solitary confinement is not worthy of us

This is a cross-post from Torah by T’ruah, in which rabbis (and in some cases, rabbinical students!) connect the weekly parashah to human rights issue of our day. I wrote about last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech.

Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parshah, speaks powerfully to our fundamental human need for connection to each other and to Gd —and therefore to the isolation that is an anathema to it.

The covenant of Torah that began with the distant and dramatic display of Gd’s power at Mount Sinai is sealed here as Israel stands before (nitzavim lifnei) Gd. This immediacy of acceptance of Torah is in sharp contrast with the fear and trembling of receiving of Torah.

Indeed, part of that covenant, Moses says, is the ingathering of those who are dispersed, on earth and in heaven —underscoring the importance of physical proximity for this final step. For their part, the Israelites are to love Gd bchol lvavecha uvchol nafshecha, “with all your heart and with all your soul”—a spiritual proximity.

Most vividly of all, the parshah ends with a poetic description of the location of Torah: It is not in heaven, and it is not across the sea. Lo rekhokah hi . . . ki carov eilecha . . . meod: “It is not far off . . . but very close to you.”Torah is inside us, in our mouths and in our hearts.

Significantly, the Israelites stand together “to cleave”to Gd (uldavka bo). A list is actually enumerated: chiefs, elders, men, women, children, strangers. The breadth is staggering, as Gd promises this covenant with those present and with those absent (veit asher einenu bo). This is no individual teshuva: This is a community, everyone and everywhere, reaching out and hanging on to Gd.

And this is the capstone of Gd’s relationship with Gd’s people, whom Gd has been preparing since Abraham heard the call generations earlier. Covenant means relationship, and relationship means intimacy.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA's office, demanding accountability for the death of a man -- ruled a homicide -- held in solitary at Rikers Island.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA’s office, demanding accountability for the death of a man — ruled a homicide — held in solitary at Rikers Island.

This summer, as part of my participation in T’ruah’s Rabbinical and Cantorial Fellowship in Human Rights, I interned at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, working on its coalition for prison and jail reform in New York.

Currently, one of the main issues for advocates is the use of solitary confinement behind bars. The situation is bleak in New York, where isolation is regularly used as a punitive measure, and at rates above the national average —but the state is not unique in this practice.

Nationwide, there are estimated to be more than 100,000 people in segregation in prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile facilities, and military installations. Terms can be days, weeks, months, years, or decades.

The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has decried solitary confinement in the U.S. as such, and for good reason. People in solitary confinement are usually held in cells the size of a parking space —with no windows and doors with only food slots, through which communication with guards, therapists, and doctors is conducted —for 22 to 24 hours a day. Visits are severely curtailed, and TVs, radios, and books might not be allowed. As a punishment, solitary may be meted out for the most minor of infractions, and there is little oversight or accountability in the process.

Every study of the subject tells us that solitary confinement is an affront to humanity. In isolation, human beings suffer “irreparable emotional damage and extreme mental anguish,”in the words of one expert. After 12 years in solitary, one prisoner noted: “I lost the will to live. I lost hope . . . Day after day all I saw was gray walls, and over time my world became the gray box.”

What we learn in our parshah is that intimacy is required for relationship with Gd and community. What we learn in our prison system is that intimacy with either is impossible in solitary confinement.

Isolation of human beings for extended periods of time is an abomination, with heartbreaking emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects. The Torah calls us, in its final, poignant moments, to move close to Gd and to others. As a community, we must ensure that all of us are able to do so.

Solitary confinement is not worthy of us as a people in relationship with Gd.

Access resources to become involved in the response to solitary confinement through T’ruah or the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive

I gave (a modified version of) this to my “Theology of Jewish Prayer” class. The assignment was to “present a prayer theology that differs from your own, making an effort to highlight its strong points; then present a prayer theology congenial with your personal views, highlighting a difficulty or challenge it poses.”

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This semester I am taking an online class called “Spirituality and Social Justice,” which focuses on the philosophies and theologies of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two theologies of prayer that I want to present today both come from Rabbi Heschel: One I find difficult, and the other, I find compelling.

In The Insecurity of Freedom Heschel writes about prayer as a discipline. Alluding to Buber, Heschel argues,

To worship G-d means to forget the self, an extremely difficult, though possible, act. What takes place in a moment of prayer may be described as a shift at the center of living – from self-consciousness to self-surrender. This implies, I believe, an important indication of the nature of man. Prayer begins as an “it-He” relationship. . . . In prayer, the “I” becomes an “it.” This is the discovery: what is an “I” to me, first of all and essentially, and “it” to G-d. If it is G-d’s mercy that lends eternity to a speck of being which is usually described as a self, then prayer begins as a moment of living as an “it” in the presence of G-d. The closer to the presence of Him, the more obvious becomes the absurdity of the “I.”

