Kyle Payne update

Eleanor’s Trousers, the original breaker of this story to the blogging world at large, has an update on what is meant by an open sentencing in the state of Iowa from the woman who reported this story:

Some individuals who have commented to the various postings on Payne have stated that he is scheduled to have an “open sentencing” on Aug. 11 at the Buena Vista County Courthouse, and that anyone who attends will have an opportunity to speak. This is not totally correct.

An “open sentencing” in the state of Iowa means that the public can attend, but not that the public can speak. While it always looks good to have people show up in support of the prosecution — and I’d personally really like to see some strong support in the courtroom — the fact is that not everyone is going to be able to speak.

For those who have a unique interest in the case… for instance, have served as advocates or can somehow speak with authority as to how horrible Payne’s actions were… get in touch with me.

If you want to share your (civil) thoughts about this incident prior to sentencing, your best bet is to write to the judge that will preside over the sentencing:
District Court Judge Don E. Courtney
Buena Vista County Courthouse
215 E Fifth St.
Storm Lake, IA 50588

I’d encourage those with an interest to write a letter to the judge – civil and polite, as Ms. Waddington suggests.

(Thanks to Eleanor for the update.)

If Dignity Doesn’t Start With the Body, Then Where?

The Angry Black Woman wrote about a story where a surgeon is getting sued for putting a rub-on tattoo on the victim’s stomach (below the panty line, no less) while the victim was anesthetized. As the articlepoints out, for an operation on herniated discs, she would’ve been lying on her stomach, which meant that the surgeon had to flip her over to do it.

Back to karnythia at The Angry Black Woman, who makes many excellent points overall which definitely apply to the commentors of the original article who are shocked, shocked, that this woman would want to send a message to people who think this is OK, since the law leaves her little other recourse:

Somehow we’ve gotten stuck in this idea that a woman’s valuing of her body as a part of her self comes second because her first role is to belong to the world at large. Women who refuse to accept that paradigm and insist on being recognized as people first whether it be by yelling back at catcallers, refusing to let strangers touch them, or filing suit when they feel they’ve been violated are then castigated for having the temerity to think that they can dictate what happens to their bodies.

It boggles my mind that this has to be spelled out for people, but spelled out it is, and I’d like to add my agreement here – allowing for the inviolable right to self-determination, which we all are supposed to have here on this planet – starts with bodily autonomy. If we don’t have that, then we have nothing. This woman’s body, all people’s bodies, are theirs and theirs alone.

Of course, none of this is to say this surgeon is merely a sexist as many of the commenters seem to be: the fact that he’s done this before and remains fairly unapologetic points to some sociopathy as well – when your work involves essentially repairing a human body as a techonologist might re-solder some surface-mount ICs onto a damaged circuit board, dehumanization is pretty inevitable. The person’s unconscious, and in some surgeries, the heart is supposed to stop; the body becomes a task to complete, a damaged machine, not a real person. Perhaps the change needs to be made in medical ethics programs – not being a med student, I have no real knowledge of what many of these might entail, so it’s hard to say – or maybe we need to also stop enabling these kinds of behaviors because doctors are, after all, gods among men!

In summary, this is a problem of two parts – sexism in our society, specifically a lack of respect for bodily autonomy, coupled with enabling the behavior of those potential sociopaths with god complexes will allow these sorts of things to continue. While this person wasn’t physically harmed, that doesn’t make this behavior acceptable – such a person might, potentially, be motivated to take the behavior further when they stop seeing any ramifications as a consequence for their actions.

Why Heeb Sucks: The Swimsuit Edition

Okay, okay, maybe the title’s a bit harsh – I’ve only ever read one issue of Heeb. But their new marketing ploy – a pull-out calendar featuring “the six most beautiful Jewish women in the world” – does indeed suck.

