Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
As you’ve most likely heard (many times) by now, this morning the Supreme Court announced its rulings on two key cases regarding marriage equality: DOMA, the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” was struck down, and the California court ruling overturning Proposition 8, which disallowed same-gender marriages, was allowed to stand.
What do these rulings mean for California? First, because the Supreme Court ruled that those who appealed the Proposition 8 court ruling did not have any standing with the court, the appeals court case stands, meaning Proposition 8 has been overturned, and same-gender couples may again be married in California. Look for further announcements from the State Attorney General regarding when, exactly, such marriages will resume.
That’s great news, but it’s only part of the success. Another layer of success was added by the overturn of DOMA. Although same-gender couples have been able to be married in several states, they were still denied various benefits enjoyed by opposite-gender couples. For instance, same-gender couples were not able to file joint tax returns, receive spousal survivor’s benefits, etc. All that will change now.
Most importantly, for many couples, when a lesbian or gay person marries, his or her spouse will now be treated the same as a heterosexual spouse in regard to immigration and citizenship. As a result, many same-gender spouses who have been forced to live overseas, apart from their America spouse, will now be allowed to come home. It is, indeed, a great victory.
What do these rulings mean for your synagogue or Jewish Day School? Essentially, nothing. Neither of these rulings will force your clergy or your synagogue to allow or conduct same-gender marriages if they do not wish to do so. The rulings will not force your Jewish Day School to treat its religious teachings about same-gender couples any differently than it does now. Despite the fear-mongering of some religious people, these rulings do not, in any way, harm your freedom of religion.
Does this mean it’s time for proponents of same-gender marriage to relax? No. Although the Proposition 8 ruling allows same-gender marriage to resume in California, there are still about three dozen states in which same-gender marriage is not allowed. We will not be able to rest until marriage equality is recognized in all states.
And, of course, the opponents of same-gender marriage will not rest, either. Whether they call heterosexual marriage “traditional” marriage, ignoring the centuries of polygamy that used to be the accepted as normal, or they call it “natural” marriage, implying there is something “unnatural” about people who God made lesbian or gay, they will continue to try to force their religious beliefs and definition of marriage onto others.
Now is the time to celebrate, but now is not the time to relax. Rather, it is the time to press forward in strength.
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June 19, 2013 | 7:59 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
It has been said that most of us believe newspaper reporting to be generally accurate, until we read an article on a subject with which we are intimately familiar. It is then that we see the inaccuracies and distortions of a story clearly. Such was my experience with a recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward titled, “Unlikely Radicals Take Aim at Corporate Jewish Burial Business.”
The inaccuracy begins with the title, and continues with the very first sentence, which boldly states, “The annual meeting of the Jewish death care radicals is no place for a funeral director.” The author is speaking about the 11th Annual Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference which I attended, and which is, unsurprisingly, a very appropriate and welcoming place for a funeral director.
A chevra kadisha is a group of people who use Jewish ritual, prayers and practices to watch over a dead person between death and burial; and to wash, spiritually purify, dress, and place a dead body in his or her coffin in preparation for burial. We work closely with funeral directors, mortuaries, and cemeteries. Most of us have an excellent partnership with the funeral directors with whom we work, and we have every intention of keeping it that way.
The author of this article was referring to one presentation by Rabbi Wasserman in a single workshop surrounded by a very full three-day conference covering a wide range of other issues. Michael Slater, the President of the Board of Kavod V’Nichum, which puts on the conference, tried to correct the record in the comments section of the Forward.com article, stating, “We support a vigorous debate, including the airing of positions such as Rabbi Wasserman’s. We do not advocate the wholesale dismantling of the funeral industry as organizational policy.”
Indeed, although this one short workshop presented one Rabbi’s adversarial experience with his local funeral directors, most of the conference addressed various topics which had nothing to do with radicalism or controversy, let alone our relationship with funeral directors.
For instance, there were workshops and presentations concerning topics such as a basic taharah (preparation of the body for burial) demonstration, difficult situations that may come up while doing taharah, how an autopsy or organ (and/or tissue and/or bone) donation impacts taharah, infection control, processing feelings after a taharah, taharah liturgy, how to ensure the long term financial health of cemeteries, and how to properly tie the special three-looped knots called for as part of the ritual dressing of the body.
Fortunately, if you skip the title of the article and the first several paragraphs, the author does finally transition, for a while anyway, into a more accurate description of the conference, before returning to his fixation on Rabbi Wasserman’s single presentation. So at least the article isn’t a total loss.
I guess it just goes to show that you need to take everything you read with a grain of salt. Reporters are often not experts in the subjects on which they must report, and there can be a lot of pressure on them to find any hint controversy they can to make the story appear more interesting to readers. It’s unfortunate when the result is a group of calm, caring people who donate their time and energy to do a mitzvah for which the recipient can never thank them being described as a bunch of adversarial radicals who “take aim” at the very people with whom they usually work so closely and harmoniously.
I encourage you to attend next year’s conference to see for yourself what it’s really all about.
June 12, 2013 | 5:00 pm
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Ok, so they’re all Jewish. But beyond that, all three spoke to a completely rapt audience on Monday at the 11th annual North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference in Philadelphia. It’s unusual, at any conference, for a speaker to completely capture the attention of the entire audience. To have three speakers do so in one day is remarkable. After this experience, I would imagine people might want to attend future such conferences just for the speakers, even if they have no interest in chevra kadisha work or Jewish cemeteries.
First, Blu Greenberg bravely told us about what it’s like to get the phone call no parent wants to get in the middle of the night: The one in which you are informed your child has just been in an accident. As if that weren’t bad enough, the accident happened in Israel, so she and her husband were unable to rush to their son’s bedside. Then the news turned worse, when their daughter informed them, “I think they’re going to ask us about organ donation.”