For Heschel, then, prayer requires extreme humility and self-abnegation. Our complete submission to the divine is what allows us to even draw close to G-d, let alone worship G-d. This involves a recognition of our own finiteness, undeservedness, and absurdity; we denigrate ourselves “to become worthy to be remembered by G-d,” as Heschel writes a few paragraphs later. He continues, “Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to G-d’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by Him. In other words, the task of man is not to know G-d but to be known to G-d.”

As I read this text, I had an immediate and strong reaction to this theology (not to mention the gendered language for G-d and for people). Over Shabbat lunch some weeks ago, I explained my objections to several classmates of mine, and one of them was quite surprised. After years of resistance and subsequent spiritual work, he explained, he had found connection to the divine in this surrender, in the recognition of his unworthiness. This philosophy has much to recommend it to someone who has been able to believe in the possibility of control over his life. I think it is significant that my interlocutor was a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white man.

abraham joshua heschel

abraham joshua heschel

To me, Heschel’s writing here cries out for a feminist analysis. I agree with the assumption that Heschel seems to be making: that seeking communion with the divine should not feel quotidian. Being in the presence of G-d should absolutely feel different than other moments of our lives might. What “different” is, however, depends on who you are.

Heschel survived horrors as a Jew in Europe in the 1930s, and he lost much of his immediate family in the Holocaust. I don’t want to leave that unacknowledged. And, he also benefited from much privilege accorded him here in the United States, through his skin color, his gender, his sexual orientation, his education, his able-bodiedness. For those similar to him, daily experience might be able to be described as affirming. Safe. Comfortable. It is understandable why, then, it might be desirable for prayer, for immersion in the divine, to be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. A denial of the self that is otherwise universally affirmed. A submission to a force with which one otherwise feels in harmony.

I pray, in part, because I feel empowered and affirmed and worthy and safe when I am in the presence of the divine. G-d has already remembered me, brought me to G-d’s attention, is desirous of listening to me and of understanding me. I don’t have to work to make that happen; G-d meets me where I am. So doing means, for me, that G-d acknowledges the brokenness of my experience. The G-d of my prayer is one whom I, in the words of Tamara Cohen, “hold . . . responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.”

Heschel actually acknowledges something similar to this in his work on prophetic consciousness. Elsewhere he says that the job of the prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And if the prophet is the messenger of G-d, it stands to reason that his actions might be a reflection of G-d’s role. I wonder whether Heschel himself held contradictory theologies of prayer. I think he might: It’s hard for me to understand how he could connect with a theology that objectifies human beings.

Indeed, I find deeply moving a seemingly quite different part of his theology: his thought about the obligations that we have to each other as prerequisites for prayer. A journalist once asked him why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” he replied. “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to an anti-war demonstration?” Said Heschel: “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”

Heschel was an outspoken opponent both of the Vietnam War and of the racism he saw manifest in the segregationist laws of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. In his June 16, 1963, telegram to President Kennedy in advance of a meeting of religious leaders at the White House, Heschel said, “We forfeit the right to worship G-d as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes.” In Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, he wrote, “To speak about G-d and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” For Heschel then, we cannot be in any relationship with G-d when we are not in right relationship with our fellow human beings. This latter relationship also involves G-d: “The image of G-d is either in every man or in no man . . . “ he wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom. If we’re not able to see G-d in others, how can we see our way to G-d?

In the great Talmudic tradition, Heschel’s statements are extreme. Just as one might rightly be mystified (as I am) by R. Eleazar’s claim that “One who prays behind his rebbe, and one who greets his rebbe, and one who returns a greeting to his rebbe, and one who divides his rebbe’s yeshiva, and one who says something which he has not heard from his rebbe causes the shekhinah (divine presence) to depart from Israel” (Berakhot 27b), so too might Heschel’s claim be perplexing. We’re never completely right with our community: I only called Sen. Warren’s office once to urge her to vote in favor of a bill that could close Guantanamo – and the phone just rang and rang. I decided I had too much homework to attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony last Sunday. I provoked a fight with my husband. I used ableist language. As I said earlier, my prayer is comforting: I need connection to G-d precisely when I am feeling most un-human.

But Heschel’s commitment to the primacy of interpersonal relationships speaks to me and calls me to action. It puts moral obligations ahead of religious obligations, ha’olam ha’zeh before ha’olam ha’bah, the communal antecedent to the personal. I also love the global nature of Heschel’s community: besides the war in Vietnam – in which he was concerned primarily about native, civilian casualties – he also did much work on the issue of Soviet Jewry. Foreign, domestic, Jew, Gentile – Heschel tried to see the image of G-d in all. Again, The Insecurity of Freedom: “All of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; when one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.” This view also highlights the enormity of what is at stake: We human beings have always been in special relationship with G-d, as b’tzelem elohim. We cannot come before G-d with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.

