James Madison and Disability

In “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” author Lynne Cheney demonstrates that Mr. Madison’s epilepsy fundamentally affected who he was as a politician. What specifically caught my attention was the connection between his condition and the first amendment to the Constitution.

The “people first” language of the disability rights movement asserts that we are not “handicapped, epileptics,or wheelchair-bound,” but rather a person with a handicap, a person with epilepsy, or a person in a wheelchair. The difference is that first they are people just like any other. Their condition doesn’t define them, but rather gets integrated into their personhood just like a person’s height, hair color, or temperament.

James Madison read widely on the subject of epilepsy, seeking a cause for and hoping to prevent his “sudden attacks.” Christian sources suggested that they a person who exhibited symptoms of seizures was a lunatic, possessed by the devil or a dumb spirit, or sinful. He struggled with this explanation, which didn’t ring true. He found in other books suggestions that regular exercise and sufficient sleep could prevent seizures.

It is likely that Madison used the same investigative logic with which he researched his physical condition to also examine his spiritual condition. Just as he cast aside the notion that Satan was the cause of his epilepsy, he also began to move away from other ideas of traditional religion.

He began to understand that religion, like science and medicine, needs to be tested. In order to test religion, society needs free and open discourse on religion. When government and religion are connected, it is not possible to openly question religious precepts. Thus, there is a direct line from Madison’s epilepsy to his questioning of religious texts to his belief in the separation of church and state as expressed in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Next up in the presidential biography series: “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness.”

Psalm 66

O peoples, bless our God, celebrate God’s praises; the One who has granted us life, and has not let our feet slip. (66:8-9)

Several years ago I met Rabbi Ronnie Cahana while visiting Camp Ramah in Canada. He serves a congregation in Montreal. Our paths crossed because his daughter was in the same age group as my sons. He was warm and friendly. I enjoyed the few days I spent getting to know him, and remembered the encounter. Just a couple years after that meeting, in 2011, he had a stroke. He was paralyzed from just below his eyes down. His mental faculties were intact – a condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His daughter Kitra recently gave a very powerful TED talk describing how she and the rest of his family transcribed his communication through blinks, which allowed him to continue to share his Torah and his poetry with his congregation and on his web site, rabbicahana.com.

I watched the video of Kitra’s talk . The next day, I received an email from Pam, a college friend whose mother suffered a major stroke early in October. She wrote that she was away from home with her mother for nearly five weeks, taking care of her throughout her recovery and the search for a facility that will be able to take care of her after Pam returned home to her family. Her mom is mostly cognitively intact and cannot move the right side of body, but because she suffered the stroke about 36 hours before she was found and treatment could begin, she will not recover fully.

“Bless God … who has not let our feet slip.” From the first moment that he could communicate, Rabbi Cahana comforted his family and his congregation, assuring them that his experience was a blessing, that he found God within the silence of his body. He continued to teach Torah, he continued to counsel members of his congregation, while in a condition that most of us would have found intolerable.

“Bless God … who has not let our feet slip.” Pam found spiritual comfort in some of my Psalm reflections and other blog posts, but I find spiritual comfort in hearing about the love and strength she exhibits in the face of tremendous hardship. Away from her husband and children, she was willingly taking on the task of caring for the mother who embraced her and cared for her.

I have long disliked the aphorism, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Most of us handle whatever we need to handle, but some of us, overwhelmed, do not handle things well at all. For me, a theology that suggests that God “piles it on” for those who can handle it is perverse. Rabbi Cahana is standing firm and my friend Pam is standing firm; both under very trying circumstances. “Thank God … they have kept their footing.”

Psalm 42

Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God! (42:2-3)

The human desire to form a relationship with a creator is natural, although the new generation of atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, see it as a delusion. We are constantly trying to make sense of the complicated world in which we live by using the scientific method of identifying cause and effect. Every object was created through some process, and if we trace the creation of the object back far enough, we can discover how the object functions. We identify the rules by which the object was created and continues to operate in the world. We might even identify the original purpose of the object, and its original creator or designer.

By understanding the world, we think we can improve it. The desire to understand, to fix, to improve, is part of the same internal soul-inclination that directs so many of us to want to be in a relationship with God, or that directs some of us to loudly and angrily deny that such a relationship can ever exist.

My support of same sex relationships is based on the idea that the desire to be in relationship is a fundamental human need. We need parents and teachers to nurture us as children, we need siblings or friends to teach us about peer relationships, and for many, the desire to marry and possibly produce a new generation of children is our ultimate goal in forming relationships.

I affirm the possibility of reading Leviticus 18 either as a limited prohibition on same sex sexuality or as no longer halakhically applicable, based on a paper by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avram Reisner; or as argued in a paper by Rabbi David Greenstein, or in a book by Rabbi Steven Greenberg. The powerful image of a soul thirsting for the presence of God is no less true with respect to a human relationship. To deny a gay or lesbian individual the opportunity to have intimate partnership is to sentence him or her to live without the fulfillment of a fundamental human need.

