect and demonstrate the brokenness of the world, and goad us into doing something about it.

I would add at this point that we do not have a very good track record when it comes to responding to such texts. Indeed, a look into the prophetic literature reveals that God anticipates this. In Ezekiel 20:25-26 we find the chilling admission: “I gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live: When they set aside every first issue of the womb, I defiled them by their very gifts”—that is, instead of consecrating the firstborn to the temple they sacrificed them—“that I might render them desolate, that they might know I am Adonai.”

God, in other words, knew that the Israelites would get the commandment tragically, horrifically wrong—and handed it down anyway. Suffice it to note, by the way, that while theodicy (that is, the justification of God in the face of suffering or evil) is not the main focus of this drash, the fact that God would take such action, at such terrible consequence, anticipating our brokenness and fallibility, raises deeply troubling questions about the very nature of God.

Despite our poor record thus far, there nevertheless are Rabbinic precedents for this sort of interpretation. Perhaps the best-known example is found in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 68b-72a. This sugya engages the Biblical edict (Deut. 21:18-21) that “if a man has a [stubborn and rebellious] son…they shall bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community…[and] the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

Clearly, the Rabbinic interpreters are deeply troubled by this text. First the mishnah (Sanh. 8:1-5) and then the Gemara restrict the definition of the stubborn and rebellious son to the point of absurdity, until the Gemara finally says, “There never has been a stubborn and rebellious son, and never will be. Why, then, was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward.” (71a)

Notice what this interpretation doesn’t do. It doesn’t say that the law used to apply but no longer does. It doesn’t try to excuse it, or to erase it. It brings it forward in all its bald horror, allows it to punch us in the gut, and then goes about making sure that it will never be carried out. Yet in doing so, it preserves a purpose for the law—it is there to learn from. It is there as a witness, as a thing to study—and we should bear in mind that in Talmudic parlance, there is a very real sense of fighting and struggle implicit in study and learning. (For more on this, see Jeffrey Rubenstein’s excellent book, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud.)

There are clearly some differences between the Exodus and Sanhedrin texts, and the ones we have in front of us. Against the assertion that “there never was such a son,” there have been, and continue to be, many, many LGBTQ people who have been hurt, directly or indirectly, as a result of the texts we’ll be chanting shortly. And I’d argue vociferously against the notion that there is personal reward to be gained from learning these texts—we should instead be hanging our heads in shame. But as for why the law was written? “That you may study it” may be the only interpretation I can accept.

In studying this text, I am confronted with a world that is so broken that even the Scriptures given to it, even the laws contained within those Scriptures, contain ethical abominations, contain violent and dehumanizing prescriptions. I am also powerfully confronted with an obligation to help fix it. I am reminded that this law was written, not so that I may “study and receive reward,” but to force me to think critically about it, to stir me and make me uncomfortable, to punch me in the gut so that I may “study and DO SOMETHING.” Shabbat Shalom.

This image is used under a Creative Commons 3.0 license and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rise up, Sotah: Contraception, Religion, and Slut-Shaming

Cross-posted to State of Formation.

I have a truly shocking announcement: I am a woman, and I enjoy sex.

Apparently, admitting to this makes me a slut.

I am not, of course, unusual. For many of us, sex is fun. For many of us—cis-women[1] who sleep with cis-men, thereby risking pregnancy, included[2]—sex is a thing that brings joy to life and contributes to its being worth living. One of the great things about the technological age is that we have a range of medicines and devices that make it possible to have a fulfilling sex life while significantly reducing the risk of an unplanned pregnancy. By all measurable standards of human flourishing, this is awesome. And yet, society has a problem with us saying this out loud.

According to “Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog,” slut-shaming is “the idea of shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings. Furthermore, it’s “about the implication that if a woman has sex that traditional society disapproves of, she should feel guilty and inferior” (Alon Levy, Slut Shaming).”

If it please the court, I’d like to present (only the latest) exhibit A:
"What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex -- what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex."
As we are likely all well aware by this point, Rush Limbaugh directed the above screed at Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, who testified before a congressional committee in support of the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate. Never mind that Limbaugh’s statement betrays a gross misunderstanding of how hormonal birth control actually works. (For those who are curious, you have to take it every day, regardless of how much sex you are or are not having.)

