steubenville

Trigger warning: This post alludes to a graphic sexual assault that may be upsetting to survivors.

For better or worse, the name of this Ohio town, which used to be associated with the high school football team that was its pride and glory, will likely become synonymous with “teenage gang rape,” much as Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with “torture and prisoner abuse.” Ironically, in Steubenville the former — a cult of football player worship that is all too common in the United States — played a huge role in the latter — an atmosphere in which multiple athletes assaulted a classmate too drunk to consent.

Today the two boys who committed the assault, a six-hour ordeal of which the survivor has no memory but which was extensively documented on social media, were convicted of rape. The 17-year-old will serve at least two years in the state juvenile system; the 16-year-old, at least one year. It’s possible that they will be incarcerated until they are 24 and 21, respectively. Extension of the sentences is at the discretion of the state’s Department of Youth Services.

I felt relief when I heard about the conviction. From the event all the way through the trial, it seemed — at least from my limited vantage point, through local and national media — that the town was generally rallying around “their boys” and were blaming the victim, as people are so wont to do. Indeed, many of their classmates hurriedly deleted videos of and text messages about the assault when the boys realized that, wow, people are kind of upset about this and we might have done something wrong. Two of the victim’s former friends testified that she is often intoxicated at parties and “lies about things.” There was much hand-wringing over the boys’ futures, football and otherwise. I feared that the circling of the wagons around the perpetrators would be successful.

jailed rapists

jailed rapists (source: RAINN)

I also felt that the punishments were at least to some extent appropriate, though I can’t help but hope that the punishments end up on the longer end of the possibilities (more on that below). I may be in the minority in this sentiment, judging by a (highly unscientific) review of today’s Facebook posts about the verdict. A friend of a friend expressed surprised outrage that rape is not punishable by 25 years to life. To which I want to burst out laughing.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), accounting for unreported rapes, only about 3% of rapists ever spend time in jail. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of 1992, the average sentence for rapists was just shy of 12 years, with average actual time served about five-and-a-half years. (The current arrest rate for rape, about 25%, has remained unchanged since the 1970s, so there’s little reason to believe that sentences have changed either.) To say that rape is rarely punished via the criminal justice system is an understatement.

I spent seven years in D.C. volunteering at the local rape crisis center. I have little sympathy for rapists.

I also spent the same amount of time working and volunteering for drug policy reform organizations. I have little confidence in the criminal justice system.

And indeed, my experience working with survivors of sexual assault taught me the same lesson: The criminal justice system simply doesn’t do what we hope it does.

This semester I’m taking “Foundations of Prison Ministry” at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. To whatever small extent I wasn’t before, I am now thoroughly horrified at our criminal justice system. I can’t condone caging human beings for inordinate amounts of time. I have no trust that we are putting away the “right” people. And I am certain that we’re not rehabilitating anyone.

Sidebar: I just wrote 10 pages for my class midterm about why the criminal justice system is abominable — and I barely scratched the surface in so doing — so I am obviously not able to do it justice (heh) in this post. For a good primer, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to read a whole book. As a citizen of this nation, you don’t have time not to read it! /rant

Ultimately, what I am saying is that I am divided. I don’t think we should be locking kids up for long periods of time (and never for life). And the criminals in this case are kids. Stupid, self-entitled, shameless, sadistic scum. But kids nonetheless. (The New York Times reported that the boy sentenced to at least one year told his lawyer upon hearing the decision, “My life is over.” To my mind there’s no clearer indication of the immaturity at work here. And I still want to scream at him about the life of the girl he assaulted.) These kids merit punishment. So in our very limited criminal justice system arsenal, I am forced to admit that some jail time seems like the best option.

But I concede this knowing that whatever good these boys will learn over the next year, two years, or five years, they will find in spite of their incarceration, and not because of it. More than likely, they’ll come out more desensitized than they went in. They’re for damn sure not going to learn in juvenile how to be men in a way different from that which rape culture promotes. And shouldn’t that be our goal?

homelessness

One morning in D.C. I met a friend at Caribou Coffee, and I grabbed the restroom key off the bar as soon as I walked in. The barista glanced at me but said nothing. I walked back to the restroom, which was clearly marked: “For Caribou customers ONLY.” A homeless man sat at the table closest to the restroom, sipping his cup of coffee, alternately watching me and his shopping cart of belongings just outside the door.

