Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Making Workers Pay for Coverage without Care

A month ago, I wrote about business resistance to paying more for the Massachusetts health plan:

It just goes to show the reason they supported it in the first place. They didn't care about all the families in Massachusetts who can't afford health care. They wanted to shift the cost of health insurance to you and me.

Today's Boston Globe shows that journalists have bought into the business and state government point of view. They are measuring the success of the program by how little either corporations or the Commonwealth has to pay, and not by how sick or how well we are. A whole article under the title "439,000 more get health coverage, " and not one word about whether anyone will actually get more health care! On the other hand, the reporter makes a point of stating:

The dramatic expansion has spurred a substantial drop in patients seeking routine care in hospital emergency rooms, where treatment is much more expensive. The reduction is already saving the state millions of dollars, the quarterly report said.

Are the patients not using emergency rooms because they can get care in doctors' offices? Or, are they not using the ER because they've gotten the message they're not welcome there? No one knows. Who cares? "The reduction is already saving the state millions of dollars," and that was the point all along. Shame on the people perpetrating the fiction of universal health care in Massachusetts.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Violent Passion for the Good: Pinchas, Reading IV

In the strange and difficult story of Pinchas, there is one action that I would imitate, without need for interpretation. It's not what Pinchas does, however: it's what God does with Pinchas.

"Say, therefore, 'I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'"

Pinchas is already a member of the tribe of Levi, a tribe which is known for its righteous indignation and its tendency to violence. Way back in the book of Genesis, Levi himself (along with his brother Shimon) killed off a whole town full of people because their chief's son had raped their sister Dinah. The Levites had also been the executioners after the incident of the Golden Calf. They have a tendency to go to extremes.

God curbs this tendency by channeling it. The Levites have the job of meticulously assembling and disassembling the tent of meeting and carrying it all throughout the wilderness. When the Israelites camp for a period of time, the Levites have to prepare the sacrifices. Their passion flows into an attention to detail.

Pinchas is the grandson of Aaron, the high priest. He will inherit the even more careful job of offering sacrifices, even in the area designated as the Holy of Holies. He must know that his uncles Nadav and Abihu did the same job in a way that displeased God, and died for it. His passion will also be channeled--into a tremendous devotion.

As a community and as individuals, we have within us the capacity to go to extremes in the name of what we hold most holy, whether that is the God of the Torah, Jesus, the dar al-Islam, the revolution, or the Stars and Stripes. God does not expel Pinchas for expressing this capacity but gives him his pact of friendship. We need to find ways of honoring the zealot within us--ways that make passion for the good and the right a holy force for community. May we have the strength and the wisdom to find those ways.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What About the Poor?

So now we know that former Presidential candidate John Edwards had an affair with a consultant to his campaign. Some people are shaking their heads and asking, "How could he do it?" Others are looking sympathetically at Elizabeth Edwards and asking, "How must she be feeling now?"

To me, those are both the wrong questions. The question in this election year is, "What about the poor?"

The only reason that John Edwards matters is because he put the issue of poverty squarely on the table. Both Obama and Clinton said nice things about that when Edwards left the race. Neither has said very much about poverty since.

According to Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson:

Reports say the Edwards family will not be at the convention. It will be interesting to see how the Democrats now handle the morals issue in Denver, let alone the notion as to whether the poor will have any voice at all.

Don't let that notion alone! Edwards made it clear during his campaign that how we end poverty in this country is THE moral issue of our time. Many religious leaders, progressive and conservative, have said the same. We should not get distracted by the personal troubles of the Edwards family when there is a paramount public issue at stake.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Time to Say No to the Torah: Pinchas, Reading III

Last week I said that I think there are four ways of dealing with difficult passages in the Torah. I've just discussed how to use two of them (asking a different question, and interpretation) to understand the difficult story of Pinchas. Here's the third approach out of four:

Rejection: ... a story like this cannot possibly have anything to teach us. It reflects the barbaric beliefs of our distant ancestors. We should try to separate the uplifting teachings of the Torah from the culture in which they first appeared.
In general, this approach is my last resort. But there is one part of the Pinchas story I don't want to reframe or reinterpret.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Assail the Midanites and defeat them--for they assailed you by the trickery the practiced against you--because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor."
I am sure there are ways of reading this passage to make it seem less objectionable. Some day, I may look in the midrash on the book of Numbers to find out how the rabbis of the Talmudic period read it. Today's need, however, is to reject certain attitudes without any reservation.

I reject group retaliation. If certain Midianites tried to practice cultural imperialism on the Israelites and assimilate them into their idol-worshipping society, that is no reason to wipe out the whole group. Then as now, collective responsibility is an abhorrent principle.

I reject the false equivalence of "trickery" and warfare.