My problem with a Jewish swimsuit calendar is the same as my problem with any swimsuit calendar: it presumes an entirely male audience (you could argue that it’s geared toward lesbians, too, but I don’t think the editors really thought about that) and reduces its female readers’ identities to objects to be enjoyed by that male audience. (I believe we feminists even have a word for that.) I don’t mind the enjoyment of others’ bodies in general – it’s just when a swimsuit calendar for a mixed-gender audience is completely female that we have a problem. Can you imagine the outcry if Heeb released a male swimsuit calendar? Or even a calendar with both men and women? “NO!” horrified heterosexual male readers would shriek. “GET IT AWAY! OBSCENE! UNCLEAN! I’M NOT GAY! WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS!? I’LL SUE! OH, LORD, HELP ME, I’M NOT GAAAAY!” Yet women are expected to accept it without question.

Has Heeb forgotten that it has female readers? Well, probably not. Did they decide that their female readers didn’t matter? Somehow, I doubt that, too. In a remarkable coincidence, KaeLyn has a new post up on Feministe about porn and feminism which touches on many of the same issues. In the thread, commenter shy points out that

So far, “feminist porn” seems to be about women reveling in the glory of their own bodies and sexuality. That’s great, and I’m glad they get off on it, and perhaps it’s inspiring to me in a “gee, I wish I was that comfortable with my own body” kind of way, but it’s not the same thing as being turned on. It’s more like “porn for feminist men” – along with “by women for women”, which still leaves me out.

As a mostly heterosexual woman, I feel that I have internalized the male gaze to the extent that now I am supposed to be (and sometimes am) turned on by naked women and expressions of female sexuality.

(Emphasis mine.)

That’s it. That’s exactly it. (I’m really glad I didn’t get around to blogging this until today.) Even heterosexual women are expected to be titillated solely by the male gaze. The concept of men as sexual objects – owners of bodies that can and should arouse – barely exists in popular consciousness. If heterosexual women want to experience sexuality, we’re forced to look at our own images and imagine what will happen to them as a consequence of our objectification.

On the Heeb thread, meanwhile, notoriousJ.A.P. (gotta love these hipsters) points out that, for a calendar supposedly dedicated to showcasing beautiful Jewish girls, the woman displayed on the page looks suspiciously Aryan. It’s true: perfect blonde hair, button nose, bronzed-yet-white skin. “If Heeb has selected six women who look like shiksas but happen to be Jewish,” she says, “it’s really not sending such a positive message.”

I’ll admit that I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, it is dismaying that Jewish looks still seem to fall outside of what’s acceptable; I’d be very surprised if any of the models had, say, a hooked nose or frizzy hair. Even the fact that those two adjectives have such negative connotations tells you a lot about how we view those body types.

On the other hand, I’m extremely wary of arguments over what constitutes being “Jewish enough.” Am I more Jewish than that model because I look a little more Jewish? Am I – and my looks – more authentic? Why? What does it even mean to look Jewish, when Jewishness crosses practically every racial and ethnic line imaginable? (Here’s a relevant anecdote: a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine said she’s always considered my hair blonde. It’s mostly brown, but it does lighten near the ends. I was surprised by how much her comment dismayed me. I don’t want blonde hair. I want to look Jewish, and blonde hair isn’t Jewish enough. Reader, I actually considered dying it before I came to my senses.)

Anyway, maybe someone who has seen the calendar can enlighten us on the looks of the other five models. (If I come across the magazine at a newsstand, I’ll look through it, but I don’t want to spend money on it.) Jill alerted me to this post by Sascha Elise Cohen, who makes another salient point about the calendar:

Ever notice that the porn industry loves the Catholic Schoolgirl but ignores her Hebrew Schoolgirl counterpart? And did you know that only one Miss America has ever been a Jewess? Never fear. The time has finally come for Jewish women to be objectified and fetishized just like spicy Latinas, ebony beauties, and exotic, fine-boned China dolls.