“If I did that, they’d make me buy something before used the restroom.”

I didn’t know what to say. I muttered that I was going to buy something; I just really had to use the bathroom. But I knew that he was right. My privilege as an upper middle-class white woman (even one dressed in her stinky running clothes) had given me that pass. I look like someone who is going to buy something. Or someone who isn’t going to bathe in the bathroom. Or both.

I don’t see homeless folks where I live in Boston. I know they exist, even in the affluent suburbs where I live and go to school. But besides running or a quick trip to the drug store, I drive everywhere. It’s hard to see anyone from the bubble of my car.

Before I left D.C., the plight of homelessness weighed on me heavily. I walked everywhere, including to and from my office downtown, where there are homeless people on almost every street. In the months before I moved away, I struggled every day with how best to treat these people with humanity. My general policy is to give money — change — to whomever asks, but I feel deeply the inadequacy of that response.

image

tzedakah box: tiempo israelitico synagogue; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As I was packing, I decided I didn’t need to schlep a full tzedakah box, which my husband and I had been adding to since we moved to our apartment four years earlier, to Boston. I put the coins in a plastic bag and began doling it out. There was a lot of change, and I began to go out of my way to give it away. I’ll be honest: This increased interaction with some of the most vulnerable residents became a source of stress, as I found myself feeling increasingly helpless in the face of such a daunting social issue. I didn’t know if what I was doing was ultimately helping or hurting, and I don’t know what a better alternative is.

But when a person is asking something from me — a person who my tradition teaches me was created b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of G-d” — I can’t decline a request for change, something that literally costs me very little to give. Because of this, I am unconcerned, as many are, about how the requesting party will use that money; that is simply not a factor in my thinking about this issue. As often as I can, I look the person in the eye, I smile, and I give.

I arrived at this decision about how to respond to these requests after a text study during a fellowship I participated in. The Jeremiah Fellowship, run by the local D.C. organization Jews United for Justice, was a 10-month program to train the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers. The text study, “Can You Spare a Dime? Jewish Perspectives on Spontaneous Tzedakah,” which focused specifically on these kinds of street requests, was in three parts: To give or not to give? What about people who aren’t really in need? Are there alternatives to giving money?

We’re told in Vayikra Rabbah 32:2:

Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Re’uven: To anyone who gives a small coin to a poor person, the Holy Blessed One will give many small coins. But is the giver really just giving the poor person a coin? Isn’t she really giving him his life? How so?

If a loaf of bread costs ten coins and a poor person is standing in the market and only has nine, and someone comes along and gives him one [more] coin so that he buys the loaf of bread and eats it and his soul is returned to him [i.e., he is saved from starving to death]. The Holy Blessed One says to the giver, “In your case, too, when your own soul threatens to break loose from your body [i.e., when you’re on the verge of death], I will return it to you.”

The text study (several more pieces besides the one above) had a profound effect on me. I like that the Talmud acknowledges that not everyone who asks is in need (or, by extension, will use the money for the professed need) and suggests non-monetary ways to help those in need — while still affirming our obligation to give even just a little, and to do so with compassion.

sign near occupy dc on k st nw

sign near occupy dc at vermont & k sts nw; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I know that not everyone agrees with my approach — including some of my fellow Jeremiahs, who looked at the same texts I did. While I lived in D.C. I also made a (small) annual donation to an organization that worked with the local homeless population. Each week my husband bought a copy of Street Sense — a publication by and about those experiencing homelessness — from a vendor near his office. And I spent many a Christmas day repainting various buildings of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a downtown D.C. shelter.

All of this is to say that I loved being in back in D.C., where homeless folks are visible, even if they are a painful reminder of how short our society falls in an important test. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

feminist fishbowl

On Wednesday I spoke on a panel — or more properly, a fishbowl — about feminism at my school’s community time (held once a week for an hour-and-a-half) in advance of our winter seminar the week before school starts again in January, which will be on the topic of feminist theology and practice. Also on the panel were a faculty member (a man) and two fourth-year students (a man and a woman).

