Sunday, September 28, 2008

Learning from Joseph's marriage

For the past few years, the partner and I have attended a Bible study group at our synagogue. Yesterday, we read the last chapter of Genesis. It was cause for celebration: the Saturday morning group started Genesis four and half years ago. After the High Holy Days (which start with the Jewish New Year at sundown Monday night), we will literally start a new book.

Looking back on our studies, one topic kept coming up that I never expected to see so early in the Bible: intermarriage. Abraham relocated far from his extended family. And yet, Abraham took great pains to procure a wife for Isaac from within his family, preventing him from marrying within the local community (Gen 24). Jacob was also instructed to marry within the family; his brother Esau caused great family strife by marrying locally (Gen. 27:46 and 28:5-9). Even from the very beginning of the Jewish religion, intermarriage and assimilation were viewed very negatively.

And then there was Joseph. He took on an Egyptian name (Zaphenath-paneah) and married the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen 41:45); when his father died, Joseph had him embalmed and mourned for seventy days (an Egyptian practice) (Gen 50:2-3) before joining his brothers in mourning seven days (the Hebrew practice) (Gen 50:10). He lived a life of intermarriage and assimilation. But he played a very positive role in Jewish history.

Being a shiksa myself has made these passages more meaningful to me. Being in this group as it goes over these passages, hearing the rabbi's experiences, and especially the stories of the other members who intermarried or converted, has really left a positive impression. It is in large part experiences like this that keeps me coming back to temple, more attracted every year to this religion my partner introduced me to.

Not a ghost

About a month ago, I started hearing doors slamming and branches cracking while I was sitting inside my house. When I was in the yard, I'd hear crack! bam! thunk! It never got to the point of needing an umbrella, but the thought definitely crossed my mind.

My sidewalks and driveway and yard are covered in acorns. Walking out to my car I go "crunch, crunch, crunch". It's a novel experience for me. Last year, we had a late frost, and no acorns. The year before that, we had a drought, and few acorns. Two years ago, we had a lot of acorns... but nothing like this.

I'd like to try making flour out of them. I don't feel like I have time now, and was feeling conflicted for not prioritizing that: I may not have the opportunity to make acorn flour for many more years. Then I noticed something surprising: most of the fallen acorns have already sprouted! Weird wet fall weather... it does mean they're unlikely to be useful for flour, though.

Even absent acorn flour, the whole oak experience this spring and fall has been fascinating. (At least, when I wasn't flustered by the stunningly loud sounds of nuts ricocheting off our house and vehicles.) It's so neat and I am so thankful to live next to this oak tree.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back to school

My employer has sent me to a Dale Carnegie class on communication. It's in the format of a one-semester college course: three hours a week for twelve weeks.

In the first class, I found during the assigned exercises that I really like to talk about myself. When in conversation, it is a struggle for me to only listen to the other person. Discovering this was a surprise to me; I have scored as a strong introvert on every personality test I have taken, and being a bad listener is not something I expected out of myself.

In the assigned reading, I learned about studies that have shown we learn better in small increments. This will be useful in practicing for my music lessons: I like to just play the whole piece through, but I improve faster by restricting my practice to small portions.

Getting into the right mindset for the course is not entirely pleasant for me; I disagree with some things they present as "truth" and find in some areas the materials lie by omission. I believe their techniques work (even in the first class I've seen benefits), but believe the mechanism for some techniques is misrepresented. It has a mild resemblance to joining a religion that one respects but doesn't believe in.

Regardless, I think I (and thus my employer) will benefit from the class. I'm hoping the class will improve my blogging skills, too. It will be interesting to follow for the next few months.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Catholic sex: past changes... and future?

I think there is a lot of truth in the Catholic Church's current teachings on sexual morality. In learning more about this aspect of the Catholic Church's teachings, one thing I find interesting is that, historically, many influential theologians saw things differently. For example, today natural family planning is (I think) a beautiful teaching of this church - my research into fertility awareness is what originally piqued my interest in Catholic theology. But this church's teachings on NFP only emerged in the mid-1800s, after secular sources started promoting early versions of the rhythm method.

