Supreme Court deprived me of religious liberty today

In America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers stated that each of us was “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Today, the United States Supreme Court issued a deeply flawed decision that deprives American women of all three inalienable rights—by forcing unwilling pregnant individuals to carry unwanted embryos to term, violating what should be the inviolable sovereignty of the body itself—while simultaneously depriving Jewish people of their religious liberty.

This is an activist Court, wantonly sullying America’s most cherished ideals. Here’s how Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett deprived me, today, of my right to freely exercise my Jewish religion:

According to thousands of years of Jewish understanding, a fetus is not yet a person (נפש)‎, though it holds the potential to become one. Instead, an embryo is a part of its mother’s body. Until 40 days after conception, Judaism considers the contents of the womb “like water” or “mere fluid.” Explicitly stated, abortion is not murder under Jewish law.

Jewish law actually requires that a fetus be surgically excised from the womb if a mother is imperiled during its delivery and the majority of the baby’s body is not yet delivered outside her body. There is Biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinic support for this position, though obviously individual Jews may hold different personal interpretations.

Here’s a good overview of this difficult topic from the Jewish perspective.

The highly partisan Supreme Court of 2022 is trampling on my First Amendment right to freely exercise my religion by forcing its distinctly Christian interpretation of their own poorly translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic Bible upon everyone in the U.S.A., regardless of the faith—or lack thereof—of each person affected by their decisions.

No state can be allowed to trample the religious liberty of its inhabitants. Isn’t that the promise of the U.S. Constitution? Are these justices actually so blinded by their personal faith that they’re rejecting its most basic protections? If so, these six are unfit for the job. If they’re dismantling the Constitution intentionally to promote their Christian faith, they are as traitorous as the January 6th seditionists and should be prosecuted accordingly.

I am an American, Jewish woman. I demand both personal sovereignty over my own body and freedom to practice my religion.

Happy Hanukkah 5782

Almost another full year of pandemic permutations, and the Gregorian calendar is wrapping up 2021. The Hebrew year 5782, however, is just entering its prime as we celebrate Hanukkah. Tonight, Sunday, December 5th, is the last night of this Jewish holiday.

What I love most about Hanukkah is its focus on the universal human need for light to triumph over darkness. On this, the eighth and final night of the Festival of Lights, my sputtering candles serve as a visual metaphor for a dream many of us share: may this be the final stand of COVID-19, too!Candles in Hanukkah menorah burning out

I hope that Omicron is a pathetic, last gasp of the no-longer-so-novel coronavirus; I pray for a future where we can resume our holidays, rituals, and everyday celebrations in each other’s company without fear.

I am personally blessed to be both vaccinated (Moderna) and boosted (Pfizer), and to have the freedom and means to travel this holiday season. My father, who got his first knee replacement last summer, was able to schedule his second side for the week after Thanksgiving. While elective surgeries like my father’s have been canceled in my home state*, hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, where he lives, remain open to patients like him.

Hanukkah is notable for its emphasis upon pirsumei nissa, or “publicizing the miracle.” This isn’t just a minority group’s attempt to hold a holiday up against the majority culture’s big day. Rather, the miracle of a single vial of oil burning far beyond its expected daily duration for an entire week instead (necessary to create new ritual fuel) was deemed worthy of public emphasis by Jewish sages in antiquity.

This year, as my youngest child embarks upon education in a new environment—but, again, a Christian one—I can’t help but draw his attention to the history of gambling over dreidels for this holiday. It matters, a lot, why Jews emphasize this particular act.

As I understand it, during Syrian-Greek rule of the Holy Land (c. 200 BCE), it was illegal for our people to study Torah. The punishment for a Jewish religious education was death. A form of hiding in plain sight was developed; if enemy soldiers approached, students would pull out their spinning tops (dreidels) and pretend they were just playing.

There is so much that I admire in my youngest’s Catholic education. A recent letter from his principal included the following statement that resonates powerfully with me:

You were created by the God of love

in God’s image and according to God’s likeness,

to be a unique expression of that love.

It is through you

that God desires to manifest Love

to the peoples of the world in these times,

and to offer them the freedom

of the children of God.

According to our school, this statement is one of the fundamental principles of the Xaverian Brothers.

For all the ways I identify with these notions, I also found myself admonishing my child to remember his own unique heritage in recent weeks.