For decades the Jewish woman has found herself woefully deprived of being reduced to her sex appeal. Apparently, she was too busy complaining, spending other people’s money, and going to law school. For Jewish men–at least the ones on tv–cultural assimilation meant settling down with a bland-tempered, fair-haired shiksa (see Mad About You, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The War at Home). For women, it meant nose jobs and arm waxes. To add insult to injury, Barbie dolls come in nearly every shade of the ethnic rainbow, except Sephardic.

Hurray. Looks like we’ve arrived, eh, girls? We’re finally liberated enough to share everyone else’s oppression.

protocols and other matters

Get ready for fun times: Rachel Shukert of Jewcy is starting a biweekly column called The Protocols, which will examine internalized anti-Semitism among young Jews. “All of our mothers were right,” she explains.

My generation, we American Jews in our 20’s and 30’s, may have missed having taunts and dirt clods thrown at our heads as we waited for the school bus, but you don’t have to look very far to find our people held in general contempt. In fact, don’t look hard at all—just look in the comments section of any major internet blog that so much as mentions the State of Israel, the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg, or boiled chicken.

So welcome to The Protocols, named of course for the famous (and forged) Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or as I like to think of it, the book that started the international craze, the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone of twentieth century anti-Semitism. Here, I’ll strive to answer the important questions—not so much “Why do they hate us?” but “So what if they hate us?” I’ll look at how Jews have, for better and for worse, internalized the tenets of anti-Semitism and turned them inside out, how Jews judge other Jews, and what it means to be a self-hating Jew (as opposed to a Jewish self-hater.) I’ll examine anti-Semites through history, anti-Semites in the news, and once every few weeks or so, anti-Semites we love. (And yes, I’m taking recommendations.)

Funny that she mentions anti-Semitic comments on blogs, because – and this is so perfect that I almost can’t believe it’s authentic – the second comment in the thread is by a real live anti-Semite, claiming that the Zionists orchestrated World War II in order to facilitate the creation of Israel. IT’S ALL SO CLEAR TO ME NOW! The Jews were behind it all! And to think – we accomplished it with no collateral damage!

Quite honestly, do you know who I think was behind WWII? The Shriners. That’s right – I said it. You know you were thinking it. Those little cars? That constant insistence that “they’re” “helping” “children?” Isn’t it obvious? Next they’ll come after YOU.

Ahem. Anyway, the column should be interesting; the line between reclaiming anti-Semitic rhetoric and succumbing to it is often so blurry as to be nonexistent, and I think that’s a topic well worth exploring.

Meanwhile, Marco Greenberg at Haaretz has his own take on anti-Semitism in the States:

The truth is I think the overt kind of anti-Semitism is quite rare across the board in the U.S. There are a few factors that come into play to create this situation. Partly it is the more tolerant and multicultural times we live in; partly the largely urban geography of Jewish life – the historic and sizeable presence of Jewish communities in so many of the major U.S. cities; and partly because, frankly, in the age of Larry David, Adam Sandler and even Amy Winehouse, it’s cool to be a Jew.

It was a very different reality for the Russians in my IDF unit who were beaten up in the Red Army for no reason other than being born a Jew, or the Iranians and Ethiopians who walked hundreds of miles from oppression to freedom. Furthermore, if you’re looking for truly dangerous anti-Semites simply go look on the Web, and type in the search term ‘Jew’ or explore what the radical Islamic world is saying.

In America, the worse it usually gets is occasional and subtle ‘code’. In the case of this small town in Western Massachusetts, when people speak of ‘New Yorkers’, the meaning is usually clear: Jews. In other areas, it might be adjectives like ‘aggressive’ or ‘loud’. Is the implicit code for other minorities, e.g. African Americans as ‘urban’, or Hispanic Americans as ‘immigrants’, any less offensive?

