Thursday, December 17, 2015


I have generally been an admirer of Dennis Prager’s writing, and particularly of the books he jointly authored with Joseph Telushkin. Nonetheless, I found myself aghast at a piece he published the other week on the website, the on-line presence of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal, in which he writes acidulously about people who wish to find a dignified place in the world for transgender people. He admits readily that it must be “awful” to go through life possessed of the conviction that you are a prisoner in your own body, that your gender and sex are so out of sync that you can’t find a place for yourself in the world, that neither of the doors at the end of the hall leading to the restrooms (the one labelled “Men” and the other, “Women”) feels as though it describes you in quite the same way it appears to describe everybody else in the world, or almost everybody. But when he turns his withering gaze to people (like myself) who feel for such people and wish to find a way for them to function in society other than as outcasts and freaks (and other than by telling them they simply can’t go to school, can’t join a gym, can’t use a public restroom, can’t frequent a public swimming pool, etc.), he seems to have forgotten the pain that he himself acknowledges surely must result from feeling trapped in your own skin and writes as though gender dysphoria were just another thing someone somewhere made up to justify special treatment for some tiny group of whiners who don’t want to play by the same rules as the rest of the world.

Then, to add fuel to his fire, he turns to his readers and attempts to explain how, given the Torah’s prohibition of crossdressing, any Jewish person could possibly fall for the whole transgender scam in the first place. (The fact that transvestitism and gender dysphoria are not at all the same thing appears unknown to the author.) First, he suggests shamelessly that those who don’t share his view about transgender people must obviously also believe, and I quote, that “the Torah is essentially useless as a guide to living,” and that, whenever their own opinion differs from that put forth in Scripture, they must be the kind of spiritual egotists who simply assume that the Torah, not they themselves, must be wrong. And then, as if that line of thinking weren’t insulting enough, he offers an alternate explanation: that any who feel for transgender people must clearly have been tricked by their own sense of compassion into betraying the values of their faith and their God.

I don’t want to write here about the issues of transgendered people per se. It’s a big topic that I hope to address in more detail at a later time and it’s also true that my own thinking is evolving slowly as I learn more and read more. Instead, I’d like to discuss the concept of compassion…and particularly in light of the suggestion in Prager’s article that allowing one’s sense of compassion to justify the effort to bring one’s allegiance to Scripture into sync with one’s sense of right and wrong is a sign of spiritual depravity, or at least of one’s arrogant assumption that one is more able than God to find the boundary line between right and wrong.

Compassion, for most people, is an apple-pie value, a moral attribute so unambiguously virtuous so as to make it odd even to question its worth. The word in English suggests as much: the “com” part means “with,” and the “passion” part comes from the Greek word for “suffering.” Thus “compassion” is the quality of being able not solely to suffer in your own right, but to feel—or at least to feel sensitive to—the misery also of others. Compassionate people, therefore, live at the intersection of sympathy and empathy, always trying to be guided not only by the way they themselves feel, but also—and perhaps even more so—by the way they imagine other people feel. The compassionate individual, therefore, is someone who understands that kindness does not imply moral weakness, let alone depravity, but moral strength: it is the quality of seeing the world through another’s eyes and acting accordingly not because one is too stupid to have an opinion of one’s own, but because one has enough respect for others also to respect their opinions and the specific way they view and interpret the world.

To apply the concept to the transgender people of this world is not to be weak-willed or foolish, let alone immoral. It is merely to look at someone suffering in the world and, instead of mocking that person for having to struggle with issues with which you yourself have been spared from having to grapple, finding it in your heart to wish for that person to find a path forward in life that does not involve endless degradation or self-denial. Prager’s coarse prediction that treating transgendered people with compassion will lead directly to schools being required, eventually by law, to allow young people with boys’ bodies to parade around naked in the girls’ locker room seems beyond exaggerated: the idea that embracing compassion will lead directly to public vulgarity seems to me to posit a bizarrely narrow sense of how people suffering from gender dysphoria—and particularly young people—could be helped without that help impinging on the natural rights of all people to feel secure and safe in public washrooms and in their swimming pools’ changing areas and in the locker rooms at their gyms. (The locker room issue is real, to be sure: click here and here. My point is that there’s something inherently bogus about supposition that the only choices are to tolerate inappropriate, unsettling behavior or to treat transgender young people harshly and without compassion. Surely, a nation as clever as our own can come up with a solution that leaves the dignity of all parties intact!)