We are blessed to live in a society where we may elect to join any school, but we mustn’t forget the lessons of our forebears. A Jewish child should know where he came from; he must recognize that there are people living in America today who wouldn’t acknowledge him as either fully human, equal, or a true patriot. It’s unfortunate, but plain fact.

I feel myself to be an American before any other categorization, yet I don’t have the luxury of assuming that all my compatriots would agree with that assessment. It’s a tragedy that I have to emphasize the same to my children; it would be negligent to fail to alert them to this truth as I understand it.

The scent of spent beeswax tapers lingers in my nostrils as I waver between gratitude for my abundance of blessings and acceptance of the ridiculous prejudices that seem to motivate vast swathes of the public today.

I’ll take my luck and be thankful. I have the light from my menorah piercing the darkness, my father’s great good fortune to have gotten the health care he needs, and the secure knowledge of the love of friends and family who surround me.

As we near the darkest days of December, 2021, my wish is for the blessing of illumination to all who seek light. Best wishes for warmth, safety, health, and goodness to everyone reading this.

L’ chaim! To life! And to everything good, holy, and beneficent as we huddle against the darkness.

*Due to a combination of COVID cases and staff shortages

Honestly admit vaccine side effect costs & better support the “hesitant” to increase compliance

When you get your COVID-19 vaccination—and I’d argue that approximately 99% of those reading this post have a moral imperative to do so—a realistic assessment of the facts suggests that you are likely* experience some uncomfortable side effects though they may be very mild.

News coverage, even in sources specifically geared toward those of us living with chronic conditions, heavily emphasizes the societal good which vaccination will bring—which is real enough—but most writers lean too heavily toward cheerleading at the expense of offering valuable information people need to cope with the particular pressures of their own individual lives.

I would like to stress that those of us more vulnerable than average to infirmity should plan for several days of being less effective in our work and daily lives after vaccination. It’s better to be prepared than to be caught flat-footed after the fact.

Politicians and business leaders who want the economy to boom should be offering solutions to make such preparations possible for the millions of Americans living in and at the edge of poverty who can’t afford to construct such safeguards for themselves.

Roughly 30 million American adults want to take the COVID-19 vaccine but haven’t yet managed to actually get the shot(s). Closer to 28 million are instead “vaccine hesitant,” stating they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated.Redacted official CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card

Sufferers of autoimmune disease, getting your jab may well bring on a flare. That was my experience after my first dose, and I’m glad I dug down far enough through coy, dissembling news coverage and popular health reporting to be forewarned about the risk.

Here’s one published case study in The Lancet regarding the health of one gentleman with rheumatoid arthritis after getting the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine. This article on Creaky Joints is the most honest that I read, speaking directly to specific reactions people with autoimmune conditions might expect.

I would take that first dose again, however, and I did return for my second shot of the Moderna vaccine.

I began composing this post whilst “enjoying” the resultant joint pains, exhaustion, and headache that came with full vaccination. Dose two also induced half a day of resounding nausea that could have been an exaggerated version of the queasiness I routinely get when very tired.

Side effects from the second shot prevented me from my normal activities—already constrained by my autoimmune disease diagnosis—for about two and a half days.

I.e., I would not have felt safe driving for at least two days after my second shot, nor would I have been healthy enough to go to work.

By comparison, after my first jab, I experienced sudden onset of extreme fatigue, headache, and an odd sensation I only associate with coming down with a virus that I can best describe as “the spaces in my joints feeling stretched out and wobbly.”Analog wall clock showing 12:06

Those shot #1 symptoms popped up about six hours after I received it mid-morning. I went to bed early, and the next day, all the viral infection type side effects were far less troublesome. I felt less than 100% the day after, but able to partake in most normal activities.

I.e., I could have worked through the side effects triggered by my first dose.

My arm ached significantly for a total of five or six days, however, and I developed an uncomfortable swollen feeling in my armpit several days later that was probably my lymph nodes reacting.

On the other hand, in the four weeks after my first dose of Moderna’s vaccine, I experienced the most significant stiffness, joint pain, swelling, and fatigue that I’d had since the pandemic began. Staying at home most of the time while society remained mostly shut down was generally very protective for me against my usual, recurrent autoimmune disease symptoms.

I used far less pain medication than usual between March of 2020 and April 2021. I went entire weeks without needing an NSAID anti-inflammatory or using prescription pain killers. Between my two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, I required at least one of those every day.