This theology also expands for me the definition of prayer. In so prioritizing our community, we see the world as G-d does, and we become partners with G-d in alleviating the agony of human beings. Upon the occasion of his marching with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., Heschel famously said that he “felt like his legs were praying.” Our work on behalf of others is sacred. G-d-like. And if activism is prayer, it can go the other way, too. Prayer is activism – as Heschel well noted when he said (in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive . . . Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of G-d.” And, I think, in the lives of others, too.

dayeinu

At seder on Monday and Tuesday nights, we sang “Dayeinu,” the Passover song that thanks G-d for the many, many things that G-d has done for us. It’s a review of everything that happened to get us out of slavery in Egypt and into Israel where the temple was built. (Good for G-d, the song ends before those pesky temple destructions.) Dayeinu means, approximately, “it would have sufficed!” The verses take the form of, “If G-d had just done X and not Y, dayeinu!”

So we sing, “If G-d had split the sea for us and not led us through on dry land, dayeinu!” “If G-d had led us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayeinu!”

But these are absurd things to say. It would have been enough for G-d to create an escape route from the Egyptians but not actually vouchsafed it to us? It would have been enough for G-d point the way to a random mountain in the desert . . . for no reason at all? Many have offered feasible explanations for each of these statements. On Tuesday, for instance, my seder host shared what she had heard from a rabbi: The arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai marks the first time “Israel” is referred to the singular, as a collective. So Sinai represents the beginning of peoplehood, even without the Torah. But I’m not so sure we’re supposed to take the song so literally. It seems to me that we might be simply expressing awe for each of the things G-d did for us, in a series of things that ultimately led to our freedom. But each one is actually not enough.

On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Prop. 8 case, the referendum that Californians passed in 2008 that outlawed marriage for same-sex couples. On Wednesday, the Court heard arguments in the challenge to DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal marriage benefits from same-sex couples (insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, the filing of joint tax returns, etc.), and requires interstate marriage recognition only for opposite-sex marriages.

marriage equalityOn Tuesday my Facebook feed turned red. Most of my friends changed their profile pictures to the Human Rights Campaign’s logo, colors changed for this historic occasion. Then the variations started: Yoda, Bert and Ernie, and an angry cat were added. The equal signs became penises, mustaches, animals, band-aids, matzah. I was over it even before the inevitable appearance of bacon. (The internet abhors a meme without bacon.)

I support marriage equality. And I didn’t change my profile pic. I put little stock in so-called clicktivism. One of my friends did post about how much it would mean to her if all her friends, especially straight ones, changed their profile pics as a sign of allyship: That partially melted my cold heart. And I did see a few people asking about its significance in comments on Facebook’s notification of changed profile pics. Which I imagine might be construed as “raising awareness,” quite possibly my least favorite phrase in the English language.

But my concern about this issue is deeper than my fear that people are substituting social media for real action. Many, many of my D.C. friends actually did actually go to the Supreme Court rallies to show support for marriage equality.

I worry that these cases, in the words of a good friend of mine, are “a gamble and a huge risk.” Marriage is a civil right — if perhaps not a strategy to achieve structural change — and there’s a chance it won’t be affirmed by the Court.

I came out in, and lived through, the post-Bowers v. Hardwick world, and it was an ugly time. The people who brought that case thought their odds were good too, but the result of their good intentions was a long period of time [Bowers was overturned in 2003 with the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas] when employers, governments, and courts (among others) could consider gay people de facto criminals in many states with the blessing of the Supreme Court. If we lose, and the high court decides that there is no fundamental right for gay people to marry our partners, I fear it could set back the fight for marriage equality in a huge way.

I worry that the online activism around these cases give rise to arguments that are not good for anybody’s liberation. I’m thinking in particular about the Louis CK quote [NSFW, natch] on marriage equality, which begins with “It doesn’t have any effect on your life.” Is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So you are free to oppose issues if they inconvenience you? I’m also thinking of the argument that gay people are just like straight people. Just gay. Again, is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So minorities should have rights as long as they are just aspiring to imitate the majority? Equal protection goes to the non-threatening? I am also thinking of the implication that marriage is a panacea for ensuring rights. Shouldn’t everyone, regardless of marital status, be entitled to the benefits denied because of DOMA? So you’re just out of luck if for some reason marriage isn’t in your plans?

