Depression and Jewish Tradition

Image: A somber landscape with rocks, trees, and ponds. (FrankWinkler/Pixabay)

Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world. Nevertheless one should not pursue the state of sadness, since it is a physical disease. When a person is despondent, he is not able to serve his Creator properly. – Yonah ben Avraham Girondi (1200-1263)

Jews have known for centuries that depression is an illness, not a moral flaw. In the 13th century, this great Jewish ethical teacher was unequivocal: “it is a physical disease.” He understood that it interferes with one’s most basic functioning. (I am talking about clinical depression, as I suspect the rabbi was, more than a mere “bad day.”)

One of the things that often happens when a person is depressed is that they fall behind on tasks. It is difficult to focus, and they miss deadlines. Then, having fallen behind, shame enters the picture: “Not only am I depressed, I am a rotten person.” Thus the pain of depression snowballs into an avalanche of the spirit.

It is miserable to grow depressed over one’s depression.

The first thing to know is that science has proven Rabbi Yonah right: Depression is a physical disease. When we are depressed, connections are not being made properly in our nervous system. This is no more a moral failure than any other illness.

When I have struggled with depression, I have not been able to “snap out of it” or pray my way out of it. What does help is understanding that my brain does this sometimes, and it is not the end of the world. What helps is taking my meds, talking to a therapist, and knowing that this, too, will pass.

If you are reading this because you are currently suffering, or because someone you love is currently suffering from depression, know that the situation is not hopeless. Know, too, that you are not alone. This is an illness that has plagued humanity since ancient times. Fortunately help is available! Reach out, or ask someone to reach out on your behalf. You are not bad, you are suffering, and you deserve care.


Cleaning Up My Keyboard

Image: Woman cleaning a keyboard. (via shutterstock, all rights reserved)

I have lately realized I have a problem: I have some bad language habits. I use ableist language.

Ableist language is language that stigmatizes people with disabilities. They are lazy words that lean on some old, bad tropes to get the job done. I am determined to break these bad habits. One way of doing that is to make a list of words I’m going to quit using and commit to it publicly. I am capable of finding better words.

These are lazy words that lean on some old, bad tropes to get the job done:

Crazy – The problem with “crazy” is that it uses people with mental illness as a metaphor for something that I don’t like, disapprove of, or – occasionally – that I like. Either way, there are better choices.

Insane – Another one of those metaphors-gone-wrong.

Lame – “Lame” always means something bad or insufficient. People with mobility disabilities are neither.

Cretin – Oh, I used to love this word! Then I found out that it was a really ugly slur about people with mental disabilities. Oops.

Idiot / Idiotic – Another one I have used a lot, and I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I know better.

Blind – as in “That politician is blind to the truth.” – Yep, a metaphor. But it backfires and makes something bad out of literal blindness. I can do better.

Dumb – Originally it meant “unable to speak” but quickly came to mean “not very intelligent.” Now using this word is just… unoriginal. (See, I can learn.)

What ableist language do you use? If you are brave and want to do an inventory, take a look at this post from Autistic Hoya. Or you can ask yourself – does a word I use refer to a disability? Can I think of another word that will convey my meaning without using an innocent person’s life for a negative metaphor?

If you think this is all “politically correct nonsense,” imagine for a moment that some fact about you – say, the color of your eyes – has suddenly come into common use as a slur:

  • That idea is positively blue-eyed!
  • Ugh, she’s such a straight-hair!
  • Oy! If I have to listen to one more quote from that freckled commentator!
  • What’s the matter with you? Have you suddenly become brunette?

Jewish tradition teaches us that words are powerful. They create realities.

Let’s create some better realities – according to Genesis, it may be as simple as watching our words.


Your Money or Your Life – Why the AHCA is Contrary to Torah

Image: President Trump meets with lawmakers at the White House in March, 2017, to discuss replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Public Domain.