Psalm 19

The Torah of Adonai is perfect, renewing life… (19:8)

One question that comes up frequently in the comments to my “Ethics and Religion Talk” columns is ‘how can we base a system of ethics on a piece of literature that gives laws which are unethical according to our contemporary standards?’

I have written one column addressing this question in the context of The Hebrew Bible’s apparent acceptance of the (for us) immoral practice of slavery by mandating a set of laws proscribing proper treatment of slaves.

It has also come up in connect with the Biblical law that a rapist must marry the woman whom he raped, and the apparent second class status of Priests with disabilities.

These are some of the questions posed against any religious tradition which holds the Hebrew Bible to be sacred scripture. The only truthful response to these challenges is to say that Torah reflects the reality of the society in which it was created. Its laws were in fact progressive compared to contemporary non-Biblical legal systems, even though they are primitive compared to our laws. Ah, there’s the rub – how can the Bible be perfect/revealed/word of God if they laws of the Bible are not perfect. If God is omniscient and perfect, then why don’t the laws of the Bible reflect a perfectly evolved system of law.

We might understand the Bible as an eternal book whose meaning transcends time, and/or as a product of God’s revelation. Nevertheless, the Bible came into existence as a specific time and place in history, and its language, style, and content spoke to that first generation who embraced its wisdom.

The best way to understand the Bible is to contrast it with contemporary wisdom and law in the ancient Near East. In the code of Hammurabi (a Babylonian law code), we can read about slave treatment that is truly brutal. Against that backdrop, the Hebrew Bible is a giant step towards humane treatment of slaves. It is not unreasonable to presume that the Hebrew Bible deliberately sought to wean humanity away from slavery.

The Bible has undergone constant reinterpretation over the many generations since it first came into being. What was acceptable to one generation was no longer acceptable to later generations. The Bible is timeless because from its inception, it was intended to be a progressive, rather than a static, code of law and behavior.

Why My Blind Son is Coming Home on Sunday, part 2

Just a little more than 48 hours ago, I was told that my blind son Solomon needed to come home on Sunday. It was a decision made by the director of Camp Ramah in Canada in consultation with a number of staff members.
A few minutes ago, Solomon told us that he is coming home on Sunday. This time, it is his decision. In the past 48 hours, a number of remarkable things happened.
First of all, I’d like to reiterate the fact that for the past five seasons, Solomon has been under the care of some remarkable counselors, teachers, waterfront staff, and other professionals at Camp Ramah in Canada. He has been supported, taught, and guided with care and love.
Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances and extremely poor communication, the tremendously painful events described in part one of this post occurred earlier this week. The response to my article was for the most part supportive and helpful. I am grateful for all who commented on the blog, reposted on facebook and/or commented there, and otherwise spread the word. At the same time, my 12 year old daughter Sarah started a petition drive at Ramah to support Solomon, collecting 240 signatures. Other staff members approached the director offering to take a larger role in helping out Sol. The result was that the director experienced a complete change of heart regarding how he handled the matter. He called and expressed a sincere apology, to Solomon, to me, and to my wife. He took a second look at how staff could be assigned for the second month. He assigned one more person to be Sol’s advocate, and at my request, assigned a new parent liaison, Hillel Kurlandsky, to be Sol’s Yoetz, advisor/social worker.
Marisa and I were satisfied that the director sincerely realized that he had made a serious mistake, and took all of the necessary steps to correct it. At this point, the final decision of whether to stay for the rest of the summer was Solomon’s. Given all of the emotional upheaval that had occurred, we were not 100% sure that Solomon would still want to stay at camp. Sol and Hillel had two lengthy conversations, each more than an hour in length. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Hillel reported that Sol was remarkably mature and clear in his analysis of why he should stay — primarily, because so many people had worked so hard to reverse the decision of the camp — and why he should not stay. Of course, I wish Sol would have chosen to stay, but given what he’s been through, I understand why he has made the decision to come home.
I don’t know if he still wants to go back to camp next year. I don’t know if we can or should try to convince the camp to make allowances in a program designed to train counselors and other support staff, to accommodate a camper who currently does not have the ability to function as a counselor in training or a helper in most areas of camp. I’m sure that if the camp was willing and if Solomon was committed to it, we could find an area in which he could contribute meaningfully. I think we need to take a step away from questions about camp right now, and come back to it in a couple of months after the strong emotions have faded somewhat.
In the end, I want you to know that I still believe in the Camp Ramah experience, and I think I can rebuild my love for Camp Ramah in Canada. This unfortunate episode appears to be the result of a chaotic transition to new leadership; a new director, Ron Polster, who blundered quite badly. Ron, I want to thank you for acknowledging your mistakes. We are all entitled to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them and make appropriate apologies to those we harm along the way.
To those dedicated Ramah staff who I have hurt in the past 48 hours, I apologize. I am sorry for the damage I have done to the reputation of Camp Ramah in Canada by bringing this event into the light of public scrutiny. I did so only because I thought it was the only way that I could effect change.