One Year

One year ago, Mrs. Humanistic Jew and I checked Humanistic Jew, Jr., into the emergency room.

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A Stumbling Block

I mentioned in an earlier post that I follow the Jewish Special Needs Education blog. That blog invokes the phrase, “removing the stumbling block,” a reference to the traditional commandment of lifnei iver from Leviticus 19:14, which warns not to place a stumbling block before the blind. This is interpreted, in traditional rabbinic law, to require something far beyond not causing blind persons to trip. (The rabbis viewed this as obvious without the biblical text commanding otherwise.) Rather, the text was interpreted to mean that one should not take an action that would cause someone else to sin, often by giving bad advice.

Friedman, in her blog’s title, means it somewhat more literally: removing from the paths of those with differing levels of need the obstacles to participation in Jewish life and education. While I appreciate the metaphor, I find it troubling. Continue reading

Of Pills and Panic

It’s astonishing just how finely tuned our brains are–and how small changes in what goes into our brains can change so much about how and who we are.

Back in late April and much of May, Secular Jew, Jr. (“SJJ”) was hospitalized twice in pediatric “stress center” units. “Stress center” is the euphemism du jour for temporary place to put people with acute psychiatric symptoms that cannot be managed at home and that may be resolvable without permanent institutionalization, usually due to substance abuse or severe depression. SJJ is not yet even a preteen, and most of the kids in these units were teenagers, so these were really very extreme places for SJJ to be. But after two stays, in the course of less than a month, the issues SJJ was experiencing seem to have boiled down to medication issues; medications were removed, SJJ stabilized, and things seemed pretty okay.

Until yesterday. Continue reading

Honey Letters

“Chocolate cookies?”
(He asks)
“They have white inside.”
(They do)

There’s a Christmas book on the table.
(From school)
“Read a sentence and I’ll give you a cookie.”
(He reads)
“Okay, here you go. Good reading!”
“Yummy!”

I think about years past.
(Honey letters)
In Eastern European cheders.
(Old School)
When the first lesson
(aleph)
was to learn letters and lick honey
(bet)
to see that learning is sweet.
(gimel)

Back now to the computer
(YouTube)
to watch old TV ads.
“It’s Face!”

We’re still learning to teach.
“Veggie Tales!”
Some sugar and a film.
“Little Joe!”
Is this our modern Torah?
“Nick Jr.!”

Pass(ed)over

So this morning I had a moment of stark realization. My son has never attended a real Passover seder.

We’ve given ourselves some passes on this; a seder is long and difficult for adults to sit through, let alone children, and a kid with autism and non-stop chattiness…well, a seder just didn’t seem like a great fit.

Then I realized that Humanistic Judaism is perfect for constructing a meaningful Passover experience for a special needs child, because we don’t consider ourselves bound to the rules.

(I know, I know, I promised a series on a Pitch for Humanistic Judaism, and I’ll get back to that, though in a way this post will be a great pitch in itself.) Continue reading

Ice-olation

Surely you’ve noted I’m in Indianapolis. This means that, for most of the week, we haven’t gone outside. Because COLD.

School has been closed since the Winter Break in December, and everyone with a kid who’s not yet been returned to school is probably noticing that said kid is getting a little stir crazy.

No doubt trying to help, after my wife mentioned the situation on Facebook, one of the folks who works for the local Jewish community chimed in with the wishing-to-be-helpful response that the local JCC was providing aftercare (after-school care) services starting at 9 a.m. today. Which is nice, unless you’ve got a kid with special needs.

My wife, showing the better side of–valor? something?–said somewhat obliquely that we haven’t used the aftercare program because the JCC doesn’t have the space or manpower to deal with our needs.

Continue reading

A short break for a statement of purpose

Read this, from Pop Chassid.

Now imagine your child can’t even say “no.” Imagine knowing not only that you can’t be sure you will always be there for your child–imagine that you worry that your child will never be independent, even when you’re gone.

Welcome to the world of many parents of kids with disabilities.