On p.128 of the theology journal I recently acquired, I learn that St. Augustine (who lived in the years 354-430) "reject[ed] sexual relations during sterile periods because it is non-procreative". It wasn't just Augustine that held this view; William F. Murphy, Jr goes on to write that "strict adherence to "the Stoic doctrine" may have led, throughout the tradition, to a variety of overly-rigorous moral teachings in sexual ethics. Among these... norms against sex (i) during menstruation, (ii) after menopause, and (iii) for some primary purpose besides procreation."

Catholicism has always held that marital relations must have a procreative purpose. But to me, the shift from requiring procreation to be the primary purpose to requiring procreation to be a purpose is very significant. I find similarly important the shift on what constitutes consummation of marriage; on p.208 of the same journal, William May quotes Peter Jugis:

Due to Vatican II's teaching on modo vere human, canonists completely reversed their thinking on the manner of intercourse which was juridically appropriate for consummation. Prior to Vatican II the common canonical view opinion for centuries had been that violent consummation with an unwilling spouse validly consummated marriage.... After Vatican II the common opinion of almost all canonists became that a violent consummation with an unwilling spouse did not validly consummate a marriage.
To me, this reversal was important not only for women who are raped, but also for married couples where one or both has HIV. Prior to the addition of the modo vere human language to Catholic sexual theology, the marital act was largely defined as semen deposited into a vagina. Under that understanding, using condoms to prevent disease was definitely immoral. Under the current Catholic understanding, the morality of using condoms to prevent disease is a raging theological debate.

I am hoping for one more change in the Catholic Church's teaching on sexual morality: the acceptance of same-sex marriage. Currently, there are a few theologians arguing that the current framework of sexual teachings has room for homosexual marriages. The majority of theologians oppose such a move; they have a variety of reasonings involving the procreative and unitive nature of sex. They all seem to agree that homosexual acts are not contraceptive in nature; that makes the debates come down to the unitive aspect of sex.

From William May on pp.216-217:
In sodomy and other kinds of homosexual behavior the bodily joining of their practitioners... does not unite them.... the resulting experience is not and cannot be the experience of any real unity between them... In such acts, each one's experience of intimacy is private and incommunicable, and no more a common good than is the mere experience of sexual arousal and oragsm.
The person who recommended this theology journal, also sent me an article from the Spring 2005 National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. Martin Rhonheimer wrote on p.44: cannot swallow stones with the intention of nourishing oneself, nor are genital acts between persons of the same sex apt to be an expression of friendship and love.
A theological article in favor of same-sex marriage argued in part that those in homosexual relationships appeared to experience the same unitive effects of sex as those in heterosexual relationships, and that this apparent shared experience should be further investigated by Catholic theologians. Back in the Josephinum Journal, in a response to that article, E. Christian Brugger writes on pp.236-237:
...what warrants them in concluding that the reports of subjective experience... [are] sufficient... for overturning the... rational judgment against homosexual acts?... homosexual unions are not and can never be true bodily unions, [therefore] homosexual unions are not and can never be personal unions. Is the data of homosexual experience really so compelling that it overrides the reasonableness of this judgment?
I understand distrust of subjective data. But equally, reasonable and rational thought experiments need to match up with real-life experiments to be accepted as true. There are methods available to add objectivity to analysis of subjective data; I think that in time the evidence that same-sex marriage fits within Catholic theology will build. As a result, I believe the topic of Catholic sexual morality will continue to be very interesting for some time to come.

Long and rambling: the path to empathy

My nine-year-old niece was recently diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder). One of the diagnostic criteria (apparently the one that was causing problems and school and led to her diagnosis) is "lack of social or emotional reciprocity". The way my mother-in-law explained it, this criteria means a person has difficulty with empathy - they don't understand how their actions affect other people's emotions. She has several other personality traits that were identified as characteristic of Aspergers, too. I keep seeing all of them in other people (to greater or lesser extents), but coming back to that one.