…Are people claiming it is? And are there really American Jews who think we’ve got it as bad as Ethiopians? Okay, well, I’m sure you can find a few – but the rest of us don’t take them very seriously. My point is this: why take such pains to draw a line between overt and implicit prejudice? On one level, it seems to be stating the obvious – listening to rhetoric about “the Zionists” is never going to be as harmful as getting beaten to death. On another level, it denies the fact that both forms come from the same source, and seemingly innocuous situations have the potential to escalate quite rapidly. My great-grandparents were among the most successful residents of their village before their synagogue was shot at. A sizable Jewish presence in a multicultural city presents as much potential for danger as for solidarity.

And, you know, he’s dead on about the New Yorker thing. If I have to read one more blog talking about the “east coast liberals” and “New York liberals” and “coastal liberals” responsible for that awful New Yorker cover, I’m going to scream. Do I think most people in the blogosphere are actually blaming Jews for the cover? No. But why have those specific terms become such ubiquitous buzzwords when New Yorker readers and contributors can be found all over the country? Are, say, Iowan liberals excused? How about moderates? I’ve decided to (charitably) read most of the references as sloppy shorthand, but don’t these people know about the term’s anti-Semitic connotations? If they do, and are using it anyway – isn’t that worth worrying about?

All in all, I’m with Shukert on this one – I don’t think our culture considers it “cool to be a Jew.” Amy Winehouse isn’t cool because she’s Jewish, and while I know Sandler’s Hanukkah song was played like a billion times and all, it didn’t certainly never made me feel any cooler (although it did earn me the nickname “Jewy J___” in high school). I’m not advocating that American Jews sit around and bite our nails, of course. It’s just worrisome when I see people telling strawmen to calm the hell down.

In any case, I’m looking forward to reading Shukert’s column. She wrote a better ending than I can manage on a weeknight, so I’m going to steal it:

So, my fellow filthy Christ-killers, if you can stop counting your golden ingots and draining your neighbor’s kids of their blood long enough to actually read something, I hope you’ll join me. We may not win any hearts and minds, but in the words of the immortal G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle.

And after all, we’re supposed to be so smart.

Cheers to that.

On that new Vietnam movie or whatever the fuck it is

Robert Downey Jr. in blackface? Are we really doing this? Really?

So showing a black character being offended somehow negates a minstrel show’s offensiveness?


Book Review: Righteous Indignation

Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice
Rabbi Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, and Margie Klein, editors

I love me a good social justice anthology, and considering my growing involvement in Jewish social justice, I figured that this book would be right up my alley.

Unfortunately, the most disappointing aspect of the book was its almost exclusive focus on activism from a religious viewpoint. Not only did this fail to address many of the concerns and contributions of secular, cultural Jews (we need love, too!), but it led to a lot of repetition – I ended up skimming a lot of the passages whose main focus was presenting even more Biblical evidence that social justice is a good thing. Which isn’t to say that justice-oriented readings of the Torah and Talmud aren’t very useful for many people. But if that’s not the thrust of your activism, then it can leave you feeling really unsatisfied.

Despite its flaws, though, there were some really interesting essays. The writing of Jay Michaelson, April Rosenblum, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs was wonderful, as usual. And I found that I was moved by some of the Biblical readings despite myself. Take, for example, Rabbi Jane Kanarek’s explanation of what tikkun olam really means. Rabbi Kanarek shows us a peculiar Mishnah on the subject of captivity:

One does not redeem captives for more than their worth because of tikkun ha’olam. One does not help captives to escape because of tikkun ha’olam. Rabban Shimon the son of Gamliel says: because of the decree of the captives. (Mishnah, Gittin 4:6)

Kanarek explains that, even though the Mishnah seems to imply powerlessness – we can’t ransom prisoners because it encourages kidnappers to take more prisoners, and we can’t free them because future prisoners will be treated even more cruelly – it’s actually suggesting that the proper course of action is to create a world in which no prisoners are taken in the first place. It’s not literally saying that we should never try to release people from captivity, but rather that our first priority should eliminating systemic injustice.