I worry that, as I’ve written about before, marriage equality is the priority of only a small, privileged group of queer folks, mostly well-off white people (just look at the plaintiffs in both cases, or the sea of white that was the supporting faction in the rallies). On a current events program on my local NPR affiliate this week, the host marveled at how quickly marriage equality has gained support (contrasting it with, say, the relative torpidity of the civil rights movement). As far as I can see, the difference is that the former has had a lot of money and power behind it.

I worry that money and power thus directed limits the same towards issues that feel a lot more pressing and a lot more damaging, particularly for poor people of color. (I recognize that it is easy for me — a straight, white, married woman — to say this with the privilege of marriage already in hand.) On Thursday I visited the inmate that I am mentoring — a queer woman of color — as she finishes her college degree as part of Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I use the word “mentoring” because that is the formal term for our relationship, as defined by the program we participate in, but she hardly needs help with her studies. I’m basically a cheerleader, a listener, and a contact from the outside world.

She’s taking a class on race and incarceration, so we’re reading a lot of the same books. As we talked about the drug war and hyperincarceration and the dehumanizing prison system, I couldn’t help but wish for the day when all of my white friends would support drug policy and prison reforms and would proudly make those known and would go to rallies in support of court cases before the Supreme Court. As useless as I find social media “activism,” a sea of profile pics demanding an end to the racist institution of the death penalty, or protesting the “virtual ‘drug exception’ [that] now exists to the Bill of Rights” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow), or decrying the dehumanizing for-profit prison industry would at least mean that the issues had gained mainstream currency.

This was a hard post to write. Tuesday’s Facebook activity ultimately left me very sad and unable to organize my thoughts. (It didn’t help that I was getting sick and mourning the death of a friend.) And changing one’s profile pic is not a wrong thing to do. And one of my best friends works for a prominent gay rights organization in this fight. And many of my gay friends consider marriage equality very important.

Our collective liberation today depends on many, many steps — as did our march to freedom through the desert. And even when we think we’ve gotten there and the song ends, the temple can be destroyed. Twice.

Marriage equality is something to regard with awe. And it is in no way enough.

the implosion conspiracy

2216003For some reason I’ve been really interested in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for quite a long time, and I’ve been wanting to read a book about their trial. But unlike a lot of subjects, I was finding it hard to find the definitive work on this topic. So one day when I emailed the rabbinical school list about something unrelated, I also asked if anyone had recommendations. One of my classmates responded extremely enthusiastically with an endorsement of Louis Nizer’s The Implosion Conspiracy, which he read decades ago and still remembered vividly. It must be out of print now, because I was only able to find a copy on Amazon Marketplace (but for $0.78!).

To be honest, the book wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. However, it was a great read, and I definitely recommend it to the fellow Rosenberg-obsessed. Nizer was a lawyer, and he approaches his subject via an in-depth look at the trial itself. His perspective is that the truth can be found in the record.

He writes (somewhat pompously), “My objective was to know every inch of the thousands of pages of the records, as if I were going to write the briefs; and every word and authority in the briefs, as if I were going to argue the appeals; and every word of the many judicial opinions, as if I were going to write a critique for a law review; and every book I could find for or against the verdict, as if I were going to review each one for the Sunday Times; and every newspaper reference I could find, as if I were an editor preparing an editorial; and every person I could find who touched their lives or deaths, as if I were a reporter on a Pulitzer-Prize mission.” Indeed, his account, published in 1973, is incredibly thorough.

Nizer acknowledges in his introduction the “strong feelings” that the case engendered. In 1951, the Rosenbergs were convicted of passing information about the atomic bomb, being built under the auspices of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., to the Soviet Union. Just after the war, there was a certain amount of camaraderie (pun intended) in the United States with the Russians, who had been just about pulverized in their defeat of the Nazis on the eastern front. But by the time the Rosenberg case went to trial, the cold war had started, and communists (which the couple indisputably was) were viewed with considerable suspicion. Sen. Joe McCarthy would begin his infamous hearings just two years later, right about the time the Rosenbergs were executed for their espionage. Add to this opposition to the death penalty; horror at the fact that the chief government witnesses were Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law, whose damning testimony allowed them to escape more serious prosecution; and the possible role of anti-Semitism, fairly common in the mid-20th century — and one might think that the case would have hinged on some less quantifiable factors than Nizer claims. During sentencing, the judge himself made the following extreme statement:

I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.

Pres. Eisenhower cited a similar concern when he denied clemency a few months before their execution.