This–this feeling, this worry–is part of why I decided to go to rabbinical school. Because as bad as the rest of the world is, for some reason, in the Jewish world we’re often far worse. And absent people who will do something to change that, it won’t happen.

“Freedom!,” or, my newly traditional bent

As most of us no doubt know, Hanukkah (I use the NY Times’s spelling of it for sake of my spellchecker) is coming to a close. (No, not Thanksgivukkah–because I like Thanksgiving way too much to blend it in with anything else. And also, I love Thanksgiving, but eight days of turkey is almost too much for me.)

As we got ready to celebrate Hanukkah, on kind of a lark I started to read the laws for the holiday in the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh. (For rabbinical school, we were reading the laws on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the time, so I was already carrying the book around.) For those unfamiliar, it’s a Jewish legal code from the mid 19th century that is aimed at just the average (traditionally observant) Jew who wants to observe Jewish law and needs a relatively plain-language guide to doing so. It’s not generally used to reach new rulings as it’s not particularly detailed in terms of rationale and sources, but it’s pretty useful for day-to-day issues. For Hanukkah, it has information about things like what order to put the candles in and light them, what a Hanukkah menorah should look like and be made of, where it should be placed, how long the candles should burn, what blessings to say, who says them and when, etc. (It’s actually more involved than you would realize.)

Reading it, I realized that one of our menorahs was not, according to the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, kosher. That particular menorah has its candles in a circular shape–which is fine–but did not have all the candles except the ninth “helper” (shamash) at the same level. You see, the menorah goes up in sort of a spiral, so that each candle is higher than the next. According to the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, the eight candles of the menorah should all be level.

Now, this is an interesting dilemma for a humanistic Jew. Well, maybe not really, because we don’t recognize halakhah as binding for religious purposes. But we do recognize the cultural value of the observances, and that holds sway in deciding what we do.

So it still left me with the question: what to do? Should we use that circular menorah (which is beautiful), or do something else?

We ended up using a more traditional menorah. The circular one is part of the holiday display we’ve set up at my office, and it actually goes quite well there.

So, where am I going with all this?

Mrs. Secular Jew pointed something out to me that I hadn’t quite noticed myself. I’ve become more traditionally “observant” since coming to a place where I understand that I am–and have for a long time really been–a humanistic Jew. We light candles for Shabbat consistently when we never did before; my menorah decision was different than it would have been in the past (when I would likely have cared more that the circular menorah wasn’t kosher); and other smallish things have trended more traditional than they would have in the past. Some of this is modeling behavior or the result of spending more time thinking about Jewish things than I have for a little while–so, the natural consequence of embracing the Jewish part of things, particularly as  a result of rabbinical study.

But that’s not all that’s happened. Coming to the understanding of where I am in terms of a Jewish identity–that I really don’t think halakhah has any divine component to it, that it’s not really binding–freed me up to make decisions without the “baggage” (sorry–it’s just the best term I’ve got) that comes from feeling like doing a thing means doing it right or just not bothering.

In a sense, this is the flip-side of the old saying, “If you’re going to sin, sin boldly.” Not being paralyzed by the necessity of doing it right, I find myself able to just do the thing. So, in talking about Hanukkah in the really limited way I can with our son, I don’t feel that I have to pitch only the “appropriate” message about it.

And so, given his communication difficulties, and the limited extent to which any nine year-old–of nearly any cognitive or communicative abilities–can wrap his head around such abstract notions, it was effective this year to explain only one thing about Hanukkah.

That Hanukkah is about freedom.

As the lights fade from the menorah on the last day of Hanukkah this year, a warm chag sameach to you.

Fitness, Ethics, and Humanism

It’s been a while since I’ve done any significant ethical navel-gazing here, so the time seems ripe.

Actually, it’s not too navel-gaze-y.

Over at Kyriolexy, there’s a post about a supposed moral requirement that individuals be physically fit. The author points out that, broadly, society uses the sometimes-compatible languages of virtue and pathology to talk about physical fitness, and criticizes the combined use of that language because of how it intersects with how we also talk about (especially) perceived mental disability.