It’s a terrible decision to have to make under any circumstances. But she didn’t know what her son’s wishes were. And, unfortunately, the window of opportunity for organ donation is so short, she didn’t have time to investigate it. Moreover, because the death occurred in Israel on a Friday morning shortly before Yom Kippur, if he were kept on ventilation long enough for her and her husband to see him, by then his organs would no longer be viable for donation.
This story led to an enormously helpful discussion about organ donation practices, the current state of halachic rulings regarding donation, how a “do not resuscitate” order can interfere with the possibility of donation, other kinds of donations such as tissue and bone, and much more.
Next, Joy Ladin gave a talk entitled, “She Said I Know What It’s Like to be Dead,” after the Beatles song of the same name. In it, she spoke about what it’s like to be a female trapped in a male body, and how it made her feel dead and, at times, suicidal.
She described her attempt to live life as a man, and how she finally realized she could do so no longer. She teaches at Yeshiva University, and told us about some of the challenges she is facing as the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution (she earned tenure before she made her transition, making it difficult for the university to dismiss her).
Issues of gender identity and expression are important to the chevra kadisha community, because so much of what we do, including the prayers we use, the shrouds we use to dress a dead person, and the gender of people performing the taharah are all dependent on the gender of the dead person we are preparing for burial. The more we can understand about gender identities and expressions beyond the standard but inaccurate binary model, the more likely we will be prepared when this issue comes up in our own community, as it inevitably will.
Third, Leonard Fein gave a fascinating talk about the intricate interweaving of his life, that of his daughter, may her memory be a blessing, and others, in a series of vignettes which could either be taken as a series of coincidences or perhaps the workings of a higher power.
During the Q&A afterward, he was asked whether any Jewish rituals or practices had provided him with any comfort after the death of his daughter. He responded, “When a child dies, people come up to you and hug you, and they say, ‘That is the worst thing that could ever happen.’” He said he wanted to respond, sarcastically, “Oh, really?”
Then, he said, Rabbi Larry Kushner made a shiva call. He said Rabbi Kushner said “exactly what wants to be said: Tell me about your daughter.” This was an important lesson for all of us about what to say and what not to say at a shiva. Whether or not you do chaplaincy work, sooner or later this is the kind of advice you’re likely to need, because, sooner or later, we all need to make a shiva call.
As if these three speakers were not enough, they only represent a small portion of what went on at the conference. I expect I’ll be writing more about it in the coming weeks. This conference is one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had since the one they held last year. If it’s something you’ve ever considered attending, stop thinking about it. Next year, just go.
You can learn more about Kavod V’Nichum, the organization that puts on the conference, here.
June 5, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Recently, someone who is dear to me, and who I’ve known for over 30 years, shared a photo on Facebook with text which read, “You either have a God who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a God who simply watches and says ‘When you’re done I’m going to punish you.’ If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.”
The first thing that sprang to mind when I read this is, “No, that is not my God you are describing.” It is a common error made by atheists. When they describe the God they don’t believe in, they are describing a God I, and many other religious people, don’t believe in, either. The fact that they think we do believe in their imagined version of God shows they don’t acknowledge the diversity of religious thought.
The second thing that strikes me about this statement is the aggression used in the phrase, “a God who sends child rapists.” The point could have been made equally well without insinuating that God not only allows child rapists to exist, but has an active role in making them rape children.
One of the things I love about the person who posted this image and text on Facebook is we are able to discuss our differences of belief in a respectful manner. I think this may be possible, in part, because I neither try nor expect to convert her to become religious, and I don’t feel like she tries or expects to convert me to become non-religious. We do, however, try to see things from each other’s point of view.
I responded to the post by saying, “God gives us free will. Sometimes we do terrible things with it.” This is the crux of the matter.
The best way I’ve ever heard it stated is there are three things people want to believe when they believe in God: God is good, God is all knowing, and God is all powerful. But if all three of these things are true, then how can child rapists (and a myriad of other ills in this world) exist?
The answer is, God cannot be all three at once. In order to reconcile your belief in God with what you see in the world around you, you have to pick no more than two. I believe God is all knowing and God is good, but God is not all-powerful.
I believe God gave us free will. In order to do that, God had to limit God’s own power. God had to say, “No matter what these people do, I will not and cannot make them do anything, nor stop them from doing anything. Otherwise, I will rob them of the gift of free will.”
Tornadoes are not acts of God, they are acts of nature. Rape is not an act of God, it is an act of a human being. Why did God create a world in which tornadoes can happen, and in which some people have the desire to rape other people? I don’t know. Maybe God had a choice between creating an imperfect world or no world at all. Maybe God wanted us to be a partner in creating a better world.
I believe God gave us not only free will, but also the minds and bodies with which we can repair the world. We can build shelter from tornadoes. We can catch and punish rapists. Perhaps, some day, we can even identify what is going on in the minds of potential rapists and find a way to cure them.
The next question is, “If God isn’t all powerful, why pray to God? Can God answer your prayers if God is not all-powerful?”
My response is yes, God can answer our prayers. God will not answer your prayer, however, by making your boss give you a raise, or killing a rapist, or curing you of cancer. God can, however, answer your prayers by giving you the strength and courage to go on. God can answer your prayers by giving you comfort in your time of need.
And God can, I believe, give us hints about what is best for us. When an atheist listens to that still, small voice inside that tells them the difference between right and wrong, it may be that person’s own moral compass speaking. Or, it may be God.
This may not be the all-powerful God many atheists don’t believe in. But it is the God that feels true to me.