We each had four minutes (!), and I was super nervous, in part because I still don’t know the community very well, and I am just not sure where people are on feminism (yes, I know). In the end, I felt that it went really well. It was such an important experience for me personally, since, as I’ve been sharing, I’ve been having a hard time with the very painful misogyny in many of the texts that we’re studying. It felt great to have my say, to share my worldview. Which is, of course, the essence of feminism.

These are the questions that I was asked to respond to, and following that is what I said (slighted edited from notes into a more readable format, and including a few sentences I had to cut on the spot in the interests of time).

1. What does feminism mean to you?
-What is your working definition of feminism/feminist practice?
-How did you arrive at this conception of feminism?
-How is feminism lived out in your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your Jewish practice?

2. Why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism?

____________________________________________________
My feminist practice works towards the liberation of all marginalized people, not just women. I have unerring commitment to intersectionality: The patriarchy perpetuates not just sexism but lots of other -isms/privilege: racism, ableism, cisgenderism, heteronormativism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. The identity of an oppressed person is not just shaped by gender.

Essentially, our world is perfectly suited to educated, wealthy, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered men, and there are way more people who are not that. This means that a very small group of people have power and privilege. I’d like to create a world that is suited to all people.

patriarchyI can’t walk away from misogyny, so I can’t walk away from feminism. And I won’t walk away from feminism, because it is the only defense I have in world that is hostile to me –  not the other way around.

I’ve never taken a women’s studies or feminist theory class. In fact, I spent my college years doing just about the opposite, studying classics (ancient Greek and Latin texts). The definition above was forged in the fires of the rape crisis center where I worked as a hotline counselor and hospital advocate for seven years; I received extensive training before I started and ongoing training as I continued to volunteer. I answered crisis calls on a 24-hour hotline, and I went to the hospital when patient identified as a sexual assault survivor. (For simplicity, I will be talking about survivors as women, but I want to acknowledge that women are not at all the only people who are raped.)

I understand the phenomenon of sexual assault in a feminist context: that is, rape is about power and control, and not desire or libido. It is perhaps the most violent manifestation of patriarchy, and it is a direct result of the “rape culture” in which we live.

Rape culture is set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women; it views sexual violence as a fact of life, when in fact what we think of as immutable is an expression of values and views that can change. In addition to its the part it plays in the lives of women, rape culture also narrowly circumscribes men’s roles.

A few examples: rape culture is 1 in 33 men and 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to prevent rape; rape culture is the claim that sex workers can’t be raped; rape culture is the threat of being raped in prison being an acceptable deterrent to committing crime; rape culture is tasking women with the burden of not getting raped and failing to admonish men not to rape; rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never to be in the same room as a rapist.

My feminist practice is based on the principle that the personal is political. Just to give two examples: I listen. I know precisely my experience of sexism, but that does not mean that I know what it’s like to be queer, or a person of color, or disabled, or any number of things. It behooves me to check my privilege and to listen and to accept as true others’ telling of their experiences

And on the flip side: I tell my story. As an excellent web resource says, “Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It’s our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance.”

Finally, why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism? Because we’re still asking that question.

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.”

praying with my feet

JOIN national summit program; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I spent last Sunday and Monday in New York, at the HUC-JIR campus, attending the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network for Justice (JOIN for Justice) first National Summit, the organization’s first. I heard about it through Jews United for Justice, one of my favorite D.C. organizations. As a rabbi, I want to do organizing, so it was a good opportunity to network with other Jews doing social justice work. Indeed, those two days I walked around thinking, “Yes. These are my people.”

Simply put, the conference was awesome, for little and big reasons. I am dork, so I really liked that everything ran on time and stuck to the schedule. (Not everyone showed up on time to sessions (myself included on one occasion!) but that’s a different kettle of fish.) Every session I attended had a written agenda of what was to be covered, and in good organizing fashion, the agenda was reviewed and affirmed before each session. What can I say? I like knowing that presenters know what they’re doing.

The conference also got me super excited about moving to Boston. Bostonophiles had told me what a great city it is for social justice, but seeing is believing. I heard about so much good work going on and/or based there (where JOIN itself is located!), through Moishe Kavod House, Jewish Association for Law & Social Action, Massachusetts Senior Action Council, Boston Workman’s Circle, Keshet, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, and more. I’m thrilled about the potential opportunities I’m going to have in rabbinical school.

