Reframing Privilege

December 24, 2013

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 


Shave for the Brave: My Pledge

December 14, 2013
Sammy Sommers z"l

Sammy Sommers z”l

When someone dies, we say, “May his (or her) memory be for a blessing.” Sometimes we mean that we hope that the family and friends will be comforted by good memories, that the person will be long remembered, and so on. But it can mean a lot more than that.

“May his memory be for a blessing” can mean “May he leave a legacy of blessing.” In Jewish terms, that might be the very best thing that you can wish for a person, that long after they are gone, the goodness of their lives will go on doing good in the world.

A little boy died this past Saturday morning. He was only 8. He had a short life, and there were many things he never got to do. The unfairness and the sadness of it is heartbreaking. Sammy Sommers‘ life was cut short by leukemia and he will never … I can’t bear to make the list, but make it for yourself. What good things have happened to you since you were eight years old?

Sammy leaves a legacy of love already – his sweetness and that of his family have touched a lot of people. But some of us who are heartbroken for him and for his parents would like to do more. We’d like to leave a legacy to bless all the other Sammies, children who will be diagnosed with one of these terrible diseases and who face a limited set of treatment options. We want to raise at least $180,000 for research to give them more and better treatment options.

I’ve already posted once about this: I’m one of 36 rabbis who will shave our heads on March 31 to raise money for pediatric cancer research in Sammy’s memory.  Our joint goal is $180,000. My personal goal is 1/36 of that, $5,000.

My total has been stuck at $878 for a few days. I’m very grateful to those who have donated thus far, but I intend to make my goal, so I’m saying here and now: I will shave my head March 31, and I will not let it grow back until I have raised $5,000.  

So now, take your mouse, CLICK ON THIS LINK and donate $5, or $10, or $50, or $100 to pediatric cancer research through St. Baldrick’s. If you don’t have a credit card, don’t worry, they’ll take a check. If you really can’t afford $5, or if you’d like to do more than donate, pass this link along to someone else. But please, do something.

Too many children die of cancer. Too many families suffer as the Sommers family is suffering. We can do something about this, in Sammy’s memory.

Please.


Making A Sacred Connection

December 5, 2013
Conversation

Conversation (Photo credit: Rohit Rath)

Judaism teaches us that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We strive to honor that spark of the Divine in every person, but that is not usually instinctive. It requires learning.

The philosopher and theologian Martin Buber taught that God is present between two human beings when we make what he called the “I-Thou” connection, a real and sacred awareness between two people, a true sharing and meeting of the souls. This can only happen when we are open to the other, when we are aware of each other without objectification or distance. It is a truly sacred moment.

I would like to introduce my readers to a remarkable young woman who is willing to teach us how to communicate and connect with a person with aphasia, damage to the part of the brain involved in language. I first heard of Laura Cobb because I went to high school with her mother: a photo of Laura riding her tricycle as a very little girl was on my refrigerator for years. Laura was hit by a drunk driver in September 2008, was in a coma for three weeks, suffered a stroke, and now has aphasia. She is a highly intelligent 27 year old with a lively sense of humor.

The aphasia has presented her with challenges in conversation with both friends and strangers. Laura took the remarkable step of creating a video to assist the rest of us in learning how to communicate effectively with people with aphasia. That video has gone viral, because it’s very, very good.

If you’d like to learn how to speak and how to listen to someone with aphasia, here is the video, in the context of a Huffington Post article about Laura. Much of what she suggests is also helpful for speaking with persons who have auditory processing difficulties and other language issues as well. If you are trying to talk with someone, and you get the feeling that language is a barrier, these are things to try.

This is a video that teaches important Torah, the art of connecting with another human being. Enjoy.


First Night, First Light!

November 27, 2013

Tonight is my favorite night of Chanukah: the first night, when two little candles shine in the dark.

We light the first, the shamash (SHA-mash) “helper” candle, then use it to light the first of the eight candles of the festival. The two are almost silly looking, standing up tall and proud in an almost-empty menorah.

Every year, those little candles inspire me. They stand up bravely, lighting up the night, holding up the hope for brighter nights to come. They don’t apologize for standing almost alone.