And then Prager goes on to give another example of misplaced compassion leading its adherents down the road to perdition: race-based affirmative action. Affirmative action is the kind of complicated concept, the constitutionality of which the Supreme Court itself is currently attempting to unravel. Nor is it obvious, constitutional or not, how effective a tool it actually is. The latest argument against, usually referenced with the word “mismatch,” implies that giving students drawn from underrepresented minorities places in colleges to which they might not otherwise be admitted is actually a disservice to them, since they cannot possibly compete with the “regular” students who got into those schools in the normal way and without any extra help. This, in Prager’s opinion, constitutes yet another example of how compassion can lead past “just” political correctness to actual harm.

Justice Roberts makes sense to me when he notes that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” And there are surely many real reasons to consider the whole “mismatch” issue seriously. Just lately I’ve read two pieces on the topic on the website of the Washington Post which impressed me and which I recommend to my readers. In one of them, Richard H. Sander, a professor of law at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, argues persuasively that the best interests of minority students are not served by helping them into schools in which they are unlikely to succeed. In the other, by Richard Rothstein, senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California [Berkeley] School of Law, the author makes an equally persuasive argument that the whole “mismatch” issue is exaggerated and that the only practical way to deal with the hurdles young black students face as they make their way forward in the world is to make sure that they are not denied educational opportunities that by all rights should be theirs. Both make excellent arguments, but, regardless of which view eventually prevails, the underrepresentation of certain racial, ethnic, and social-class-based minorities in our best universities is a real issue to be pondered by Americans devoted to equality and, yes, possessed of a spirit of compassion for the disadvantaged. (To see Sander’s piece, click here. To see Rothstein’s essay, which originally appeared in American Prospect, click here.) In any event, both authors clearly have the same larger goal in mind: the creation of a color-blind society in which race neither enhances anyone’s chances for success nor detracts from it. Nor would either argue, I suspect, that there is anything base about feeling compelled by one’s sense of compassion for the underprivileged to work for a more just society. To determine how best actually to help is a different issue. But to argue that compassion itself is the problem is, at best, a perverse argument to make at all, and particularly for someone as steeped in Jewish tradition as Dennis Prager.

Prager’s essay ends with a rhetorical question: “If the Torah is not our guide, who or what will be?” It sounds like such a simple choice when put that way: either we embrace the Torah and allows it to guide us forward, or else we discard it and choose a different book or individual as the font of wisdom from which we drink and as our moral guide through life. But that is more of a fool’s choice than a serious one. We hold fast to the Torah as our tree of life and we endlessly study its intricacies and riddles. But for all our endless lip-service to notion of the Torah as God-given Scripture suffused with its Author’s divine spirit, we are not biblical Jews whose sole allegiance is to the simple meaning of Scripture and neither have Jews ever believed that it could be possible to be faithful to God’s law while behaving immorally at the same time. To look at someone who is riven with conflict about his or her gender-identity and not to respond with kindness, with compassion, and with a willingness to work to find a way for such people to know the kind of inner peace that comes naturally to people not afflicted with gender dysphoria—that would be to turn our back on the lessons the Torah teaches to see the divine image in all humankind…and to bring only compassion and kindness to bear in evaluating the downcast and the marginalized in society. And it would also be to ignore the fact that being compassionate is specifically listed in Scripture as one of the thirteen attributes of God, a virtue therefore to be cherished and embraced by all who would walk in God’s ways.

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