Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I Love This Country

When I was in rabbinical school, the message I got over and over again was that there's morality, which can be relative, and there's law. What might be "so unfair!" to one generation might be perfectly permissible or even necessary in the eyes of another. What mattered, said my law teachers repeatedly, was the law. Can the act be justified according to the law? Specifically, said my law teacher, Rabbi Joel Roth, if you can trace the law back to Sinai, you're on solid ground. Just to announce a law is "unfair" and therefore worthy of pitching is to allow contemporary sensibilities to determine what's acceptable. And "contemporary sensibilities" change. That's why they're called "contemporary."

I have been sputtering for a while over the dust-up over gay rights, and specifically gay marriage, in California. I cheered the ruling in 2008 that gays would be allowed to marry. I watched with disbelief when the returns came in on Election Night, as those on the other side of the gender rights divide cheered as Proposition 8, banning gay marriage in California, won handily. In California, I yelled? Here? In my home state? People are saying no?? How is this possible?

In the years since that vote, I've listened to gay people express their frustration at the inability of straights around the country to understand their point of view. I've watched state after state vote down measures that would permit gay marriages to be approved. And I've felt my blood pressure rise as I listened to the justifications of those on the right for their belief that they could determine by vox populi what is acceptable in this country.

The arguments have been made. Is there a point to repeat here that if the voice of the people had been sought in 1954, separate would have continued to be perceived as equal? In 1967, the voice of the people would have overturned the ruling that determined that couples of mixed race (i.e. a black person and a white person) may marry.

Another memory I have of rabbinical school is seeing a cartoon on the dorm room of a classmate. It showed a board room with the table surrounded by men in suits, and the caption read, "The Committee on the Status of Women." Every woman rabbinical student who saw the cartoon no doubt had the same reaction I did - we'd laugh if it weren't so true. The status of a minority is always in the hands of the majority. And when "contemporary sensibilities" determine the fate of the minority, and contemporary sensibilities are moving at a snail's pace (because who in power would ever choose to give it up?), the status quo remains, barring a miracle.

Sometimes, miracles happen, but those "miracles" are in truth only the triumph of dispassionate law over the emotions of the people.

The ruling this week by Judge Vaughn Walker was the triumph of law over the hissy fit of the people. It was the statement of American law that in order for something to be changed, proof (that old bugaboo) must be brought that the change is desirable. To overturn gay marriage, proof must be brought that such an institution is indeed as frightening and evil as it has been presented to be. That never happened, and the brilliance of the judge was that he was careful to document all the "proof" that was brought (one of the "expert witnesses" was someone who presented dire consequences of gay marriage and when asked the source of his findings, proclaimed, "The Internet." There you go - we all know that only truth is found in cyberspace) - or not brought - and to go point by point in explaining why the "evidence" brought by the defense was insufficient to allow Prop. 8 to stand. We understand that the next step will be a challenge on the appellate level, and the record of evidence brought and how it was evaluated will be critical in determining whether there is cause to vacate Judge Walker's ruling. The better his documentation, the better the chances for the anti-8 folks to maintain the ruling. And Judge Walker did a bang-up job.

Once again, I listened to NPR this morning, and once again my blood pressure went up. I heard people complaining that if gays are permitted to marry, straights will cease marrying and therefore procreating, and there won't be any more babies born in this country. Compare that with a recent study showing that there is a growing disparity between higher educated women having fewer children and women who are either less educated or in fundamentalist religious communities having large families (more on this in a later blog -stay tuned). Do these pro-8 people really think that if gay marriage is permitted, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims and Orthodox Jews will stop marrying and having children? Really?

The greatest threat to heterosexual marriage is heterosexuals. The divorce rate stands at 50%, without the help of gays. Children in heterosexual marriages continue to be confused, not because they have two mommies but because one of their parents (or both) seem to think that marriage vows are merely suggestions. Or "to love and cherish" means "to beat to a pulp." Children in heterosexual marriages are exposed to a huge spectrum of experiences, from healthy and loving situations to promiscuity and abuse. There are children of straight marriages who vow never to get married "if that's what it means to be married," or never to have children because "I never learned how to be a good parent from my dysfunctional parents." Prop. 8 does nothing to protect those children. Neither does it do anything to protect the gay children growing up in families where the presumption is that everyone is straight.