I was in a hospital bed when I heard the news that the so-called American Health Care Act had passed in the House of Representatives.  I had nothing to do but read, so I read everything I could about it.  Here’s what I know for sure:

  1. We don’t know exactly how many people will be affected, and neither do the people who voted for the bill. Speaker Ryan saw fit to push the bill through before it could be scored by the Congressional Budget Office.  What we do know is that an earlier version of the bill would have reduced the number of people with health coverage by 14 million in 2018, 21 million in 2020, and 24 million in 2026. That version of the bill was rejected by the super-conservative Freedom Caucus representatives as being “too liberal.” It seems fair to expect that this bill will negatively affect at least as many people.
  2. If a person doesn’t have health insurance, their ability to get medical care except for emergency room care is practically nil.  I have done the research on this myself. Back in the bad old days before I could marry Linda, back when I was on my own for health insurance, I often couldn’t get health insurance because I had pre-existing conditions. When I called a doctor’s office and said I would pay cash, that didn’t matter – they wouldn’t take me unless I had health insurance. I can understand that – what is the doctor supposed to do if I turn out to have something serious, something I can’t pay for out of pocket?
  3. It is true that if a person doesn’t have health insurance, they will be seen in the emergency room. However, all the hospital is responsible to do is to stabilize the person who lacks health insurance. ER care is the most expensive care there is, so ER’s can’t absorb the cost of non-life-threatening illness. Which brings me to the last thing:
  4. Bad health insurance coverage affects everyone, not just the person stuck with the lousy policy. In 2013, before “Obamacare,” medical bills were the biggest cause of bankruptcies in the United States. The most affordable health insurance policies had such high deductibles and covered so few things that even people with policies wound up in bankruptcy. Bankruptcy means that someone is broke, but it also means that many of the people they owe money to will never be paid. Also, who pays for people to go to the ER if they don’t have health insurance? Those expenses wind up driving up health care costs for everyone.

Was Obamacare, more properly called the Affordable Care Act, the answer? The ACA had a lot of problems, just as Medicare had a lot of problems when it first passed in the 1960’s. It needed improvements. But simply taking care away from people isn’t the answer.

However, none of this is the WORST thing about the American Health Care Act. Obamacare raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to provide healthcare for millions of Americans; the AHCA reverses that. It provides a huge tax cut to high-income Americans by providing less health care to people with pre-existing conditions. It penalizes sick people to put money in other people’s pockets. (Full disclosure: I’m probably one of the people would will get a tax cut under this bill.)

There are those who say that this is “being realistic.” I say it is a sin, the worst sort of sin. It says that some lives simply aren’t worth the bucks, specifically aren’t worth an extra couple of thousand in the pocket of a person who already has a lot. It says that other lives are worth the bucks because their family has disposable income. It values lives according to their bank accounts.

Jewish tradition teaches us that almost nothing is more important than saving a life. Specifically, the only higher commandments than saving a life are the commandments against murder, incest, or idolatry. 

I say it is idolatry when we take away health care to line the pockets of the wealthy. I don’t like paying taxes any more than the next person, but Judaism teaches me that I may not make an idol of anything, including money. I may not value it over human life, even the life of a person I don’t like, or disapprove of, or even someone who has hurt me.

This evil bill, the American Health Care Act, is not yet law. It still has to go through the Senate, where God willing it will be stopped. I believe I have a moral obligation to fight it with every power at my disposal: to write letters, to make phone calls, to make it clear to the senators that I do not want a tax cut that will kill people.

Despite the popular fantasy that all illness is avoidable, much illness is NOT avoidable. Bad things happen to good people. The AHCA is murder for hire: in its present form, people will die from it so that others can have a tax cut. Jewishly speaking, that is evil.

What is Wrong with You, Atlanta?

Image: On my way to the CCAR Convention in Chicago a few years ago. Photo: Linda Burnett

I’m on the road again this week, traveling to Atlanta for the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention. So far, it’s been another disability adventure, and a definite mixed bag.

Travel here was mostly uneventful. I’ve gotten pretty good at my airline routine. The biggest challenge is remembering to ask for help. The temptation is to ask for nothing, but that’s a good way to hurt myself, so I ask for help.