They remind me of the people who stand up for what is right, long before it is popular to do so. They shine their light regardless of who is looking or who might laugh. They shine and shine until their wax is gone and they sputter out. And then the next night – a miracle! – we light again, and there will be THREE candles standing against the dark.

Let us all be brave as those candles of the first night: Shine your light no matter who shines with you. Stand tall and be proud to stand, no matter how dark the night.


The Lovely Lights of Shabbat

November 21, 2013
English: Silver candlesticks used for candle-l...

Silver candlesticks used for candle-lighting on the eve of Shabbat and Jewish holidays (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I went to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner. She asked all of us to bring our candlesticks and candles with us, and as the sun sank in the sky, we lined them up on the dinner table and lit them! It was a beautiful display.

Every set of candlesticks had a story. Some of the stories were simple: “These were my mother’s,” and some were long and involved. Some came from Israel, some from Walgreens. One set came from eBay. Some were very fancy (the ones from eBay were silver and pre-war Polish) and some simple (one set had been made in religious school by a now-grown child).

I’ve lit Shabbat candles in lots of places. I’ve scrunched up aluminum foil for “candlesticks,” or lit tea lights, and when I was a chaplain in a nursing home, we had electric lights. There’s nothing quite like the glow of a real candle, but even the little electric lights said “Shabbat” to us.

As we look forward to lighting the Chanukah candles, let’s pause to enjoy our Shabbat candles this week. Chanukah is fun, but it only comes once a year. The faithful little flames of Shabbat are there for us week after week, bringing comfort and joy.

May your Shabbat be a time of true rest, before the razzle-dazzle of Chanukah and the preparation of the Thanksgiving feast.


What Makes Wine Kosher?

November 15, 2013
This image shows a red wine glass.

Kosher or not? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Periodically I will hear someone say that a food is kosher because “a rabbi said a prayer over it.” Not true. Kashrut is a complex topic, so I’ll tackle in it manageable “bites.”

Since Shabbat is coming, let’s start with wine.

  • Kosher wine is wine that has been produced and handled only by Sabbath-observing Jews, and for which all ingredients were also kosher.
  • You can tell if wine is kosher by looking for the hecksher (rabbinical mark) on the label.
  • The rules for kosher wine go back to ancient times, when wine was used to worship idols. To avoid wine that has been tainted by idol worship, kosher wine must be handled only by observant Jews. This includes the servers who pour the wine.
  • Wine has an important role in many Jewish celebrations, including welcoming Shabbat, making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, kiddush for holidays, brit milah (circumcision) and weddings.
  • Not all kosher wines taste “like cough syrup.” Some labels are now producing wines that can compare favorably with non-kosher wines on the market.
  • Some people like the sweet wines like Manischewitz.

For more information about kosher wine, check out this article from the Kosher Wine Society.


Nine Basic Facts about Tzedakah

November 6, 2013
English: Charity pouch

Small purse for coins to be used for tzedakah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you Googled “tzedakah” today you got about 598,000 results, topped by a l-o-n-g Wikipedia entry. Here are eight basic facts about tzedakah:

  • Tzedakah (tzeh-dah-KAH or tzeh-DAH-kah) is the Jewish word closest to “charity.”
  • The word tzedakah is one of a group of Hebrew words related to the idea of “justice.”
  • Strictly speaking, tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or injustice.
  • Tzedakah usually refers to monetary gifts, but can also refer to other kinds of contributions.
  • Jews are commanded to give tzedakah for the benefit of the poor, the sick, and those who have suffered an injustice.
  • More broadly, people use the word tzedakah to refer to money given for charitable causes.
  • Every Jew is commanded to give tzedakah, even those who are recipients of tzedakah.
  • It is customary to give tzedakah in memory of the dead, in honor of others, and before Shabbat and holidays.
  • The proper amount of tzedakah depends on the means of the giver. Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah that the ideal is 10% of income, and that more than 20% is foolhardy unless given in time of famine or to aid a captive. One should not give so much tzedakah that he puts himself at risk of needing to receive tzedakah from others.

For more about tzedakah, MyJewishLearning.com has a great article.