Never mind that much of Fluke’s testimony was directed towards the use of hormonal birth control for non-contraceptive purposes, or that it never mentioned her own sex life, or even whether she personally uses hormonal birth control, once. It was enough that a woman unapologetically acknowledged that birth control was a real need in women’s lives.

However, much as Limbaugh might prefer to think otherwise, this article is not about him. Rather, his comments were an especially egregious representation of a larger cultural trend—a trend, unfortunately, which has significant roots in religious traditions.  One of the stranger and more disturbing episodes in the Hebrew Bible describes a test as to whether a woman suspected of adultery is guilty:
"After he has made the woman stand before the Lord, the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell…Once he has made her drink the water—if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the woman shall become a curse upon her people. (Numbers 5:16-27, JPS)"
The point here is that unrestrained female sexuality represents a threat to the social structure: in this case, a material threat, since it made establishing a child’s paternity difficult. The best way that structure could restrain it was to place not just legal sanctions but social stigma on the suspected adulteress, or sotah. The ritual was meant to physically mark her; her body itself became a kind of scarlet letter that told everyone who saw her: this is a slut.

The ritual sounds arcane and anachronistic, but don’t we take women’s bodies and how they appear as physical markers of their supposed sexual virtue? Tight or low-cut clothing, or even physical features women may not have any control over—large breasts or buttocks, for instance—we assume that these markers aren’t for the women themselves, but for us, to signal their sexual status.

Similarly, the admission that a woman uses birth control, and especially the acknowledgement by a woman that yes, sex is an important part of her life, isn’t assumed to be about her own needs and desires, but about broadcasting her sexual availability to the rest of us. And that is assumed to be shameful.

Why is this a problem? For one thing, a culture that shames an open conversation about women’s sexuality is a culture that is going to make it more difficult for women to get the reproductive healthcare that they need—especially women with limited resources, or women who might be in urgent or dangerous situations.

For another, the assumption that women’s sexual choices aren’t for them but for our collective benefit leads to a horrifying degree of victim-blaming in cases of rape and sexual assault. Slate’s Emily Bazelon notes that this even manifests itself in rape law:
"Rape law also still treats certain kinds of sexual conduct as unacceptable for women, by exempting it from the rule that places a woman’s sexual history outside the bounds of evidence that can be admitted at a rape trial…In many cases, it’s deviance that’s deemed to make a woman’s history distinctive, allowing the court to give the jury the chance to conclude that a particular’s woman’s claim of rape is less legitimate."
This has to stop. And because religious traditions have helped build this structure, religious voices have a moral responsibility to be a part of what stops it. Can we step up? In subsequent posts I’ll explore resources within my own tradition that I think can be useful for doing so. But I hope dearly I won’t be spitting into the wind.

Do our traditions contain the resources to build a truly feminist, inclusive, sex-positive sexual ethic? I hope so. I think so, and I want to believe so, but I am honestly not sure. Are there texts and rituals within our traditions that contain theological and philosophical grounds upon which such an ethic can be based? Yes, there are. Do our traditions furnish us with methods of interpretation and practice that can help us emphasize those parts and confront and repair destructive ones? Absolutely. Is there the human will—the intellectual bravery and moral conviction—to use those methods? I cannot answer that question. I can be one part of the answer, but the rest is up to everyone else.

Original artwork, "Scarlet Letters," by author.

[1] A cisgender person is someone whose gender identity, as understood within their culture, matches their phenotype and sex chromosomes. Contrast with a transgender person, whose gender identity in some way does not match their phenotype and/or sex chromosomes. A transsexual person is someone who has undergone some degree of medical gender reassignment—hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery, etc.—to bring their physically expressed sex characteristics in line with their gender identity. Not all transgender people are transsexual. For a fuller treatment of Trans 101, see the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s helpful rundown. [2] It is absolutely not my intention to erase transpeople who have not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery or have chosen not to and who might therefore also run the risk of impregnating someone or of becoming pregnant; rather, this post is about a social phenomenon that overwhelmingly applies to people who can become pregnant and are perceived as female. Transphobia—in general, and with specific regard to sexuality and to religion—is a huge issue of its own, and something I hope to address in future articles with the depth and attention it deserves.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Times We Shouldn’t Defend Our Traditions

(Cross-posted to State of Formation.)