I arrived, as I usually do, a day ahead to scout things out. I find that it’s a good plan to do that because I am on wheels and some research can make my working days here much more productive.

I registered a bit too late to be in the convention hotel, so I’m in a different hotel in the same neighborhood. I’m not going to name the hotel, since I’m still in negotiations with them about some things they need to improve, but I assure you it is not the Cheapo Hotel. It’s expensive, as is my room which is officially “accessible” but in reality is “manageable with humor and persistence.”

First on my “need to improve” list is the most accessible entrance to the hotel, the one I will have to use coming in from the street at night. It is set up to use with my room key card – safety, right? – only the door is set in such a way that by the time I swipe the card and grab the door handle, the door is already locked again. I can’t do it two-handed, because I have to keep one hand on the scooter. This afternoon, I got in when a helpful man grabbed the door for me. The only other entrance is up a steep drive way to the door, which looks like a good way to get killed. The front desk and I are having a conversation about it.

I’m in a very famous, fru-fru neighborhood of Atlanta, and I am a little amazed at how UNfriendly the eating establishments seem to be to disabled customers. I went in two different places for lunch today only to be initially greeted, told to wait, and then ignored until I went away. In every place I’ve entered, doors have been heavy with no handicap button in sight. I finally went into a little chain sub shop called Jimmy John’s and they were friendly, helpful, and had vegetarian food, God bless them. I suspect I’m going to get to know them well this week.

This is ridiculous, folks. Atlanta is a major American city. There is a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed way back in 1990. My money is green. What is your problem, Atlanta?

If you are new to disability issues, perhaps you are thinking, “It so terrible to need a little help?” Here’s the problem: the man who helped me get back in my hotel today could have followed me inside to the abandoned lower lobby and mugged me, or worse. The not-so-nice young women who ignored me at supposedly “nice” restaurants did not respond to my appeals for a table. They just looked vaguely in another direction until I went away. I could, I suppose, have demanded the manager, but I ask you: would you eat at a place where you had to demand to speak to the manager even before you got to a table?

I’m pretty crabby right now. On the other hand, tomorrow I see friends and start the learning and networking that I came to do. Tomorrow is another day.





A Refuah for the Rabbi

Image: Rabbis Jacqueline Mates-Muchin and Ruth Adar carry Torahs for Hakafah. Photo by Linda Burnett. All rights reserved. A “Refuah” is a healing.

This past Friday night I had the pleasure of co-leading the Shabbat service at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. The occasion was our Access Shabbat celebrating Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month. The Access Committee encouraged me to lead the service from my mobility scooter, feeling that it would be a powerful statement for inclusion.

It was, indeed, and a powerful personal experience for me. I am primarily a teaching rabbi; I haven’t regularly led services since 2013. A big part of the reason for that is that standing has caused me excruciating pain for years. As a rabbinical student and then as a “baby” rabbi in my first pulpit, I chose to hide the pain and simply endure it during services which sometimes lasted hours. I’d finish a service drenched in sweat, trembling and barely able to think. As a result, I dreaded leading services and stopped doing it when my body could no longer pretend.

I did not know that Rabbi Mates-Muchin had planned a Hakafah (procession with the Torah) in celebration of a year with our new Torah scroll.  I could hardly believe it when she handed me the sefer Torah; I wept as I carried it around the congregation. I had not held a Torah scroll in years, since I couldn’t climb the stairs to the aron [cabinet] where it is kept and could not lift it down, much less walk with it.

So in addition to a public statement, leading this service was a private healing for me. I hugged the Torah and shared it with the congregation – a physical metaphor for my life’s work. The scooter did not detract from it in any way; instead, it made the moment possible.

There is no rule against leading a service on wheels. In a Reform congregation, the electricity for the scooter is not an issue. I had been my own oppressor, trying to hide my disability because I feared discrimination.

That night, with the Torah in my arms, singing with the congregation, I felt healed and whole.

Blow Up Your Assumptions!