The book also gives Jews some ammunition against anti-choicers who use religion and morality to shut down arguments about abortion and stem cell research. Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff points out that “[d]uring the first forty days of gestation, the fetus, according to the Talmud, is ‘as if it were simply water,’ and from the forty-first day until birth it is ‘like the thigh of its mother.'” This means that, from a Jewish point of view, an embryo is not a human being; furthermore, even when the pregnancy is advanced, the fetus is still part of its mother’s body.

However, Dorff explains that late-term abortions are “generally prohibited” because the mother would be doing harm to her own body (just as if she tried to cut off a thigh). But if the thigh needs to be cut off – just as late-term abortions are virtually always necessary procedures, not flighty changes of mind – then she’s obligated to do what it takes to protect her health and wellbeing. (This may seem like a loophole, given the “generally prohibited” clause, but I think we can read it as an assertion that the woman is the best judge of what she and her body need.) Similarly, if embryonic stem cell research will save lives, then we’re obligated – indeed, commanded – to do whatever it takes to save those lives.

Abigail Uhrman tells an interesting Talmudic story to explain the pitfalls of ableism: Rabbi Elazar meets a disfigured man and comments on his ugliness. “Tell the Creator who made me what an ugly, empty vessel I am,” the man replies. Rabbi Elazar realizes that to insult one of God’s creation is to insult God, and begs for forgiveness. Here’s where the story gets interesting, though – the man refuses to forgive him, no matter how much Rabbi Elazar begs. His grudge indicates that the man is just as flawed as Rabbi Elazar. He’s not a saint; he’s just human. This demonstrates that putting disabled people – or any version of your personal Other – on a pedestal is just as myopic as considering them lesser beings.

One essay that really affected me was Rabbi Elliot Rose Kukla’s “Created Beings of Our Own.” He makes a very eloquent case against transphobia:

Although Jewish Sages often tried to sort the world into binaries, they also acknowledged that not all of parts of God’s Creation can be contained in orderly boxes. Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, Shabbat and the days of the week, and purity and impurity are crucial to Jewish tradition. However, it was the parts of the universe that defied binaries that interested the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud the most. Pages and pages of sacred texts are occupied with the minute details of the moment between fruit and bud, wildness and domestication, innocence and maturity, the twilight hour between day and night. We read in the Babylonian Talmud:

Our Sages taught: As to twilight, it is doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night… Rabbi Yosi said: “Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye as night enters and the day departs, and it is impossible to determine its length.” (Shabbat 34b)

…Jewish tradition acknowledges that some parts of God’s Creation defy categories and that these liminal people, places, and things are often the sites of the most intense holiness.

This essay hit home for me as a half-Jew (an identity which many Jews and a surprising number of gentiles are quick to inform me doesn’t exist – as if I’m supposed to cut my connection to my own family) and a secular Jew (since so much of Ashkenazi culture has been obliterated in the last century). It’s intensely lonely to find yourself straddling a binary; if it feels so bad to be the only secular Jew around, or the person at a Seder who has to dodge questions about her mother, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain that transpeople feel at our society’s ferocious attempts to disappear them. Profundity is a very scary thing to witness, and perhaps cisgendered people’s fear of transfolk is evidence of that. Rabbi Kukla’s essay was nothing short of inspiring.

The editors have put up a website with resources and action alerts; it’s a bit sparse right now, but hopefully they’ll add more content as time goes on. In the meantime, the book is definitely worth a read, even if you don’t find all the essays useful.

Back to the Parashah – Pinchas (part 1)

I remember saying about two months ago or so on my other site that I was going to do one of these every week, and then stopped after two, but I feel fine about doing this here, so I might as well get to it!

