Friday, April 08, 2016

Healthcare & Health Inc.

Earlier in the week, I called my mother, and when I told her I was experiencing stress due to two large papers and an upcoming exam, she reminded me - in the most Jewish-motherly way possible - to take my B-vitamins. Whenever experience emotional valleys or points of high stress, anxiety, or tension, her answer remains the same; the key to serenity, inner peace, balance, and what have you lies in the B-vitamins. Per usual, my skepticism prevailed that a tablet could suddenly make the forthcoming workload that much easier, but in the last fourteen days, I took my vitamins  three times, a record high since leaving the house.
In this week’s Torah portion, God assigns a medical role to the Levite priesthood. He demands of Aaron and the other priests to examine the skin of the Israelites on occasion. Under several conditions, skin with hair, paleness, redness, or other discoloration deems a person as someone suffering from leprosy and, thereby, unclean In addition, God proclaims women unclean for the first week directly after entering labor and delivering a newborn. The Torah prescribes that these unclean specimens separate themselves from the group until they are “clean”, and they must offer a subsequent sacrifice before the priests to regain a purified status.
This portion prompted thought about God’s right over human bodies.While as a practical matter these laws probably related more to how to survive in close quarters in a time preceding modern medicine, their modern conation asserts God’s authority over the human body in a way that classifies it as pure or impure, clean or unclean. Does an artist have a say in the conditions of his or her pieces after selling the works to a gallery? In particular, the Torah asserts that a female in the midst of one of the most joyous moments of her life, the birth of her own flesh and blood, is impure.
I always pushed back on my mother’s claims about vitamins and supplements. Prior to taking the vitamins, I identified zero major deficits in my physical and mental conditions. The entire industry seemed excessive, going beyond what was necessary for my intact survival. Just last week, I picked up a number for the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler in Washington, DC at the Washington Health & Fitness Expo, and among the vendors with the latest creams, apparel, and gadgets for the ultimate “fitness” experience, I questioned the meaning healthfulness. In a similar mindset as reading Parashat Tazria, I asked myself, “Who profits from my state of ‘well-being’? Who sets the rules for when my body is at its most optimal condition” In other words, I refused to allow some vendors to define cleanliness or uncleanliness.
Of course, while reading this post, she is probably already preparing a counterclaim about the “science” behind her advice and the industry as a whole. Granted, modern medicine presents many benefits to the whole of humankind. Manufactured and monetized medicine, on the contrary, directly contradicts how this Torah portion functions in a modern Jewish context. Regardless of the degree of observation, Jews in the twenty-first century do not visit a local rabbi for a leprosy diagnosis or for oversight of a sacrifice to reconcile this condition’s uncleanness. This portion, then, speaks more about collective concern than the literal medical context.
In times of emotional or physical change, we are marked in some way. Our moods, faces, vital signs, and bodies adapt to our health status, and as a community, when we recognize these signs of fluctuation, we can classify disease as a personal or collective matter. Judaism, though, demands that the highest leaders, the ones most closely connected to God’s Holy of Holies, manage these affairs. Transitively, when someone is “marked”, the Torah portion claims that we take note of these conditions, bringing God’s presence into distressed lives. As a community, we do not treat one another by selling prescriptions, referrals, and endless tests that wrack up deductible payments. Rather,  we see one another in a true sense of disarray, and like the Levites’ oversight of the sacrifices, we manage one another’s affairs to return to a more wholesome state. The health and fitness expo so jarringly made apparent the motivations of certain members of the healthcare industry; those vendors wanted to make a profit by the day’s end, constructing problems that did not previously exist in the minds of their customers, or dare I say, prey. Judaism, in a very different way, via this portion about leprosy and about cleanliness, demands that bubbe offer to make matzah ball soup or that we shlepp one another to the doctor.