And I heard some downright inspiring speakers: In the opening assembly, Simon Greer of Nathan Cummings talked about the Jewish legacy and future of social justice: “At the March on Washington, Jews blended in; at Occupy Wall Street, Jews stood out.” Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance spoke about community/labor coalition building: “All progressive movements, worker-related or not, bank on the utilization of the labor movement. We have to lift it up.” Marshall Ganz of the Kennedy School highlighted the necessity of a moral aspect to social justice work: “One cannot long last as a light to the world and a darkness at home” (in reference to the occupation of Palestinian lands). Gordon Whitman of PICO emphasized the importance of religious Judaism: “We can’t have just a secular Jewish social justice movement.” Nancy Kaufman of the National Council of Jewish Women: “Social justice comes from Jewish values — but has universal goals.”

One of my favorite sessions was “Mindfulness and Organizing Work,” led by Rabbis David Adelson and Lisa Goldstein. I really identified with Rabbi Goldstein’s section on text study as a mindfulness practice. As she noted, looking at a piece of text is the default Jewish spiritual practice in organizing — but doing so often puts participants into an intellectual space that can be anxiety-producing and can lead to tearing others down. “How can I demonstrate that I know more about Judaism than others? What if I don’t understand what someone else says? How can I show my independence of thought by disagreeing with the author?” Instead, Rabbi Goldstein suggested looking at text from mindful perspective: “What it wise, beautiful, true, or helpful about this text? What does this text teach me about myself and about where I am in the world?”

the prophet isaiah (i love the prophet art at huc!); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Personally (as opposed to professionally), my favorite part of the conference was seeing my old friend David Segal (now Rabbi David Segal). We hadn’t seen each other since high school, when I was his yearbook editor. We’d friended each other on Facebook within the past couple of years, so we had some idea of what the other was doing. But because of the time built into the schedule for relational meetings (thanks, JOIN!), we were able to make that deeper connection as adults and as organizers. I got to hear about his path to the rabbinate and to Aspen, and I got to tell him about my path to Judaism and to the rabbinate. When we parted, headed to different sessions, he told me a story that gave me chills.

A friend of his, also a convert and a rabbi, shared with him a midrash (or perhaps a midrash on a midrash?): Between creation and when the Israelites went out of Egypt, G-d is said to have visited and offered Torah to all of the nations of the earth, who ultimately rejected it; only the Israelite nation, at Mount Sinai, accepted it — becoming the “chosen” people. David’s friend noted that in each of the rejecting nations, though, a few people in the back of the crowd raised their hands and said, “Wait! I want it.” That is him, he said.

That is me, too.

marriage

Today began and ended with my reflecting on marriage. It also began with sad tears and ended with happy ones.

I am sorry to say that this morning I had to go to D.C. police (MPD) headquarters. My husband had his wallet and phone stolen from a gym locker last month, and the police report on the incident was the last document I needed to complete our renter’s insurance claim. The insurance company had requested the report from MPD but naturally had not yet received it three weeks later. The complainant (or the complainant’s spouse) can request the report for free — but only in person! — so I headed to Judiciary Square after breakfast. I expected the process to be at least somewhat trying — as is almost all interaction with District bureaucracy.

It started with the metal detector. “You have cuticle clippers in your purse,” the guy running the x-ray machine tells me. “Where are you going?” When I tell him I need a copy of a police report, he non sequiturs, “Please take the clippers out of the building.” (I have no idea why he asked me what I was doing in the building, because it sure didn’t seem to make a difference to him.)

“I have to leave them outside?” I ask, confused. “I didn’t say that,” he responds. “You have to take them out of the building.”

Sighing, I take the offending object outside and place it on a concrete window ledge. I come back inside and repeat the security drill. This time (but why wasn’t it last time as well?) it’s a pair of tweezers. “Take them outside the building,” he repeats.

Lather, rinse, repeat. This time, it’s my coin purse. He tells me to just hold on to it as I walk through the metal detector, which of course goes off. I point out the coin purse in my hand to the other security person, who wands me anyway. The wand beeps near my jacket pocket: my office keys, which haven’t caused the metal detector to go off during the previous three times I’ve already been through it. “Why did you leave those in your pocket?” she demands. Flustered, I stammer that I must have forgotten about them. She motions me back again. I put the keys in the purse and try again. This time she wants to know why I’m holding my coin purse. “Because he told me to,” I almost scream in frustration.