But this account provides almost none of that context or how it might have influenced the outcome. However, I now feel as though I lived through the trial and the appeals. In fact, I probably now know more than what most of the public did at the time, given how much of the testimony was embargoed because of national security concerns. In one of the few moments of levity in the book, the judge asks the public to leave, only allowing press to stay, because of the evidence about the atomic bomb about to be presented; I think today the press would be just about the last group allowed to hear such privileged testimony.

the rosenbergs in a rare embrace, but one so characteristic of their deep love for each other

the rosenbergs in a rare embrace, but one so characteristic of their deep love for each other

I finished the book over two Shabbatot, during one of which I was sick, so I just stayed in bed all day reading. Even though I knew the outcome, I cried at the end. The Rosenbergs were executed just over two years after their conviction, lightening speed when compared to today’s process. Through a practical deus ex machina, the legal team was able to get a stay of execution ordered by one U.S. Supreme Court judge, William Douglas, on the day after the Court’s summer recess. It initially seemed that the Rosenbergs would gain months of their lives while the appeal based on the stay made its way through the lower courts. However, exhilaration turned into shock and despair when, in a completely unprecedented move, the Court was called back for a special session and vacated the stay. The Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair a day later — on Shabbat, despite the pleas of their lawyer for respect for their Jewish heritage. Even more horrifying, Ethel had to be electrocuted three times after it was discovered she was still alive after the first course.

Since I’ve practically read the trial transcript, I’ll weigh in on the verdict. From the book’s account of the trial, it certainly seemed like Julius Rosenberg was involved in espionage activities. However, the government’s case was pretty weak, based on circumstantial evidence and verbal testimony (and absolutely no physical ties). As a juror, I think I would have had trouble concluding that the government had made its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, based on evidence released decades after the trial, it is clear that he was indeed a spy for the Soviet Union, but it is not at all clear whether what he passed on helped the Russians in their quest for the bomb, or whether he even passed on anything at all about the bomb.

Ethel’s involvement was always dubious, and the government had even less of case against her. In the years since the trial, her role has pretty much been completely debunked (her brother having admitted in 2001 that he gave false testimony about her involvement). She almost certainly knew of her husband’s activities but did not participate in them in any substantive way.

Ages 10 and 7 when their parents died, the Rosenberg sons were adopted by their foster family, the Meerepols. The father Abel was a poet and song-writer who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allen; his most well-known work was the anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday.

The affair would ultimately claim another life. Upon hearing the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate Justice Douglas’s stay, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer, Emmanuel Bloch, called the warden at Sing Sing: “Please tell Julie and Ethel I did the best I could for them. Tell them I will take care of the children. Tell them I love them. Tell them . . . ” and then collapsed into a chair sobbing. He died of a heart attack, at the age of 52, six months later.

she who has a why

[S]he who has a why can bear almost any how. -Frederick Nietzsche

The second week in January I took an interfaith seminar called “Experiencing Islam” in conjunction with Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS), which shares the hill with Hebrew College. I had lunch on one day with an ANTS student, and I told her (a short version of) the story of my journey to the rabbinate. One of the weird things I find about being a new rabbinical student is that, after months of talking about nothing else, I am no longer regularly asked — and I don’t ask any of my classmates of themselves — why I want to be a rabbi.

In talking with my future colleague, I found myself thinking back to the high holidays in October of 2011, almost a year-and-a-half ago. I went to Sixth & I’s Yom Kippur services at Calvary Baptist Church, which Rabbi Shira Stutman led. During the service, Elissa Froman gave a talk. In her introduction, Shira noted that Elissa was planning to start HUC-JIR Rabbinical School the next summer. And I remember having a twinge of jealousy and wanting that (or some version of that, with perhaps another rabbinical school substituted) to be said about me. This wasn’t the beginning of my decision to apply to rabbinical school, as I had already been thinking seriously about it (as much as two or three years before), but Elissa was certainly motivation to really get going.

I don’t know Elissa well, although I should. We have similar interests, are involved in some of the same organizations, and have many mutual friends. Unfortunately, what I know most about Elissa is that she is sick (which is of course not the sum of her identity).

Elissa was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma more than six years ago and has had two relapses, as well as a bone marrow transplant, and she’s been in the hospital for the past year dealing with complications from treatment. (This is information that she, her family, and others authorized by her family have shared publicly.) Elissa didn’t go to rabbinical school last summer, as she had planned. And that plan was a deferment from the year before. And I’m guessing that it’s probably not in the cards this summer, either (although, who knows?). It does seem like she has yet a struggle ahead of her.