To paraphrase the cartoon from my Seminary days, the "Commission on the Status of Gays" is populated by straights, not one of whom understands what it means to be gay, or, since it's hard for anyone to truly "get" what it means to be part of a different population, is even willing to listen to what it means to be gay in America. A 10 year old whose friend has two daddies will not be "influenced to 'turn gay,'" but a 10 year old who knows he's different will be discouraged, despondent, and ultimately depressed if he sees no one in his life who is respected, admired, loved, and gay.

When Barak Obama was inaugurated nearly two years ago, I shelved my lesson plan for the day and decided to have a conversation with my 5th graders about the historical import of the day. They wrote prayers for him and his family. It was very cool. But I'm thinking in particular of one girl who asked how old his daughters were. When I replied, she said, "Oh, then Malia can be my friend, and Sasha can be my sister's friend." I smiled and agreed (from her lips to God's ears, but what a statement!)

It was 2008, and a little white, Jewish kid in the San Fernando Valley was thinking that it was cool that the president had daughters her age and her sister's age. It never once occurred to her that the fact that she was white and they weren't would be any kind of a problem. It was as natural for her to think of the Obama girls as friends as she would think of any new neighbor on her block.

Please God, may the days of stomping around like Rumpelstiltskin end, may the fear and the hissy fits and the circling of the wagons and the overwhelming sense of threat end, and may it be soon that our children can come home to talk about their friends with a different family constellation and find nothing unusual about it. And may the day soon come that gay kids no longer find suicide the only option as they come to terms with who they are.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What's the Big Deal?

This will be a very short post. I just want to know what's changed.

There was so much press about the wedding - no, the Wedding - this past weekend, and in particular among my colleagues about the nature of a wedding with a Jewish participant and a rabbinic co-officiant on a Shabbat afternoon, with huppah (bridal canopy) and a ketubah (marriage contract)... Mah pit'om? What's the deal all of a sudden?

Why are we suddenly so filled with opinion about the nature of intermarriage in this country? Are Marc and Chelsea the first couple to cross the religion line? Hardly. They're frankly not even the first celebrity couple to do so.

Think Caroline Kennedy and Arthur Schlossberg. Not a hiccup. Back in the 70s, Henry Kissinger chose to marry on a Saturday afternoon, and there was indeed a response in the Jewish community about his insensitivity, even though he was marrying a non-Jewish woman. Even Sandy Koufax, American Judaism's hero for not playing on Yom Kippur, married a non-Jewish woman.

So what's the big deal about Marc Mezvinsky?

And you know - that's not a rhetorical question. I don't understand why there's such an uproar, a struggle over "is this good for the Jews." This is not the first interfaith marriage to take place, not the first to have a rabbinic presence, not the first to have a huppah - no one mentioned whether he broke a glass. (For so many families, that's the essence of a marriage where a Jew is involved - you gotta break a glass.) Is this a trumpeting of our having Arrived - look at the celebrity family he's marrying into? Certainly this can't be about the threat of intermarriage - if this couple is the first glimmer of intermarriage you're reading about, what planet did you just arrive from?

So - somebody out there - please clue me in. What's the big deal?

I want my country back

I need to stop listening to public radio. Every once in a while, I hear a piece, or an interview, or a series of call-ins that sends my blood pressure through the roof. I suppose the alternative is to listen to a bit of Vivaldi and put my head in the sand, and I suppose I have an obligation to learn what's going on in the world. If someone wise out there knows how to listen to scary stuff calmly, let me know.

Here's my fear, the real fear. People like me are becoming a minority, and with all due respect, people like me are what made this country what it is - er - what it used to be. I'm not sure I like what my country has become.

When the Founding Fathers met to craft our Constitution, they argued and debated and realized that the only way to believe the infant country would survive would be through compromise. We have lost that skill. We have lost the recognition that everyone has something of value to add to the conversation, that (in Jewish terms) only disputes that are for the greater good are worth engaging in. Disputes not for the sake of heaven (to quote the Mishna) are forbidden, because they are about vanity, about the self, not about the greater good. And all I see around me are disputes that focus on the speaker, or the speaker's constituency, or the speaker's ratings or popularity. Everyone's talking, and no one's listening. Everyone insists on learning the black and white of issues, ignoring the fact that most of life is lived in shades of gray.