“Philosophers,” says Martha Nussbaum, “don’t write like prophets….they have to believe, I think, that at least a part of evil is not innate or necessary, that at least a good part of it is based on error, whether societal or personal.” For prophets, on the other hand, “the urgency and magnitude of the evils they see admit of no delay, no calm and patient dialogue…Suppose Jeremiah had said, ‘the heart of Israel is corrupt utterly, but on the other hand there are some very nice people there.’” (Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 1999, 240-1)

Nussbaum’s own inclinations and ultimate sympathies lie with the philosopher—and most of the time, mine do, too. Often, I firmly believe that attributing a problem or an evil to an entire religion, or religion as a whole, is not only inaccurate and unhelpful, but actively destructive. I often jump into the fray to point out concrete examples of principles and themes of a tradition, or groups or individual practitioners within a faith—mine or any other—that I truly believe are at work for the good. I truly believe that religion is not a monolith, and that it can do, and has done, great work in the service of humanity and of our universe. And I truly, deeply believe that the God I serve is good.

Yet both Nussbaum and I—precisely because of “the philosopher’s interest in the nuances of individual cases” (Nussbaum, 1999, 241)—are sometimes compelled to admit that the prophet has a point. Sometimes, stating the nuance and the capacity for good in a tradition that has hurt people is deeply inappropriate. Sometimes, devotion to the underlying goodness of a tradition and to its prerogative to practice as it sees fit comes at great cost to the lives of real people.

This past week, Rolling Stone published a heartbreaking article, "One Town's War On Gay Teens," detailing the toll of anti-gay bullying in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district. In 1994, according to the article, the conservative, evangelical group Minnesota Family Council (MFC) pushed the Anoka-Hennepin school board into adopting a districtwide policy, “which pronounced that within the health curriculum, ‘homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.’” While the language was specific to the health curriculum, the policy practically erased discussion of homosexuality “in any context.”

When queer students—or even students who were perceived as such—complained to teachers and administrators of anti-gay bullying, they received no relevant support, and the homophobic smears continued unabated. The policy may have been quiet, but its toll is now known nationwide. Since 1999, nine students, many of whom were queer or taunted as such, committed suicide, most famously 15-year old Justin Aaberg in July of 2010.

In many of the progressive circles I frequent, both online and in real life, variations on a theme of the same angry, horrified response to the Rolling Stone article came up: Is this truly what “Christian love” looks like? Is it true that people like the MFC can’t be made to see the grave harm they’ve caused? And the conclusion often was: no, these people knew exactly what they were doing. To make the non-conformers this desperate was precisely the point.

And as much as I want to believe otherwise, I find myself agreeing with this conclusion. According to the article, MFC activist Barb Anderson blames “pro-gay groups for the tragedies”:
She explained that such "child corruption" agencies allow "quote-unquote gay kids" to wrongly feel legitimized. "And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death," Anderson said. She added that if LGBT kids weren't encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn't be in a position to be bullied. (emphasis mine.)
And Nussbaum notes with astonishment that Roger Scrunton argued—in 1995!—that “schools ought to teach revulsion toward homosexuality, on the grounds that the perpetuation of this revulsion is ‘a human good.’” (Nussbaum 1999, 192) I will pause for that statement to fully sink in. If one truly believes that, well, what are a few suicides?

It is, in a way, ironic that one of the go-to Scriptures for anti-gay activists is the story, in Genesis 18 and 19, of Sodom and Gommorah. Because according to many (to my mind, convincing) interpretations, the sexual sins of those cities of the plain were not homosexuality, but gang rape—sex used in the service not of pleasure, but of terror employed to enforce submission and conformity. Rabbi Steven Greenberg writes:
While the event that sealed the fate of the Sodomites was their demand for Lot to bring out his guests so that the mob might “know” them, this was still not seen so much as sexual excess as hatred of the stranger and exploitation of the weak…[in Sodom] no difference was tolerated. (Greenberg, Wrestling With God and Men, 2004, 65-6)
The invocation of sexualized violence to assert dominance and enforce conformity should ring familiar. For make no mistake—the bullying that drove people like Justin Aaberg to suicide, both from his classmates and, more sinisterly, from the supposedly moral, responsible adults of the MFC is nothing other than psychological and spiritual gang rape. Its purpose was none other than to strip people like Justin of all individuality, of all self-respect, of all autonomy, to break him until he shaped up—or disappeared.