In October, a friend of Elissa’s started a fundraising page for her and her family, as her stay in the hospital stretched into its eighth month. My friend Eve sent an email to our Jeremiah cohort about the effort, encouraging everyone to give: “Maybe some of you know her better than I, but, ever since meeting her back in the early 2000s, her work and life have been an inspiration.” (If you want to donate to this effort, you can do so here.) The page and its success are certainly a testament to the impact that Elissa has had on so many people. As the page’s creator wrote in the introduction:

If you are here, it is because you know and love Elissa Froman. You know the impact she has had on the people lucky enough to surround her, you are those people. Or maybe you know of her. You know of her advocacy work, her commitment to community, social justice, civil rights, and making the world a better place.

The morning that Eve sent her email, my classmate Lisa (also a former D.C.-er and friend of Elissa) led the Torah service at school. I also happened to be at the front of the room because I had an aliyah (the honor of saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading). As we sang mi sheberiach (the prayer for healing that is usually said in the middle of the Torah service), we shared with each other later that we had both been thinking about Elissa. All of this is to say that her presence is far-reaching.

And if you need even more evidence of Elissa’s awesomeness, watch this video that her friends made for her 29th birthday.

A year before Eve sent her email, to the day, Elissa wrote the last post that appears on her blog, where she’s chronicled her battle with cancer and her plans to go to rabbinical school. (By the way, you should read all of her blog. It is touching and heartbreaking and funny and honest and all the things that make a blog worth reading.) That last post was also written mere days after she spoke on Yom Kippur. In it, Elissa reflects on the five years since her diagnosis and expresses hope for the next five years, during which she was to finish her rabbinical school education.

It’s obviously painful to read in retrospect. I met with Elissa shortly after she wrote the post. We had coffee in the middle of the day, and I excitedly told her about my first visit to a rabbinical school and my plans for more visits and applications. And she shared with me her hopes for her rabbinate. We talked about how great it would be to one day be colleagues with similar interests, working as rabbis for social justice organizations.

Elissa’s been on my mind recently, and not just because I told the story of my journey to the rabbinate. Elissa’s sister recently sent an update on her progress — as she does regularly — to friends of Froman. And as many of you know, last semester (my first in rabbinical school) was very challenging for me, emotionally and spiritually. While I don’t think I’ve ever treated this experience flippantly, I always want to remember that first and foremost I am able to have this experience. This is a blessing and a privilege.

So Elissa, I’ll go to rabbinical school for both of us — until you join me.

UPDATE: Elissa Froman passed away on Friday, March 22, 2013 (11 Nisan 5773). May her memory be always for a blessing.

You can make a gift in her honor to the National Council of Jewish Women, her longtime employer.

voting

A few of my Facebook friends from Texas began posting this week about early voting, and I wondered whether that is an option here in Massachusetts. But then I remembered that I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for next month. And the choice is not between the president and Gov. Romney, which anyone who knows me might suspect. I am considering voting for a third-party candidate.

inauguration watermelon, just part of the Oba-mania in D.C. in early 2009; photo by salem pearce

I voted for Obama last time, and I was proud to do so — to be a part of history, and as a symbol of my hope for a new era after the horror of Bush years. I didn’t think Obama was going to forever change U.S. politics, as so many of my friends seemed to (a Hillary supporter originally, I was slow to warm up to the eventual candidate), but it was a thrill to vote for the first black president of the United States in that country’s capital, an historically black district. I happily waited in a long line that beautiful morning in November 2008 outside my voting location, the Metropolitan A.M.E Church. And I was proud to cast my vote that day even though Obama was projected to win the district — and of course did with almost 93% of the vote (more about that below).

But Obama as president has disappointed — and on more than one occasion, infuriated — me, as I know he has many progressives. He ran liberal as a candidate and then as president ran straight to the center (although I don’t think he is as bad as President Clinton in that way). To name a few issues:

The president signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the “indefinite definition” clause, a provision that allows for military imprisonment of U.S. citizens. (This law also makes the closing of Guantanamo — a campaign promise — more difficult.)

The president has deported an unprecedented number of undocumented immigrants during his term, despite a campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform.

The president has ramped up federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries, despite a campaign promise to end them.

And this Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has quadrupled (unofficially unacknowledged) drone attacks in Pakistan against terrorist suspects.

This is to say nothing of my devastation at the president’s refusal to speak out, as a black man with black daughters, about issues affecting black folks. And as I noted at the time, I was not impressed with his declaration of support for marriage quality.

I recognize that these are not everyone’s issues. And there are also things that the president has done which I’ve loved, such as health care reform and repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. However, I think that at this point my concern outweighs my estimation.

To be clear, I do not consider Gov. Romney any kind of alternative (not the least because he doesn’t differ from the president on the above issues), and I am fairly confident that the president is going to win re-election. More importantly for the decision at hand, the president is sure to win my state of Massachusetts. If I lived in a swing state, the president would have my vote in an instant, and this thought exercise would not exist.