I reject the widespread portrayal in the Torah of non-Jewish women as sinister and seductive. It is the flip side of the non-portrayal, the near-absence, of well-rounded Jewish women in the Torah narrative. I recognize here the Jewish parallel to the dichotomy Catholics often talk about between virgins and whores in their tradition. This stereotype is terrible for Jewish women as much as it is for shiksahs. It pits the two groups against each other, and it prevents them from claiming the right to be full, ambiguous, complicated human beings. It also absolves Jewish men of any responsibility for the choices they make in their sexual relationships.

Some day, when we have put ethnic warfare and sexism behind us, it may be time to look deeper into this text--but not yet. Today, our job is to say NO.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Being Human Has Its Advantages: Pinchas, Reading II

The Lord spoke to Moses saying, "Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion."

The Hebrew word for "turned back," heshiv, comes from the same root as the word for repentance. T'shuvah is not simply feeling sorry, however. To make t'shuvah, one has to confess one's wrongdoing and go on to do everything in one's power to make the situation right again. It seems to me that is exactly what God does at the beginning of parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10). God makes t'shuvah.

What does God confess? A few verses earlier, in response to the Jews' idol-worship, the Torah quotes God as saying, "Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord's wrath may turn away from Israel." As harsh as this extremely unusual sentence may be, it is a judicial sentence, a punishment for a crime. Perhaps God could carry it out and go no further--but human beings cannot. As I recounted on July 30, Pinchas takes out his spear and stabs Zimri and Cozbi on the spot. The plague of disease called "the Lord's wrath" threatens to turn into a plague of vigilante justice.

As I interpret it, God is shaken. Throughout the Torah, human beings have the capacity to surprise the divine being. A God of justice cannot conceive that human beings could turn justice into slaughter until Pinchas' action rudely brings that fact to God's attention. "Here," says Pinchas' spear," is what happens when you command human beings to take life and death into their own hands. Is this really what you have in mind?"

Pinchas' action turns God's action back on itself. It reflects the consequences of drastic justice in the mirror of finite and fallible human beings. Finally, it turns back God's command itself. B'kino et kinati, "by being zealous with My zealousness," Pinchas has forced God to repent of God's harsh judgment and to make things right by ending the extermination then and there.

God needed Pinchas to show what untrammeled zealotry can do to human beings. Being human, we should already know that for ourselves. That is the advantage of being human--if we let it.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Taking Care Across Cultures: Pinchas, Reading I

Jews couple with Moabites. God sends a plague upon them. Pinchas, the grandson of the high priest, kills a particularly flagrant Moabite-lover. The plague stops, and God makes a special covenant with Pinchas. We could read this story as endorsing all kinds of attitudes that would make us moderns shudder.

As I suggested in the previous post, however, we don't have to read it that way. My first alternative reading owes a great deal to the teachings of my friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who sees the story of Pinchas as a story of first contact between two alien cultures.

The moment when strangers meet is fraught with pleasure and danger. After the initial response of fight or flight, some people thrill at being the first in their community to explore the ways of a different culture. We can think of the Europeans who looked at African art in the early twentieth century and made a fad of "primitivism." As their example shows, appreciating another culture rides dangerously close to making it a fetish and treating the people in that culture as exotic and exciting, but somehow less than people "like us."

In the Torah, the Israelites meet up with "fight or flight" in their encounters with Sihon, the king of the Amorites, and Og, the king of Bashan. Both refuse to let the Jews march through their territory on the way to Canaan. Attacking the caravan, they get slaughtered.

The Moabites take a softer approach. They welcome the Israelites in a seductive way--literally--and the men respond. They appreciate the Moabite women, but they also objectify them. Even in the midst of a plague, when the community is weeping over thousands of people dying, Zimri son of Salu from the tribe of Simeon thinks it's cool to parade by with Cozbi daughter of Zur, the daughter of a Midianite tribal chief.

Unusually, the Torah gives the woman's name (as it does not do with the wife of Noah, or any number of other women in the story). Is it trying to restore some of her personhood, even after her death? Is it a silent rebuke to the Jew who treated her only as a stranger for kinky sex?

And what about that plague? Arthur Waskow asks:

Is this just uncanny, a miracle? In a much more recent story, just 500 years ago, we hear of a canny, scientifically explicable, disaster that bears marks of similarity: When the age-old barriers of Ocean were torn apart in the 16th century, two cultures came together that had never met. One result: measles decimated the Native Americans; syphilis, the Europeans.

Was this because their intimate connection was in itself a "sin"? Or was it because the rush of new connection outran the care necessary to make the connection holy?

Perhaps for us, today, the story told in the chapters that mention Pinchas is not really about Pinchas. For us, today, the story is about taking care at the boundaries of difference. At the worst (the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan), we create a clash of civilizations that didn't have to happen. At best, we respect one another and learn from one another, as Rona does with the Daughters of Abraham interfaith book discussions. We find our selves in the Pinchas situation again and again, but that doesn't mean we have to act as Pinchas did. More on that in the next three blog entries.