As the parent of an autistic child, I’m sympathetic with the author’s account. At age 9, we really don’t know where our son will end up, how, and even what his capabilities are now because of his limited speech and self-expression compared to his neurotypical peers. And so, we’re reluctant to put demands upon him when we don’t know what he is capable of.

I do differ from the Kyriolexy post as it relates to the virtue–talking in philosophical ethics mode, that is–of physical fitness. And I think that difference comes because I am the father of an autistic child. But I think my objection to the Kyriolexy post would exist even merely as a parent. But that difference led me to think about what it is, exactly, motivates ethics in humanism. I have long thought that the more Platonic views of ethics (e.g., Kant, or others who posit absolute universal duties, with or without certain requirements for intent along with the action) are troublesome because they posit universality–of both place and time–of things that are essentially contingent, that is, conduct in dependent upon places and times.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I think, from a humanist perspective, some combination of utilitarianism and virtue ethics is probably appropriate. And I would point to the physical fitness question as an example of this.

Do I think all persons at all times and in all circumstances must necessarily be (or endeavor to be as though it’s required of them) physically fit? No. I don’t even think that all persons who are physically capable of doing so must necessarily be or endeavor to be physically fit. That is, I don’t think there is an ethical duty to do this.

But I do think that doing so, if you can, is virtuous and maximizes utility. Virtuous because it has the capacity to make the person happier (in the philosophical ethics version of happiness). Maximizes utility because the costs of being unfit reduce one’s own happiness and also impose upon other persons more broadly the costs of being unfit.

We know, for example, that obesity is associated with widespread inflammatory processes, which appear at least to correlate with increased morbidity and mortality from medical conditions associated with inflammatory processes: heart disease, hypertension, some forms of cancer, diabetes, etc. In epidemic levels, obesity that results in increased morbidity and mortality from inflammatory process-related diseases imposes significant social costs. For those who can be physically fit, doing so reduces the imposition of the associated costs–in very incremental fashion–upon others. It also reduces the imposition of the associated harms upon oneself.

When one is a parent, the costs of unhealthiness are also imposed upon children who have no capacity to address the problem themselves. So, if a parent is capable of reducing her or his own level of unhealthiness and increasing her or his own level of fitness, doing so maximizes utility not only for society broadly in reduced cost, but children in terms of parents who are able to be around, on the whole, longer, provide better care, and provide examples of the sort that will encourage health among their children. That, in turn, can compound the benefits.

Do I think that there are valid ethical claims upon me, as someone who is capable of being more fit, more healthy, and therefore less costly both to society and my son, to become healthy and/or fit? Yes, both from a utilitarian perspective and from a virtuous perspective. But I don’t accept that there is some universal maxim that imposes that upon me; I should do these things, but I need not.

Nevertheless, and pace Kyriolexy, I think there are some normative claims that can fairly be put upon some individuals to be more fit.

Discourse about that is another matter. I think the problem Kyriolexy addresses arises, in part, when we speak in unqualified fashion about things like not having an excuse for being unfit. It’s about broad social messaging; we speak in deontological terms, particularly in mass media but also in more individual-level discourse, and assume others to be similarly situated. I think, from the perspective of Kyriolexy’s hypotheticals, broad discourse fails to properly take into account exceptions and the very real limitations of each situation.

I’m not sure what the solution to that would be for the broader forms of discourse that trouble Kyriolexy. Clearly broad forms of discourse need to take into account the need not to shame, and they need also to be careful about what they convey about ability. Ideally, this would affect how individuals speak, too.

I’m not optimistic about the latter part. Because unless one very carefully and intentionally crafts their discourse, it will almost always be overbroad and transgressive. Most people–including Maria Kang, I suspect–don’t craft their discourse to exclude from its normative scope those individuals who, if pressed, the speaker would not have intended to include within the statement.

How do we fix that? I would turn to Greg Epstein’s book, Good without God, as a guide. Epstein’s view of ethics starts with the proposition that we should act from love–love for our fellow persons, in whatever their state. And I think that absolute moral propositions in the Platonic/deontological mode–which make sense when we talk about law–don’t proceed from love, but from judgment. And they largely fail to be persuasive as a result.