The other choices in Massachusetts are the Libertarian ticket, featuring former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and the Green-Rainbow ticket, featuring Dr. Jill Stein (a former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate), both of whom have positions that I find appealing — and who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy on the four issues I mentioned above. According to this highly scientific website, I agree with Stein on 94% of issues and with Johnson on 82% (and Obama isn’t actually all that far behind with 72%).

But of course neither of them will draw anything more than 1% of the vote in Massachusetts. And I don’t know that I want either of them to actually be president: Stein in particular, by her dearth of political experience, is in no way qualified, and neither has been scrutinized and vetted on a national scale as I would expect to be the candidates for the most powerful job in the nation. Plus, I don’t agree with many parts of the Libertarian platform.

So I know who will carry Massachusetts; a vote for any other candidate won’t affect the fact that the electoral college votes will go to the president. Before I can answer the question of who I should vote for, I need to answer the question of why I vote.

Tritely, I believe that voting is my civic duty, part of living in a democratic society. The possibility of voting engages me with my elected officials and the issues that affect me, and the act of voting is a symbol of my investment in that society. I vote because so many others (particularly legions of felony drug-offenders, whose punishment does not end with serving time and who the vast majority of states strip of the right to vote) can’t.

taxation without representation; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I lived for years in the District of Columbia without Congressional representation (despite paying federal taxes as all other U.S. citizens). On principle, that’s enough to propel me to the voting booth as often as I can, if for no other reason than to elect members of Congress who will give D.C. residents representation. Which reminds me of another way in which the president has madden me: He has done nothing to advance D.C. Congressional representation in Congress — and didn’t do so even when he had a super-majority in Congress. He wouldn’t even show symbolic support for the issue — which results in disproportional disenfranchisement of black folks — by putting the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine.

As it turns out, voting is not rational, as this 2005 New York Times article articulates nicely. It’s inefficient and ineffectual. There is almost no chance that my individual vote will affect the outcome. If I believe that it is nevertheless important — and many things in this life are both irrational and important (the Libertarian Party probably doesn’t even want my vote now!) — what are the considerations for who gets my vote?

Do I vote for a candidate about whom I have serious reservations but who is going to win, because that projection is based on people like me voting for him, and if everyone behaved otherwise, he wouldn’t win?

Do I vote for a candidate with whom I have more agreement but who has no chance of winning — and who I actually don’t want to see win anyway? Is there value — for myself, for society — in a symbolic vote?

I just don’t know, and I continue to struggle with these questions, which feel very important to me. There’s a chance that I don’t decide until I actually get to my voting place on November 6.

no milk and cookies

Or, in which I do not laud the president for his statement on marriage equality yesterday.

First: I absolutely support marriage equality. It makes me furious that in various parts of this country we are voting on and legislating against civil rights. Any two consenting adults should be able to get married — and this is one of those rare moral and ethical absolute rights. It should not even be an issue.

And . . . I’m not that impressed by the president’s televised statement that “I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

I realize I’m in the minority among my progressive peers, if my Facebook feed is any indication. I acknowledge that words matter, and it matters what the president says: He can start and shift a national conversation. And, as a straight married woman, I can’t know what it feels like to have my relationship finally given the dignity that it deserves, by the most powerful man in the world, because my privilege is that my relationship has always been so accorded. In some ways, it was indeed an historic moment. (And I’m not completely hardhearted: I was touched by his crediting his wife and daughters for helping to shape his views on this issue. The women have always been my favorite Obamas.)

But many things about what happened yesterday — and, I suppose, what have been happening for a while, during the president’s “evolution” — were troubling. It’s hard to escape the fact that the decision to make this statement was born out of yet another vice presidential gaffe. Basically, Joe Biden went off the campaign script, and the president’s hand was forced. To avoid the impression that he and his running mate are not on the same page on this issue, the president quickly went on television to express what we’ve suspected he’s actually believed for a long time.

Indeed, the speed of the reaction (three days passed between Biden’s statement and Obama’s — did the president just happen to finish “evolving” at that point?) suggests that he already held the belief and was perhaps waiting until after the election to say so. His silence has then been a political calculation, about which I find very little commendable (particularly in light of the growing support for marriage equality in this country). It is incumbent upon us as human beings to speak out against injustice — and never more so when that human being is in a position of political power.

And even if I’m wrong in characterizing the action as political, and I take the president at his word that his personal belief has been evolving, I am still dismissive. A black man well knows the the history of injustice in our country’s marriage laws, and he should have been saying from day one, “I absolutely support equality because it is not okay to restrict marriage.”