February is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, one month a year when we focus attention on Jews with disabilities and access to Jewish institutions. My friend and teacher Neil Jacobson has put together a playlist of videos for enjoyment and education. As far as I know, none of the video stars below are Jewish, but they raise questions about the limitations we put on our communities when we shut out persons with disabilities.

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, we read:

 .וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי

And God saw everything that God had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

God created us in God’s image, and all of creation was טוֹב מְאֹד, very good, in the beginning. Who are we to devalue the creations of God?

Wheelz in the Air: Hitting the Skatepark on a Wheelchair: Watch this young man for a minute and he will mess with every assumption you might have about life in a wheelchair.


Guy Who Parked His Car In Handicapped Parking Space Gets What He Deserved: Made me want to start carrying a gross of post-its in my glove box.


When Is It Okay to Say the R-Word? An articulate young man with Down’s Syndrome breaks it down for us.


AXIS on SYTYCD 2011- Changing the Face of Dance and Disability: Beautiful. I want to see more from this dance duo.


Why My Gray Hairs Make Me Happy ***Be That Person***: The Stay-at-Home Chef Rachel Farnsworth offers a recipe that may have surprised her fans. (By the way, the recipes on her blog are really good – I didn’t know about her before but I think I have just become a fan, myself.)


So there you have it: some great short videos to blow up some assumptions and enrich your life. Happy Jewish Disability Awareness Month!

Women’s March, Oakland

Image: Family photo at the Oakland Women’s March. Linda, Marisa and I are center; Jim is the guy in the sunglasses taking the selfie. Photo by Jimbo Scott, all rights reserved.

The March would officially begin at 11. At 9:30, the the Jews of the SF East Bay began to gather at a tiny Chinatown park by the Lake Merritt BART station in Oakland, and at 10 we began singing. At 10:30, with wall-to-wall humanity surrounding us, we began a short Shabbat service. Rabbis David Cooper, Steven Chester, and I led prayers.

Jews rarely go out to do political things on the Sabbath. I am not sure how many Jews were there, but we were there in force (at least 200 from Temple Sinai, Oakland, plus Kehilla Congregation and Congregation Beth El Berkeley, and maybe more.)

Early on, I was anxious about safety: my own safety, on a tiny scooter in a big crowd, and the safety of everyone marching with Temple Sinai.

My scooter-eye view

Gradually my anxiety lifted, as people kept pouring out of the BART stations, from the buses, from everywhere. The small park in Chinatown where we’d been told to gather was a mass of humanity. Total strangers greeted each other like old friends. We were all so tired of being alone with our TVs and computers, so glad to find out that we were not really alone.

My mood and the mood of the crowd was warm, almost joyful. We were standing together after the last few weeks of transition to an Administration that alternately shocked and confused us.We held downtown Oakland in the embrace of an absolute gridlock of bodies. The age range ran from the seventies (at least) to infants in strollers. One very old lady smiled and waved down on us from a Chinatown apartment, showing us “V for victory” with her fingers.

Linda and I were together on scooters, and our son Jim and his wife Marisa joined us. I thought about all the times I’d gone to peaceful demonstrations of one kind or another holding tightly to his hand; now he and Marisa were watching over us two aging boomers: sweet role reversal. They were kind enough not to mention that they were looking after us.

Eventually the crowd began to move, slowly. No one was upset or angry; we were all happy to be together. The March was marching! By 3pm, police were suggesting detour routes to those who were getting tired. One cop said that he estimated the crowd at 100,000. There was no violence at all.

A gentle rain fell. I don’t know how many made it to City Hall for the rally, but many of us dispersed as gently as the rain. We’d made our point.

Some great signs today:

Cheerful marchers, serious messages. (Photo Ann Thomas Seitz)

“Paul Ryan Health Care Plan: Die already, and hurry up about it.”

“Not My President”

“This is NOT a DRILL”

“Sing for our Rights”

“It’s Not a Hot Flash, It’s Climate Change”

“Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue”

“Freedom and Justice for All.”

“Nurse Practitioners against Trump: Leave Pussy Grabbing to the Professionals”

All day I kept thinking about the Holly Near song, “We Are A Gentle Angry People:”