All of this would merely be Kafkaesque, but I’m retelling it to underline the fact that I was in no mood for bullshit when I got to the Public Documents Unit. The trouble begins when the woman returns with copy of the report she’s retrieved. “I need to see your ID, because your name isn’t on the report.” I explain that I wasn’t involved in the incident and hand her my driver’s license. She hands it back to me: “I need to see something with your married name.”

Feeling the heat rising, I force myself to say calmly, “I don’t have a ‘married name.’ I didn’t change my name when I got married. I am telling you he’s my husband; the address on my license is the same as his on the report, and I am wearing a wedding ring.”

“Well, I’m wearing a wedding ring, and my husband’s dead.” (Yes. She actually said that.) She continues, “I can’t believe you don’t have something with his name.” We go back and forth in this vein until she finally thrusts the report at me and peevishly informs me, “You just got a free report.”

“Yes,” I reply. “The free report that I’m entitled to as the complainant’s spouse!” I’m so angry at this point I am shaking. “So you say,” she ends.

I’m crying before I’ve gotten on the elevator, kicking myself for letting her get to me and for not anticipating something like this. The thought did flash through my brain as I was looking online for how to get a police report: It’s free for a spouse . . . I wonder how that is verified? (There is absolutely nothing on that page about needing proof of marriage or what that would entail.) As far as I can tell, the Public Documents Unit at MPD is “verifying” marriage through last names.

Not only is this “policy” hopelessly old-fashioned (I can’t believe I’m the first spouse with a different last name to request a copy of a police report), it’s only going to become more problematic as same-sex married couples (who choose to take each other’s names even less than straight people do) become victims of crime. So MPD is either going to have to come up with a way to easily verify marriage, or they’re just going to have to take our word for it. The kicker to all of this is that the fee for police report for a third party is $3. The woman who works in this office gave me a hard time over three dollars.

I was surprised this hurt so much, and I don’t cry easily. In retrospect I know it bothered me because I have issues with one-size-fits-all corporate or bureaucratic policy. (And I choose these words in particular because my therapist has said exactly this to me: “Salem, you have issues with one-size-fits-all corporate or bureaucratic policy.”) And this is a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic policy par excellence. Usually I just get annoyed or frustrated with this type of stupid inflexibility, not hurt. But this felt like an attack on my personal choices — and on my commitment to my marriage. It devastated me that someone would doubt that I was married solely because my spouse and I don’t share a last name.

The day ended better than it began, though. From one of my least favorite D.C. institutions to one of my favorite: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. I went to the 6th & the City Friday night services because my friend Julia would be there on her last night in D.C. before moving to L.A., and my friend Annie was celebrating her aufruf.

Kabbalat Shabbat services always make me feel better, and sitting in the pew — listening to Rabbi Shira bless Annie and Marc, singing siman tov and mazel tov, watching everyone dance around the sanctuary, and throwing candy — I was so grateful to be a part of tradition that celebrates marriage. There was no one in that crowded room who thought any less of my marriage because my husband and I have different last names (least of all the rabbi, who also does not share a name with her husband). My heart was full, and I was happy to be affirmed, happy for Annie and Marc, happy to be Jewish, back in the space where I got married. Hare ata mekudeshet li betaba’ at zo k’dat Moshe v’ Yisrael . . .

down-ton abbey

Spoiler alert: I reference events in episodes that have aired in both the U.K. and the U.S., but I include the caveat for any readers who haven’t yet seen the series.

I’m an enthusiastic fan of “Downton Abbey,” the hugely successful British television drama set in the early twentieth century, the story revolving around the Crawley family and the servants of the eponymous estate in Yorkshire. The principle preoccupation of the family is the fact that Lord Grantham’s title, his estate, and his wife’s money — because of the ironclad English law of entail — all pass to a distant cousin upon the death of the previous heir and his son on the Titanic, which event opens the pilot. I love period drama, especially of the British late 19th/early 20th century variety. Indeed, I literally squealed with delight when I saw that Lady Mary Crawley references Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the upcoming episode.