Moreover, this seems to me a symbolic statement. Will he speak out against future measures like the one in North Carolina, which passed just the day before? Will he work to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which he has thus far only ordered the Justice Department not to enforce defend*? I want action with vague words. I don’t feel all that thrilled at what on its face was a simple statement of belief, the appropriate response to which is “duh.”

In the bigger picture, I share the concerns of many — particularly people of color, low income folks, and trans folks — in the queer community about the focus on marriage equality to the exclusion of other issues facing those constituencies (see also: hate crimes legislation). As a friend of a friend wrote on Facebook yesterday — and as my friend Alicia has eloquently written elsewhere:

WHAT about those of us who are raging queers? What about those of us who are poly, sex-positive, who don’t want kids, who have unconventional family arrangements? What about queers who have AIDS, who are homeless, who are gender freaks and warriors? Those of us who want working to dismantle the state, take apart the military, end capitalism, destroy the institution of marriage, and abolish prisons? What do we do when a movement for justice for LGBT people and the national discourse frames that movement as being about an institution that strengthens the power of a state that wages wars, puts people behind bars, profits off of land theft and slavery, and makes healthcare a right of the rich?

Marriage equality is a step. But I worry that the argument for it often devolves into, “Gay folks are just like straight folks. You don’t have to go out of your comfort zone to support marriage equality.” That’s insulting to everyone involved. I want support for people (straight people included) not to get married, too. I want support and attention for many, many other issues that, frankly, are more pressing for many folks than the right to marry.

Further, this does not change my position that I will not be giving the president anything other than my vote. He won’t have my time and money before the election as long he keeps signing bills allowing for indefinite detention, deporting record numbers of undocumented immigrants, and raiding medical marijuana dispensaries, to name a few issues on which he has utterly disgusted me.

Finally, while I’m on my soapbox, I’d really appreciate it if we could all stop using the term “gay marriage” (and the only somewhat better “same-sex marriage”), as it’s conceding the right’s narrative on this issue. “Marriage equality” affirms that existing marriage laws apply to everyone; we are not seeking to create a new institution for queer folks.

Marriage, as it stands (my issues with the institution, especially the state’s role it, notwithstanding), should be open to all.

*Update: My friend Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, points out that the Obama administration has been “not defending” DOMA — not “not enforcing.”

visions of freedom and justice

Tonight was the eighth annual MLK Shabbat at Sixth & I. (I didn’t know it had been going on that long; I thought I had gone to one of the first, in 2006.) Held in conjunction with the Turner Memorial AME Church, this is, hands down, my favorite Shabbat service each year.

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel march in Selma.

The service commemorates both the federal holiday dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Heschel marched with King in Alabama in March 1965. He famously wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Every Jewish social justice activist knows this story. We are taught about Heschel as much as young black kids are taught about King. We aspire to be like Heschel the way they want to be like King. We know Heschel’s words about Selma as well as they know King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

And, I imagine, we ask ourselves, “Can I be as brave as Rabbi Heschel?” as much as they ask themselves, “Can I be the next Dr. King?”

The service is a mix of a traditional Jewish Friday evening service with pieces of African Methodist Episcopal worship: The Howard Gospel Choir sings; the Agape Liturgical Dancers perform; the Senior Pastor preaches. And in between we say Shehecheyanu, the Sh’ma, and the V’Ahavta.

I can’t adequately describe the power of this service. I alternate between goosebumps and tears — and I feel like my feet are praying as I walk home. I love the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service: It is real and spirited and inspiring and beautiful. But I wish I could go every week to a Shabbat service with the Howard Gospel Choir. And communal prayer should always end with “We Shall Overcome.”

Tonight Pastor William H. Lamar IV spoke. My mouth was literally agape by the end. (My friend Bert asked afterwards if I had taken notes during his talk: “You have to learn how to do that when you’re a rabbi!”) A self-professed “King-ophile,” Pastor Lamar talked about his desire to remember the living, breathing legacy of Dr. King, instead of the ossified version enshrined in the memorial on the mall. He cited Cornel West’s warning not to “Santa Clausify” the civil rights leader: We have, in other words, turned him into a cartoon — one that teaches us to ignore much of what he stood for, because what he stood for remains such a threat to the political establishment in this conservative country. Dr. King was not afraid to speak truth to power, and he sometimes focused on issues that his community thought didn’t pertain to it (the war in Vietnam, for example). But as we all know, Dr. King believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pastor Lamar noted that being a leader sometimes means betraying your tradition and your people — to move them away from prescriptive views.

I love this service because it represents the best of what Judaism can be: pluralistic, visionary, radical, inspiring, and insistent on our obligations to one another as human beings. In the words of Rabbi Heschel:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

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