So when I encountered these generalizing statements about Christianity, or religion, or despairing for the humanity of those pushing anti-gay policies, my first response was to jump in and correct the generalizations. I then decided against it. Because in the wake of such tragedies—in the wake of the real threat of harm, or of actual, already perpetrated harm—someone for whom it is most important to jump to the defense of an institution rather than to demand justice for the people that institution has hurt is, forgive me, someone who has their priorities deeply screwed up.

Our traditions and our faith communities are important to us, as they should be.  But we cannot let them become ends in themselves.  Abraham was right to argue that, for the sake of ten righteous, the city should be spared; truly, there are far more than ten righteous in the cities that are our traditions. Yet when violent crimes occur in our cities, our first response should not be to say, “we’re not all like that!” Our first response should be to root out the perpetrators, and to seek justice for the victims.

Image: John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852). This image has passed into the public domain and is used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Obligation to Vaccinate: "Health Freedom" and communal responsibility

Cross-posted to State of Formation

While visiting my hometown over winter break, I stopped by the local natural foods store. As I waited at the cash register, I noticed a poster on the wall.  Above a stock photo of a (white) mother blissfully cradling a newborn read the caption, “Oppose Mandatory Vaccination.” Two thoughts came to mind. First, “I will no longer spend money here.” Second, “What beliefs and fears is this poster trying to exploit?” With the language of “mandatory,” the ad clearly speaks to a fear of loosing the individual freedom to make choices about health. But is freedom really the best framework to use in this scenario? Or was the ad a demonstration of how individual freedom is a poor premise on which to base discussions of public health?
The anti-vaccine movement, in its contemporary iteration, began in 1998 when the British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the medical journal The Lancet, positing a link between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Subsequent studies failed to corroborate Wakefield’s claims; indeed, evidence strongly suggesting that Wakefield’s work was not only incorrect, but actively fraudulent, has since come to light. None of this has stopped the vaccine-autism claim (which grew from a specific focus on the MMR vaccine to equally inaccurate claims about mercury-based preservatives and about “too many vaccines too soon” overwhelming the immune system) from sweeping the public consciousness in a big way, aided most notably by figures such as David Kirby, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Jenny McCarthy.
Tragically, the spread of this claim has had consequences: Measles, which in the mid 1990s was on the verge of eradication in the United Kingdom, has returned to endemic levels. This past year saw the largest U.S outbreak of measles in 15 years. And in Charlottesville, VA, where I live, there was a measles outbreak centered around the local Waldorf school this May.
In addition to the fact that the claims on which the entire movement is based are incorrect, and that the drop in vaccination rates precipitated by the movement is likely responsible for actually killing people, there are several other troubling premises behind it: can we, for instance, pause to note the breathtaking ableism of the assertion that risking a child’s death from infectious disease is preferable to risking autism? Equally troubling is the callous disregard of scientific consensus in favor of conspiracy theory, as well as the “Appeal to Nature” fallacy. (I would suggest that those who oppose vaccination because it does not confer “natural” immunity cease, in the name of intellectual consistency, any use of corrective lenses, contraceptives, refrigerators, computers, and so forth.)
I am most interested in here, however, in vaccine refusal as a “right.” I think this language has a particularly strong pull within religious communities. Certainly the idea of being forced to take actions contrary to one’s strongly held beliefs is anathema to many people of faith, particularly those who belong to minority traditions. And the language of “health freedom” often used in arguments for vaccine refusal echoes that of “religious freedom”—after all, if what we do with our souls is a matter of the most personal choice, surely this is also true for our bodies? Don’t we have the right to make whatever healthcare decisions we wish, however ill-advised, for ourselves and our families?
Not quite.  Not all bodily decisions are created equal. As the rise in measles rates indicate, the decision not to vaccinate has consequences for more people than those who make that decision. Indeed, as Steven L. Weinreib, M.D, pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, high vaccination rates are an essential bulwark against infectious disease for those who, because they are too young, have certain allergies, or are immuno-compromised, cannot be vaccinated:
Young babies, the immuno-compromised and people who get chemotherapy are not able to process most vaccinations. Live vaccines in particular, like those for measles and chickenpox, can make us sick. But if 75 percent to 95 percent of the population around us is vaccinated for a particular disease, the rest are protected through what is called herd immunity. In other words, your measles vaccine protects me against the measles.
Weinreib’s point demonstrates that the language of individual rights is insufficient when considering the ethics of vaccination and similar public health issues. Instead of thinking, “It’s my right to refuse a vaccination for myself or my child if I want to,” we should be thinking, “It’s my responsibility to vaccinate myself and my child for the health of the whole community.”
In Health Care and the Ethics of Encounter: A Jewish Discussion of Social Justice, Laurie Zoloth argues precisely this point:
At issue here is not what feels right to the individual, guided by an individual heart, but ‘What does it take to live an honest life within this particular community?’ Hence, a number of actions may be argued for, but all ought to be directed toward the community interest, not only the self. (Zoloth, 1999, 158)
Furthermore, Zoloth argues, the Jewish tradition provides a framework for such community-centered ethics: “Autonomy…is neither a presupposition nor a goal of Judaism…[a person is not] ‘entitled’ to act in complete freedom; he or she is required to act in community, in covenant with God, and in accordance with halakhah.” (Zoloth, 158)
One source for the primacy of communal obligation is the book of Ruth (in which Naomi’s family flees a famine-stricken Bethlehem for Moab, and is afterwards stricken with the deaths of all its male members), from which she derives several principles of an “ethics of encounter.” The first of these is particularly salient here: “To leave the community at a time of scarcity/danger is wrong. There is no personal escape from collective scarcity:”