 

 

 

 


Jewish Blessings for Meals

September 24, 2013

The sanctification of ordinary life is a hallmark of Jewish living. “You shall be holy, as the Eternal your God is holy” begins the Holiness Code, the very heart of the Torah (Leviticus 19.)

So when we eat, we take an ordinary thing (eating) and turn it into something more, something sacred, by surrounding the act of eating with blessings.

First, we NOTICE: I’m going to eat dinner!

Then, we ACKNOWLEDGE by blessing: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Creator of Time & Space, who brings forth bread from the earth. We acknowledge that we are not the Bosses of Dinner: even if I cooked that dinner, I did not grind the flour, I did not grow the green beans, and I certainly didn’t give life to all the various components of the meal. By blessing I acknowledge that it is a miracle that the meal exists and that many human hands and perhaps animal lives went into making it. I acknowledge that this meal is a miracle.

Then we EAT. Yay!

Then we BLESS again. This time it is a long blessing called the Birkat Hamazon, It is a set of four blessings that we say because of the mitzvah (commandment) in Deuteronomy 8:10 “You will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless.” This time it is a thank you blessing, but it doesn’t stop with a private thanksgiving. It goes on to thank God for sustaining all creatures, for sustaining the Jewish People, asking that God sustain the Jews in the future (sort of a thanks-in-advance) and then a fourth blessings gives thanks for all the many happy relations between God and Israel.  Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, Memphis has made a very nice YouTube video you can watch below.


The Shovel and the Earth

September 23, 2013
Jewish Cemetery

Jewish Cemetery (Photo credit: elPadawan)

Today I officiated at a funeral. It is a mitzvah that I am both sad and honored to do, to help a family through a difficult transition.

Jewish funerals are simple, powerful rituals. We read a few psalms and passages from the Bible, we memorialize the person with a hesped [eulogy], we chant El Male Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and Kaddish.  We place the body of the person gently in the ground, usually in a plain wooden box, and we cover it up with earth.

The sound of the clods of earth falling on a casket are distinct and unforgettable. Even when the person in the grave is a relative stranger it is a sobering sound. It says, “This is final.”

Each mourner ladles three shovels full of earth into the grave.  They put the shovel back into the pile of fresh earth, and do not hand it to the next person. There are superstitions about this that mostly have to do with containing the “contagion” of death. Nowadays few people believe in a literal Angel of Death or that death is contagious, but they still avoid handing the shovel to another person, and in the shiva house, they cover the mirrors.

Sometimes people are shocked, when they hear that thus-and-so is “to keep the Angel of Death away.” But really, all these traditions are for making ritual so that people who feel lost will know what to do. Otherwise, how can anyone know what to do at such a time, except collapse and cry?

We tell stories about these things. It is always important to see the faces, to touch the hands, to be with people. The stories are just stories.

 


#BlogElul – Beginnings are Awkward

August 31, 2013
hebrew letter bet

Hebrew Letter Bet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

B’reisheet – “In the Beginning.” That’s the Hebrew name for the book of Genesis, the first word in the book. “Bet,” the letter at the very beginning, is a squat little letter. It began, we’re told by scholars, as a pictogram of a house.  All I can say is: lousy house. It was more of a sukkah than a house: three walls and an iffy roof.

Beginnings are like that. They are awkward and often half-formed. We dress them up with ceremonies like “Orientation” or “Opening Day” or “Prologue” but at some point, it’s just me and whatever it is I’m beginning to do, and I’m generally not very good at it. Getting good, or at least comfortable, will come (maybe) but beginnings are awkward.

There comes a point, during this month of mending our ways and adjusting our aim, that we have to begin something new. It might be a new behavior, or a new attitude, or a new mitzvah. It will probably not feel “natural” and it may be downright uncomfortable. If I have been accustomed to driving too fast, then driving the speed limit will feel awkward and slow. If I have acquired a habit of lying, or drinking too much alcohol, or gambling, I will probably find those things so difficult to change that I may need to ask for help.

Let’s not let the awkwardness of beginning stop us from growing into the best selves we can be. Like kids learning to ride their bikes, we’ll wobble and laugh nervously and fall over occasionally. That is OK. The important thing is to begin.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.

 


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