Monday, August 2, 2010

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.

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