I.e., I would have struggled to meet the demands of a full time job plus family responsibilities on many of the days between my first and second vaccine injections.Prescription bottle of pain pills

It is worth noting that this potentially vaccine-provoked flare never reached peaks equivalent to the worst ones I had right after my diagnosis. Also, the flare absolutely could have been coincidental. But, again, it’s the only serious one I had through the entire pandemic right up until I got my first shot.

I’m not arguing against vaccination. I am suggesting some of us might need extra resources to meet our daily responsibilities when we elect vaccination, doing our part to protect the entire community. Stepping up comes with a cost.

I have a healthy, supportive spouse. My large family includes relatively helpful, fit teens able to pick up the slack with household chores. Family members have been able to stagger vaccine appointments so we never experienced side effects simultaneously. Our income is sufficient that purchasing takeout meals or prepared foods is not a burden. I am easily able to reach my regular doctor with any concerns because I’m well-served with health insurance and the means to pay for Direct Primary Care out of pocket—including an option to text message my GP directly for urgent issues outside business hours.

In short, I have the good fortune to control most aspects of my daily life, so I could plan around the reality of vaccine side effects. I had sufficient personal resources to fall back on to meet all of my post-vaccination needs. Far too many Americans are less fortunate, many in more than one of the areas I’ve mentioned.

Speaking specifically to the autoimmune-challenged community, I’ve been delighted to find that my second dose of the mRNA vaccine seems to have abruptly ended the prolonged flare I experienced in the four weeks between shots. After feeling much worse due to its side effects than I had in over a year, by the fourth day post-vaccination, I became more energetic—and had less joint pain and stiffness—than I could recall feeling in recent memory. bandage on upper arm

I.e., my RA flare ended abruptly along with my vaccine side effects from the second shot.

Given that vaccination clears lingering symptoms for as many as 41% of COVID long haulers, I was fascinated to observe what could be a related effect in myself after jab #2. Communicating this potential improvement in daily functioning to those who are vaccine hesitant while believing themselves to have had COVID—some of whom never got confirmation of a likely coronavirus infection due to the scarcity of tests early in the pandemic—seems like yet another missed opportunity in public health messaging.

Everyone who wants the economy to rebound fully should take all possible actions to enable workers, especially those at the margins of poverty with limited access to health care, to make, keep, and recover after appointments for inoculation. Full disclosure of the known risks and known benefits—but also realistic potential risks and probable benefits—could bring us closer to herd immunity and full fiscal and medical recovery.

COVID-19 still holds many mysteries for science to uncover. The need to offer accurate information as well as paid time off to over-burdened breadwinners and caregivers so that they can confidently book vaccinations—without risking their livelihood!—isn’t one of them.

America’s front-line, essential workers have already borne more than their fair share of the fight against this pandemic. Today, those who employ these millions should step up with specific support to enable each one to get his or her shots.

* I say “likely” based upon the CDC website stating, for the Pfizer vaccine, “84.7% reported at least one local injection site reaction” and “77.4% reported at least one systemic reaction.” For the Moderna version, they state “[s]ystemic reactions were reported by the majority of vaccine recipients” with over 80% experiencing injection site reactions.

Passage from Leave the World Behind epitomizes 2020’s key lesson

Like any sensible reader for whom Christmas triggers profound grief over the death of a holiday-adoring loved one, I began Christmas morning 2020 by finishing up a dystopian novel, Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.

You can find a proper review from NPR or the New York Times, but I agree with the positive opinions that Alam crafted an unusual and interestingly written work of fiction. It isn’t an easy book to read due to the subject matter, but it wasn’t off-putting to me for the usual gruesome reasons I dislike most horror. Gird yourself for a downward spiral of darkness if you dive in, but Leave the World Behind is well worth reading.

Leave the World Behind book coverWhat follows is a quotation from near the end of the novel, but I don’t believe reading it out of context constitutes a spoiler for the plot. I’m putting it “below the fold” in case any reader feels differently and prefers to stop here.

Continue reading

Wear a mask, people of faith, or live in sin

Wearing a mask or other face covering to reduce the spread of coronavirus should not be a political issue because protecting members of our own communities is so obviously the right thing to do.

Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable glovesThis partisanship doesn’t even make rational sense in the context of America’s “culture wars.” Republican party members often proclaim themselves pro-life,º yet many refuse to don protective gear during a pandemic, callously risking the lives of others because the price of a few dollars and mild inconvenience is too high.

GOP.com suggests that Republicans believe Culture should respect and protect life.