Further, as I recall, the Founding Fathers stipulated that the government shall make no laws concerning the establishing of a state religion. If only those on the far right would read the Constitution they profess to love, and note that when the laws of a country are in place to serve only one population, one faith tradition, to the point of making the participating in another faith tradition difficult, we have transgressed the Constitution. Ah, those pesky amendments.

Case in point: all those who rail against abortion seem to be blissfully unaware that there is more than one approach to considering the unborn fetus than the Catholic/Christian one. The Jewish tradition understands the issue is a complicated one (warning: gray area alert). Jewish law understands the fetus to be part of the woman until the birth process begins, and if the fetus is posing a threat to the health of the mother, the mother has an obligation to terminate the pregnancy to save her life. Of course, Judaism does not see abortion as birth control and understands the fetus as having the great potential for life, but until birth, the fetus is as much a part of the mother's body as a gangrenous limb.

So, pre-Roe v. Wade, if a woman sought an abortion because she was facing a medical issue (perhaps it was her fourth or fifth child and she had heart issues), she was simply prohibited from any conclusion to her pregnancy other than the birth of the child, even it meant the loss of her own life. Catholics may respond that a Catholic mother had been baptized while the baby had not, but that works only if you are a Catholic. Religious sensibilities drove (and continue to try to drive) the access to abortion by women who are not part of those religious communities. Preventing me from obtaining a safe abortion if my physical (or mental) health were at risk is denying me my rights under the First Amendment. Does anyone care?

So now, just last week, I was astonished to hear about a move to get yet another proposition onto the California ballot in November (you gotta love California - get enough people with an opinion together with a petition and you can get anything on the ballot - worse - get enough other people together who like what the petition said, and you get new law, whether it's moral or not, whether it makes sense or not - witness Prop. 8 and gay marriage). The people behind this new initiative, (this is not an endorsement), want to go Prop. 8 one better - to truly save heterosexual marriage (I still don't get why it's being threatened), we need to make divorce illegal in California. Now, if you want to leave your marriage, you have to leave the state.

There are those who believe the whole proposal is a satire, like Swift's "A Modest Proposal." If you look at the organization's website, it's not funny. They're dead serious. And not only are they proposing to make life even more difficult for those in abusive situations, once again, they are ignoring centuries of Jewish law by claiming that the notion of divorce is a relatively recent construct. Jesus, they say, never talked about divorce.

Maybe not, but Moses sure did. Divorce is part of Jewish law, again, not encouraged ("when a man divorces the wife of his youth, the stones of the Altar weep") but permitted because Jewish law recognizes the humanness of the partners in a marriage.

I might also point out that gays who decide they have been living a lie and need to come out and live openly as gays (and their spouses) are also condemned to a life of unhappiness. But hey, who cares?

My kvetch? The underlying complaint I have that ties all these issues together? I've disappeared. Not only me, but everyone like me, people who are Jewish and who have a basic understanding of Jewish law, and who would expect to live according to Jewish law to the extent it does not countermand civil law. (The rabbis of the Talmud taught that the law of the land is the law, but there are limits. If a law were passed tomorrow to require everyone to eat a pound of bacon every week because the poor pig farmers are in trouble, we would argue vehemently against this law.)

"The Judeo-Christian tradition" is a fallacy. "Judeo" is put at the front of "Christian" to assuage the rest of us, but in truth we do not agree with everything our Christian neighbors believe, and yet despite our greater visibility in contemporary culture (and all the excitement over the Clinton wedding), our essential differentness is being ignored, or deemed irrelevant, and the result of that perception of irrelevance is the arrogance of presenting laws that satisfy only the Christian approach to private lives.

I don't like disappearing. I don't like feeling irrelevant. What's the point of feeling comfortable announcing I'm Jewish, or a rabbi, if that doesn't mean anything? I have more to bring to the table than just "why don't you accept Jesus?" No one asks. Because no one cares. I hate that.