I remember as a teenager, talking to my grandmother after a fight with my father. She was trying to explain to me that a child should respect their parents. In tears and sobbing from the fight, I responded that I just wanted him to know he had hurt me. If he didn't understand that he had hurt me, he'd think it was OK to do that again. She didn't argue with me after that, just looked very sad.

I had a lot of fights with my father that ended like that (although most of them not at my grandmother's house). I became skilled (at least my partner thinks so) at analyzing and verbally explaining emotional reactions, both my own and those of other people. Much good it did me with him - he never did understand. The last psychologist I saw told me that he was very sorry, but my father was an asshole and there was nothing the psychologist could do to fix it.

I think the psychologist was wrong (I stopped seeing him after he said that): an asshole understands they are causing pain, but doesn't care. My father cares, but doesn't understand. To this day he will bring up the subject of our relationship, confused and hurt that I'm only willing to talk about superficial things.

Both of the psychologists I saw told me my pain from my poor relationship with my father was likely to come up in random areas of my life. I sometimes have strong, not completely rational reactions to certain situations, and have wondered if that's the kind of thing they were talking about.

As painful as it was for me, though, I think trying to deal with my father's condition may have saved me from repeating his experience: understanding the emotions of those around me is very much an intellectual exercise for me. This skill may be one that, like language, if not acquired in childhood, cannot be learned with fluency as an adult. He may have positively influenced my life much more than he will ever know.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Experiment: Compost a tree stump

A storm several weeks ago knocked down two large trees on our property, one in the front yard and one in the back yard. We now have large tree stumps there. It would be several hundred dollars to have someone come in with a stump grinder, so for now, we're just leaving them.

I try to start a new compost pile about every six months; I have three piles going, so each one gets about eighteen months to "finish". Today, I spread most of my oldest pile around our two small apple trees (maybe they'll make apples next year - that would be exciting). The rest of it, I spread around our tree trunk in back. And I've started a new pile there, with food scraps covered by leaves.

I know the stump will compost eventually. It will be interesting to see if it happens on a reasonable time frame, though (less than a year). If this experiment in the back is successful, we might look into some of the "make a compost pile look sightly" advice, and do the same thing in the front yard.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Kosher: current issues

Most people have a strong preference for laws that make sense. While religious rules may start with a different set of assumptions than secular rules, they still, generally, have a reasoned explanation much beyond, "because God said so." One exception in Judaism is the laws about kosher food. As one commentator explains:

The historical origin of the Jewish dietary laws is obscure and so is their rationale... the kashrut of the Bible belongs to that corpus of law we term "hukkim" (statutes) and for which no rationale is apparent. Biblical commentators have suggested hygiene, or religious separateness, or discipline as possible reasons for the enactment and observance of kashrut, but these and other equally plausible suggestions are not sufficiently supported by historical evidence to emerge from the realm of conjecture.
The lack of obvious rationales is a big reason practicing kosher is optional in Reform Judaism. However, many people the rules were at least partially ordered toward being humane. For example, the Biblical command, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk" is repeated three times. From the Union for Reform Judaism:
Any kosher animals must also be slaughtered in a kosher way, which is an ancient slaughtering process that is believed to be less painful for the animal.
The recent issues in Postville have highlighted how the traditional rules not only fail at accomplishing humane treatment for animals, but don't address the equally (if not more) important issue of humane treatment for human workers at kosher slaughterhouses. The Conservative Jewish movement recently started a new committee: it is tasked with creating a new certifying process for kosher foods. This certification will takes into account ethical considerations for workers and animals in addition to ritual laws. The Reform movement just passed a resolution to support this new certification process.

The partner and I, like most members of Reform congregations, do not keep kosher. But we will definitely be looking for products certified under the new regulations: improving the ethics of our food purchasing speaks to how we want to practice religion.