You should wear a mask—and follow government mandates ordering you to do so—for the same reason you shouldn’t drive while intoxicated: these rules are enacted to save human lives. We have always limited some freedoms via the common law when one person’s actions infringe upon the rights of others’ lives or property.

It’s none of my business if you are an adult who chooses to get drunk; it is anyone’s business to intervene if you callously murder other people by operating a motor vehicle in that condition. I make no moral or ethical distinction between that action and firing a gun with a bullet in its chamber into a crowd, nor should the law. Mask directives land squarely in this legal territory.

I’m not making accusations from a place of partisanship, either. Objective evidence suggests that Republicans are those least likely to wear masks. A New York Times article from June 2, 2020, referenced a Gallup poll showing fewer than half of Republicans had donned a mask in public. In the same poll, 75% of Democrats had worn one, as had 58% of my fellow independents.

While this inaction flies in the face of the GOP’s pro-life position, it also repudiates the Christian faith of the majority of its members. A 2017 Washington Post article gave me the figure that “73% of the Republican party is white Christian.”Jewish Torah, Good News Bible, and cloth face mask

The 6th Commandment: Thou shalt not kill

I grew up attending a United Methodist Church, though I converted to Judaism as an adult. My daily life is enriched by living amongst observant Christians. While I won’t pretend to be any kind of theological scholar and I personally believe much of the revealed truth of Torah/the Bible to be allegorical, I find the Ten Commandments clear and straightforward, especially this one:

Thou shalt not kill.

There are variations in understanding the Ten Commandments depending upon whether you ask a Jew, Protestant, or Catholic. Thou shalt not kill is usually cited as the 6th*.

Wearing a mask definitively reduces the chances that the wearer will infect someone else with COVID-19. Doctors and scientists are still working to unravel the many mysteries of this novel coronavirus, but there is solid evidence that many cases are transmitted by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals, i.e., people who don’t think they are sick. If you wait to wear a mask until you are sick with COVID-19, you may well have already infected another innocent victim.

COVID-19 has killed over half a million people around the world already, and it is especially lethal when it infects the elderly. I can’t help but leap from this fact to another of the Ten Commandments, number five:

Honor thy father and thy mother; in order that thy days may be prolonged upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Excerpt of page of Torah/Bible showing Exodus 20:12-13From my again, admittedly, allegorical interpretation of this commandment, wantonly endangering the lives of any elderly person is quite literally a sin. Even according to a strict interpretation of the words, not wearing a mask to protect your own parents would be the sin. Taking part in a culture of resistance to protective measures makes you complicit in endangering this vulnerable population whether you’re the one who infects your mom or a member of her church does.

Refusing to wear a mask while a virus ravages the weak is an indefensible position for anyone purporting to ascribe to Judeo-Christian values.

The author wearing an improvised home-made face coveringI didn’t need more reasons to cover my face in public during a pandemic, but, upon reflection, I found two more in my faith.

º The Republican party website, on its Platform page, has a poll “Why Are You A Republican?: Tell Us Which Principles Are Most Important To You.” The choices are compiled from previous visitors feedback, and include the option: “Culture should respect and protect life.”

Dated September 6, 2017, but behind a paywall. You could try searching for “The stark racial and religious divide between democrats and republicans in one chart.” Please note that the racial aspect of this chart had nothing to do with my point, but this was the first recent and reliable source I found for statistics on the religious makeup of the Republican party. Presumably there are Christian people of color in the Republican party as well, so it is likely that more than 73% of party members consider themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ.

* Catholic interpretation would say this is the 5th, not 6th, commandment.

Catholics omit the second clause, but the shared portion makes my point. For them, it is commandment number four.

Note: The author’s improvised face covering shown in the last photo is not ideal COVID-19 protection for others as it fits too loosely around the face. See the CDC for further advice. This hat+mask combination was my first attempt when PPE was still scarce for health care workers, but the idea of home-made cloth masks was introduced as a reasonable alternative for civilian wear in daily life. It was comprised of a napkin and pipe cleaners and designed to be worn on local walks where social distancing could usually be expected. A loose mask like this is still better than no face covering, however, and it is much easier to breathe in during socially distanced exercise.

Teen wearing medieval plague doctor mask leaving house for a walkMy teen opted for a rather more historical mask that he happened to have lying about the house. My claustrophobia would make this style very difficult for me to wear, but we did get some great photos that day.