There are so many wonderful things about this show: The accents. The fear of “new” technology (electricity! typewriters! telephones!). The gorgeous clothes (for the upstairs family, anyway, though the servants wear nicer things to wait on the Crawleys than most modern people ever do). The glimpse into a way of life that is so removed from a modern American audience. The well-developed characters: scheming Thomas and O’Brien, unflagging reformer Isobel Crawley, rebellious Sybil Crawley, the witty Dowager Countess — who it is universally acknowledged has the best lines of the series. (If you’re a fan and haven’t seen this video, you must. And you may appreciate it even if you’ve never seen the show.)

But — and I think with most mainstream entertainment, there is almost always a “but” — the latest episode to air in the U.S. gave me pause. Of course, there were issues all along. As one critic writes, somewhat contradictorily,

Even with its high-lather soap factor, no one would consider “Downton Abbey” a guilty pleasure — it’s “Masterpiece,” for heaven’s sake, the television equivalent of graduate school — though certainly creator Julian Fellowes makes it easy for an American audience to empathize with pampered members of the master class. . . . By conveniently blurring the class distinctions of the time with a lot of noblesse oblige and more than a dash of modern psychology, Fellowes and his writers allow their audience the benefits of a romantic period piece and none of the troubling drawbacks.

She then goes on to talk about the oppressive class system that bolsters the Crawley family — which I would certainly identify as a “troubling drawback” in even the most cursory critical examination of the show. For this reason, and others, I do consider “Downton Abbey” a guilty pleasure.

In “Episode Eight” of Series 2, which aired last Sunday, veteran Matthew regains his ability to walk after suffering severe spinal damage in the war. The ableism of this plotline — in service of giving viewers the long awaited, unblemished reunion of Matthew and Mary, whose on-again, off-again relationship drives a great deal of the show’s plot — is troubling.

We get a first glimpse in the pilot of the era’s anxiety around people with disabilities with the arrival of the new valet, who walks with a cane. The whole house is in a tizzy about whether Bates will be able to do his job, and he’s sacked towards the end of the episode — only to be saved, deus ex machina style by Lord Grantham, who seems to recognize the claims of an old friend more than the injustice of preemptorily firing a worker. And like magic in the next episode, all concerns about Bates’s performance are gone; they never come up again. It’s not clear if that’s because they were exaggerated, based on the prejudice of the times, or because accommodations were made for him. And since the villainous valet and lady’s maid find plenty of reason, besides his disability, to collude against him, one ultimately wonders why Bates was given this characteristic at all.

The issue returns in the latest episode, as Matthew (understandably) continues to struggle with the prospect of life in a wheelchair. I realize that these were different times and there were not the accommodations that now exist for people in his condition, but it struck me as extreme (and not a little sexist) when he sends his heretofore fiancee, Lavinia, back to London, citing his wish to keep her from a sexless, childless existence. But we aren’t afforded any view of the presumed obstacles that he must now face in an environment ill-equipped for his wheelchair. The very practical issues of how he gets around in a house full of stairs, of who is assisting him with bathing, dressing, and using the bathroom are not addressed. The heir presumptive must not be subject to these indignities, and the show acts as though it’s simply a matter of Bates — who in the pilot, we were told, wasn’t able to carry anything as might be required in the course of extra duties! — helping him move from wheelchair to bed. And when it becomes clear that Matthew will recover, though he’ll carry a bruise on his spine for the rest of his life, he quips, “But at least I’ll have a life” — which statement is at the very least hugely insulting to anyone in a wheelchair.

What’s more, the episode goes on to show that Matthew must be spared not only the wheelchair — only an able-bodied man is worthy to be the next Lord Grantham — but even the burden of having to appear ungentlemanly. In a truly horrifying development, as Lavinia lays dying of Spanish flu, having realized that he’s still in love with Mary, she manages to choke out, “Isn’t this better, really? You won’t have to make a hard decision . . .” So in the show’s really fucked up logic, it’s better that Lavinia die than Matthew have to do something selfish so that he and Mary can be together? This is the pinnacle of the show’s contortions to bring the protagonists to what I assume is coming: their marriage, securing Mary’s place in society and neatly resolving the problem that has propelled the series since the pilot. Hence my post title, “Down-ton Abbey,” as the show’s writers reach a new low in this episode.

I still plan to watch and enjoy “Downton Abbey” — if not just to delight in the swoon-worth Dan Stevens — but I’ll continue to do so carefully.

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.