Why does disaster fall upon this family? Who is [Naomi’s husband] Elimelech? The rabbinic response is that he must have been a man of substance, who abandoned Bethlehem at the first sign of trouble…Elimelech is the prudent libertarian. [He] chooses his individual solution, leaves the land and the community, and disaster strikes. Rather than turn his face to the face of the other, he turns away and heads in the opposite direction. (Zoloth, 204)
If we replace “scarcity” with “risk” in Zoloth’s formulation, we find it applies perfectly to the issue of vaccines and herd immunity. It’s true that vaccines are not without risk. A small minority of people do react badly, and there is the occasional fatality (at rates, it should be noted, that are miniscule compared to the toll of infectious disease). To vaccinate is to take a risk, albeit a very small one, for the sake of a greater personal and communal good. With vaccination rates as high as they are in the developed world, any given person can go unvaccinated and will likely remain quite safe; this is also what protects those who cannot be vaccinated or for whom vaccine-conferred immunity does not take. But too many defections, and the herd immunity that newborns, immune-compromised individuals, individuals for whom the vaccine did not work, and those who voluntarily refuse vaccination depend on will collapse. Those who refuse vaccination based upon a claim of individual autonomy thus behave exactly like Elimelech in this story—fleeing the community at the first sign of risk, and disclaiming their membership therein.
That the eradication of infectious disease depends upon a community upholding its responsibility to protect its citizens cannot be overstated. Precisely because of the nature of infectious disease, it is impossible to protect oneself by withdrawing from the community. Unless you can figure out how to stop breathing air, stop drinking water, stop eating food, and stop engaging in any physical contact with anything else, you will come in contact with vectors for infectious disease as a consequence of existing. This is a risk we share as a community; its amelioration is a responsibility we similarly share as a community. The vaccine issue is an object lesson as to the validity of Zoloth’s argument for the value of an ethic based on communal obligation in issues of health.
This public domain image is a work of the Federal Government and appears courtesy of Wikimedia.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In which S. has a birthday, and I make her food.

S. had a birthday yesterday. Alas, we both spent most of it mired in our respective finals, but I took some time out to make her dinner-- herbed mac and cheese with caramelized shallots and Piave, and a green salad with feta and a clementine-bergamot vinegarette. Dessert was a Zingerman's Hot Cocoa Coffecake (thanks, Mom!), dressed up with some homemade hot fudge sauce.

The recipe for the mac and cheese, as requested by my cousin Miryam, after the jump. This is another of those dishes that falls into the "yeah, not a health food" category, so don't skimp on the butter or cheese.