This week’s portion is Pinchas (Num. 25:10-26), named for the character of the first story. The portion is kind of a mixed bag, with four separate narratives: the first is the story of Pinchas, a man with a fairly fanatical reaction to intermarriage and paganism; a reckoning of the peoples of Israel, by ancestor; Zelophehad’s daughters, a very famous story of a man who had no sons and whose daughters took their case for the right to inherit right to Moses and God, and sort of won the right for all other daughters after that point; finally, the finality of not entering the Promised Land hits Moses and it is time for him to anoint a successor.

There really isn’t much to say about Pinchas, at least not at the outset. At the end of the previous parahshah, Pinchas the grandson of Aaron killed an Israelite man and his Midianite companion in their tent which stemmed a plague from God as punishment for Israel’s idolatry. After this act, God commands Moses to grant Pinchas and his descendants the priesthood.

Curiously, as Etz Hayimnotes, while the Torah suggests this was a noble act, the commentators have been divided on whether or not this was a just act. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great Orthodox rabbi of the 19th century, very strongly believed this to be just: “Anyone who wages war on the enemies of what is good and true is a champion of the Covenant of Peace on earth even while engaged in war.” The Bablyonian Talmud, however, claimed that if Pinchas consulted the rabbinical assembly, the assembly would have told him not at all: “The law may permit it but we do not follow that law!”.

The division here which includes rabbinic opinions as early as the first few centuries CE suggests that many of the extreme commandments about stoning and putting to death many people for many reasons, from Exodus and Leviticus primarily, were not followed in that way for much of recorded Judaism’s history. It may seem like a fairly wide conclusion, but Pinchas’s extremism was in defense of God’s holy Name; this has long been considered the most important cause in Judaism, and most works of activism and justice have been interpreted to serve that end. Concerns that (without really basis other than my own opinion) seem lesser, such as disobedient children, don’t fall under that, so this again shows how the popular misconception of Judaism probably doesn’t match reality.

Another interesting viewpoint is the K’tav Sofer’s view that Pinchas was actually given the priesthood to stem his violent and extreme impulses, rather than reward them; a kohen cannot conduct himself in such a violent and zealous manner.

After that story concludes, God orders Moses to take a census – Rashi likens it to a shepherd numbering the flock after wolves attack, while Rabbi Hirsch suggests this was a healing act to regain communal self-worth after the plague by reflecting on ancestry.

I would tend to take Hirsch’s view – we have seen shades of this play out in the reaction to the Shoah, where communities have more wholeheartedly embraced the tradition than may have been the case before; and that, also, this act of return is a way in which people of confused identity have often re-centered themselves and managed to salvage a self-image.

Another curious mention is the mention of the sons of Korah – some commentators believed that they come up in every generation as quarrelsome and divisive, while others disagree and say that they learned their lesson and repented, and this shows that almost anyone can repent and make a clean start. I see another possible element here – another affirmation of the Jewish notion of sin, that each man’s sin is his own and that the sins of the father do not carry down to the son.

The third story here is the very famous story of the daughters of Zelophehad: Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. As the story goes, Zelophehad had no sons, and so the daughters went to Moses, Eleazer, the twelve chieftains and all the assembly and plead their case: “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

Imagine the courage that must have taken – not just one-on-one with Moses, but in front of the chieftains and the assembly as well, quite possibly all men, and stand firmly for what is right and just.

Now, as Etz Hayim points out, the implication here for why this has come to be is that Zelophehad’s wife is dead or infertile – while the text doesn’t say, I’d assume that were she alive, his brother would marry her and thus he would take possession of the property in that way, so that this did not happen suggests the wife was in fact dead.

So, Moses takes the case to God, who not only grants their request but decrees to Moses that this case shall be normative in all such occurrences for here on out. Sadly, it seems, daughters did not start the process of receiving equal inheritances until the 16th century with the decree of Moses Isserles; only in 1943 when the chief rabbinate of Palestine ruled on the subject did it become possible for daughters to inherit equally with sons under traditional law.

There’s more to come, so I will have to cut this short right now!