Well-being is not something that can Jewishly be conceived as pennies, dollars, and dimes. Cleanliness in the community calls Jews together; God’s authority over our bodies exists as our shared responsibility for one another’s condition. Whether or not my mother’s field recognizes the difference between healthCARE and health INC., I recognize that when she so urgently stresses me, as her son, to take my B-vitamins, she is living Jewishly, for that incessant suggestion comes from a place of love, empathy, and hope for her role in my personal reparation. Building off the example of our relationship, we need to reexamine how we take care of one another and ourselves. Before we enter the vast network of this cream or that study, let’s check one another for “signs of leprosy”.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Going Beyond The Wall

            And the women dancing with their timbrels followed Miriam as she sang her song. Even in Judaism’s very distant past, women have played a critical part in making the spiritual experience livelier and more meaningful. This week, an important decision by the Israeli cabinet made it so that spark, that massive contribution, could be brought to Judaism’s Holiest Site. On a literal level, the government decided to create a third egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in addition to the separate men and women’s sections, creating the Kotel’s first gender inclusive, non-binary space. Symbolically, though, the decision could pose a paradigm shift for Israeli politics, breaking ground for pluralism in a Jewish state with religious policy currently set by a dogmatic elite. Then again, the new prayer could have no ripple effect; the Original Women of the Wall, a splinter group of the primary activists involved in this process, cited that the Kotel can not be an open egalitarian space if the whole area remains under Orthodox rather than egalitarian management.
            Pluralistic communities, though, are non-exclusionary by nature. Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of Israeli society is that a shift in policy around religious issues would not impede the Orthodox way of life, yet literalist and hyper-observant, hyper-traditional interpretation of Jewish law via the Israeli government significantly impacts Jewish secular life in Israel. From marriage to the rabbinate to school curriculum, Israeli policy creates an environment where only strict Orthodoxy can survive. When I envision an ideal Israel, one that establishes balance between a Jewish and democratic state, I imagine a country that protects Jewish law and custom while remaining open to the traditions of all Jews and all peoples. It would be a society in which the courts protect not only religious life but also religious freedom.

            Moving forward from this symbolic moment, Jews from around the world must continue to put pressure on a government caught between democracy and theocracy.  The Women of the Wall cited the pressure that American Jews and other large Jewish populations put on the Israeli government as a primary factor in the policy change. Bearing this result in mind, we need to resolve to enhance the pluralistic character of the Israeli state; it will require more than a village to move through the seas to freedom. For every Jew – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or secular, every Arab, every Bedouin, every African refugee, and every person who lives in Israel (and Palestine), we must organize to reach that brighter moment of tolerance and of true protect of Jewish and all human rights. Being a chosen people means using our privileges to bring reparation to a broken world not perpetuate its unequal character.  Only then can we gather our instruments along the Red Sea and rejoice as Miriam once did.

Friday, January 15, 2016

How Meaningless Lives Have the Most Purpose

            Moses Maimonides raises a fair question about this week’s Torah portion in “The Eights Chapters” in his Commentary on the Mishnah. In Parashat Bo’, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, rendering it impossible for Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites with the coming of locusts, darkness, and warning of the death of the first born. With each plague’s occurrence, Pharaoh appears willing to free the Israelites, but God prevents him from choosing to do so, ensuring that the Egyptians will know the futility of their gods and the might of Adonai. Maimonides, though, questions how God could justly punish Pharaoh in the absence of free will. It raises the overall question of our existence, our relationship to suffering, and the overall arbitrary nature of life.
            Now, my thoughts on this matter are still developing. On some days, I find myself bombarded with bursts of existential crises, questioning what it means to be alive and cope with hardship amidst glimpses of joy or long periods of distraction, and although this idea sounds bleak, my process this week has been to imagine how to make the most of a possibly futile life. In this case, we must accept that our existence is limited and that due to this mortal character coupled with our ability to live freely, we will always compete with one another for survival, inadvertently or purposefully causing human suffering. In contrast, dealing with this relationship paradoxically produces what is most special about human existence; life would almost certainly be devoid of purpose unless we exercise our humanity as a response to man-made cruelty, creating music, art, literature, and community. God, in whatever sense – abstract or literal – watches over a most perfect universe, but the way to make this universe most perfect was to constrain it in a way that creates imperfection.
            Every human deals with our swarms of locusts (for college students, like myself, locusts=exams), our periods of darkness, and loss of other human life.  Unlike Pharaoh, though, we exist in a way that allows for choice in the midst of hardship. Why live at all if we are connected in a web of suffering and mortality? The third predominant strand in this web, free will, allows us to react to one another’s actions, as much as it causes them. If life has no quintessential meaning or if suffering is fixed in the universe’s design, then choosing to serve one another creates purpose. Developing communities empowers us to find meaning in a place where meaning may not certainly exist, and Judaism teaches us that we are always continuing the work of creation.  We may not know why we are here, but God does not harden our hearts so that we can accomplish and formulate anything in the midst of this discovery, even among locusts or other adverse conditions.