Wednesday, May 21, 2008

May on Cape Cod, No Vacation for Poor People

Which is more shameful?
  • That 250 low-income families have been living in motels in Yarmouth, MA, some of them for over a year, because they can't afford to rent any apartment in town?
  • That the Yarmouth Selectmen passed a "law that prohibits motel owners from renting units beyond 30 consecutive days to customers without a permanent address, according to the Boston Globe? (The law is clearly aimed at making people move out of town--but it may put them on the streets, instead.)
  • That the chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen says, "This is about shutting down dangerous, substandard, health-hazard-inducing housing," when there had been no health violation at any of the three motels? Or that a resident says "There are drug overdoses and other problems, and I don't want to see any police officer get shot," when the deputy police chief says there's no special problem with the motels--other than the fact that poor people are living there?
  • That homeless shelters are so scary, people choose to crowd into motel rooms?
  • Or that in the richest nation in the world, we can find the money to kill Iraqis but not the money to house our neighbors?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Word "Marriage" is a Benefit of Marriage

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that the right to marry belongs to all of us, whether we choose to marry someone of the same sex or the opposite sex. The California Supreme Court went farther, and they were right to do so. They said that marriage is a basic human right, in Massachusetts, in California, anywhere.

What's more, they put their finger on the fact that nothing substitutes for marriage. The word itself is so clear and confers such legitimacy that if you recognize a couple's union in any other way, you are calling it a second-class relationship. Government is in no position to do that!

As I wrote four years ago, in a letter the Boston Globe declined to publish:

The Supreme Judicial Court made the right decision in the Goodridge case. Marriage is the only way to ensure the equal rights of gay and lesbian couples and their children.

The word "marriage" is itself one of the rights and privileges of the married state. As a man married to a woman, if the woman I love and make my life with goes into the hospital, I do not have to explain myself in order to be in her room. I am not challenged to lay out our whole relationship for other people's judgment in order to take part in medical decisions. The word "marriage" makes the case for me. I simply say "I am her husband," and everybody knows what legal rights they must afford me, and what to expect from me.

But if a woman who loves and makes her life with a woman walks in to the same hospital and says "I am her wife," until now, nobody could know what would happen. Each administrator, each doctor, each nurse, each orderly could decide whether or not that couple had any rights he or she was bound to respect.

The ruling in Goodridge holds out the promise that this gross unfairness will end in Massachusetts. It is long past time. Now our legislators have to find the courage to let equality become the law of the land. I urge all state senators and representatives to vote against amending the constitution.

And now I urge the California voters to be equally fair and just.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Interested in role playing--in shul?

The congregation I belong to, Temple B'nai Brith in Somerville, Mass., is proudly egalitarian. Men and women participate equally in leadership. "Participate" is a key word. We don't have a rabbi. Phil Weiss, a philosophy professor at Wheelock College, has the honorary title darshan,
"the one who interprets." Most often, he speaks about the Torah portion on Saturdays, but sometimes someone else pinch-hits. Phil leads some parts of the service, but he takes pride in seeing how many members of the congregation can step up and do the leading. Our Board comprises men and women, young and old, gay and straight, single and coupled.

In a modern synagogue, in a liberal democratic society, what can we possibly learn from studying the rules for hereditary priests?

The Torah portion we read yesterday, Emor, is filled with the do's and don'ts that the cohanim, the priests descended from Moses' brother, Aaron, had to follow because of their sacred office. The cohanim were the only ones to offer the temple sacrifices. The cohanim and the temple attendants (all their cousins in the tribe of Levi) were the only ones who could eat food that had been dedicated to God. On the flip side, the cohanim were not allowed to come into contact with dead bodies--even those of their closest kin. They could not marry divorced women. Even today, in Orthodox communities, men who trace their line back to the cohanim fall under these restrictions. But what meaning do they hold for an egalitarian community? Should we regard them as simply archaeological fragments of the Jewish past, or is there still something to learn from them?

I think we have to regard parshat Emor as part of a story that the book of Leviticus is telling: the story of how to take parts of our communal life and dedicate them to higher purposes.
  • We dedicate time when we set apart the Sabbath, with its do's and don'ts: do rest, do pray and study, don't do any of the things that are categorized as work.
  • We dedicate space when we set apart the sanctuary, with its own set of do's and don'ts. In the Torah: don't offer "strange fire," sacrifices not in accordance with God's commands (ans in the story of Nadav and Abihu). Today: don't distract others from prayer. Do wear the appropriate garments, stand up and sit down at the appropriate points in the service, and create an atmosphere where meditation, prayer, study, and celebration can go on.
  • And in parshat Emor, we learn about how to dedicate people to serve higher purposes. The priests in biblical days were set apart in all these ways to remind the community of its ultimate values. I believe it was my friend Ellen Stone who conjectured that the priests were forbidden to engage with dead bodies because somebody in the community had to stand for the principle that even in times of immense loss, life goes on.
This interpretation, I think, makes the rules about the priests less arcane and more instructive. We always need techniques for calling our community's attention to its transcendent values. If we don't have cohanim and Levites any more, perhaps we can still learn something from them about the way that assigning roles to people can serve the community.

In our community, Saul Zidel was always the one to read in English this passage, as we were getting ready to put the Torah scroll back in the ark:
Precious teaching do I give you:
Never forsake My Torah.
It is a tree of life for those who grasp it,
and all who uphold it are blessed.
Its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
Help us turn to You, and we shall return.
Renew our lives as in days of old.
Saul's quavery voice and his native Somerville accent became part of the ritual. I am not sure that I yet understand all the ways that having that reading be Saul's assigned role served our community.When he died in 2002, however, it was a physical shock to hear someone else read the passage. It was a sign that something had really changed. The depth of our reactions to Saul's absence teaches me that we can dedicate certain people to create holiness for the community. The questions are how, and who.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Support Our Troops: Don't Start Wars!

The problem with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is not that it was bungled. The problem is that it ever happened at all. The known costs of the war were too great for us ever to have chosen it ourselves. It is America's shame that we let Bush choose this war for us.

Before we ever let Bush send in the troops, we should have said to ourselves, "Am I willing to see young men and women suffer brain injuries that will cripple them for life? " As the N.Y. Times

reported last year:
Largely because of the improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq, traumatic brain injury has become a signature wound of this war, with 1,882 cases treated to date, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.

We should also have asked, as I did last April, "When the Army will tell brain-injured soldiers that their symptoms result from pre-existing personality disorders 'to cheat them out of a lifetime of disability and medical benefits, thereby saving billions in expenses,' can I feel proud and patriotic?" Because even though Joshua Kors of The Nation just won a Polk Award for investigative journalism for breaking the story of how we screw our soldiers, he only uncovered the details. That is how the military treats its soldiers, and has been ever since Vietnam. It was predictable.

We should now ask, "How can I say I support the troops when I let them come home with brain injuries and ignore them?" Because that is what is happening now, today, at this very moment. According to the Boston Globe, the Veterans Administration itself says, "At least 8 of 49 veterans we contacted" in a randomized study of brain-injured patients "had significant unmet needs and no evidence of VA case management in the previous year." (my emphasis)

This is what you support when you go to war. Support the troops instead. Keep them home.

Friday, May 2, 2008

See if you can tell the difference between Bush and McCain

I could go on for pages about why no progressive, liberal, or sensible middle-of-the-roader should vote for McCain. Fortunately for both of us, I don't have to. Take this MoveOn quiz and you'll know the reasons why.