Moral Outrage in the time of COVID

The other day I was talking to a colleague who is a medical ethicist. This woman who is also an Orthodox Rabbi, consults with hospitals in the Northeast. In this time, in this moment, the conversation that is happening is about triage and scarce resources. Four people come into the Emergency Room presenting COVID symptoms and in respiratory distress. There are only three respirators. Who gets the respirators? Who lives and who dies? These are decisions that are made by doctors and nurse practitioners and ethicists constantly.

My colleague told me that the term they are using for the resulting emotional tumult that the medical personell experience is moral anguish. The anguish that comes from having to make impossible choices on a regular basis, day in and day out. 

In thinking about our conversation I was very bothered. I was, of course, pained by the impossible choices that have to be made, and grateful that someone else was making them, and overwhelmed by the anguish that making those choices would cause. However, I was bothered by something else. I though of it as moral rage. The rabbis called it taromet, a Hebrew word which comes from the same root as the word ra’am which means thunder. 

In the Mishnah, the 3rd century text which is the cornerstone of the Jewish legal tradition, in discussing labor law, the following is found: 

If one hired workers and they deceived each other, they have no legally valid complaint but only cause for taromet/outrage.

There is a lot that is ambiguous about this text. It is those ambiguities—the use of pronouns, i.e. “they deceived each other”—that keeps me employed as a Talmud professor. However, the Babylonian Talmud, the major commentary on the mishnah explains that the type case we are talking about is when an employer or their agent deceives workers into hiring on at a lower salary than the employer would have been willing to pay. When this deception comes to light, it is, for the rabbis, obviously a moral lapse, an injustice. However, since the workers agreed to the lower wage, it is not a violation of the law and therefore the only avenue that is left open is taromet/moral rage. 

The moral decisions that front line clinical medical workers have to make are built upon a much wider foundation of unjust and immoral decisions that have been made over the past many years. The moral anguish distracts, in a sense, from the necessary moral outrage. We don’t have enough ventilators or PPE or other vital equipment because of the way the supply chain was created. The supply chain was created such that everything would be produced “Just in Time” in order to be more “efficient”. What efficient means is that it cuts down on “waste” in labor and materials. It also means that there are no stockpiles because there is no profit and there is no governmental leadership to value lives over that profit. 

At this moment we have to honor all those who are suffering moral anguish from having to make truly impossible decisions. But it is incumbent upon us to also tap into out moral outrage, our taromet. This virus has only made obvious, and exacerbated, systemic inequities that already existed—in our carceral and justice system, in our immigration system, and our housing systems. Now that they are obvious we must try to fix them to save lives now and create a more just society in which we can live after the plague. 

Why are we so mean?

On Thursday April 23, U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter granted a motion brought by the ACLU representing several detainees at the Adelanto Detention Center. The judge ordered that Adelanto not accept any new detainees; that they immediately reduce the immigrant population so that detainees can practice social distancing; that the facility complete the reduction in immigrant detainees within a week. This is, of course, happening in the context of the novel Coronavirus and the fear that any infection in the facility would sweep through the whole institution like a wildfire.

The judge in a prior ruling recognizing the detainees as a class, said that the detainees were being held in conditions that are ‘inconsistent with contemporary standards of human decency.’ He found that there is neither enough soap nor cleaning products, and it is impossible for detainees to maintain the recommended distance of six feet with another person. 

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Big News about Daf Shvui

You may have noticed that daf shvui has not made its appearance on this platform in a couple of weeks. I have moved that project off and it is now a podcast. You can access it here: https://dafshvui.buzzsprout.com/  and in all the places (Apple, Spotify, Stitcher). I hope you listen to it and subscribe and tell me what you think about it. (Latest episode here.) My intention now is to resume using Justice in the City for discussions of Judaism and Social Justice like it says on the home page. Thanks for sticking around.

Daf shvu’i: Give me forty minutes or so and I’ll give you a daf or so / Baba bathra 10b-11b

Another week, another story of the Queen Mother. (Not that Queen Mother, Ifra Hormiz the mother of Shapur II of course.) More charity, then the perennial question: how do we divide up this courtyard? It’s almost unbelievable that no one has written a folk song about it. Please stop watching the impeachment trial for a beat (spoiler: he’s guilty, he’ll be find not guilty) and join us in the Sea of Talmud. No experience necessary.

As always, my deepest gratitude to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.

Daf shvu’i: Give me forty minutes or so and I’ll give you a daf or so / Baba bathra 10a-10b

WE’RE BACK! And so is daf shvu’i. I hope you had a restful rejuvenating break over the various holidays. Now its time to forget all that and dive into the sea of Talmud. This week we continue the discussion of poverty relief beginning with a confrontation between Rabbi Aqiva and Turnus Rufus, the guy who is at times “credited” with destroying the Temple. Their theological debate leads into a longish disquisition on the merits of giving charity.

This weeks daf is longer than usual, so forty minutes is more like fifty minutes. So, get your beverage of choice, your talmud edition of choice and come on in!

Thanks, as always, to Eli Ungar Sargon for the sound editing.

Daf shvu’i: Give me forty minutes or so and I’ll give you a daf or so

This week we dive into Baba Bathra 8b-9b. We discuss the integrity of the poverty relief system, the textual grounding of unions, the need or not to verify the claims of impoverished people seeking help. And, how could we not, a story of a Rabbi who drove his mother crazy.

As always, deepest thanks to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.

Daf Shvu’i: Give me 40 minutes or so and I’ll give you a daf or so

This week we get into the longest extended discussion of poverty relief in the Babylonian Talmud. Along with the serious business of assessing, collecting, and distributing taxes for infrastructure and poverty relief, there is the serious business of meeting Elijah the Prophet, and watching Rabbi Judah the Prince deal with famine. Also, should Sages pay taxes?

As always, deepest gratitude to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.

Daf Shvu’i: Give me 40 minutes or so and I’ll teach you a daf or so…

After a hiatus as a result of the sukkot holidays and a sojourn to DC to attend the JStreet conference (which will make some of you think I’m a leftie, and some think I’ve gone over to the right), Daf Shvu’i returns. The simple premise is that we learn a page of talmud every week. We started at the beginning of Tractate Baba Bathra and this week finish page 5b and study 6a and most of 6b. If you want to follow along, the daf is here or here.

As always, deepest thanks go to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.

Choose Life: Thoughts on Yom Kippur

The framing of the Yom Kippur ritual in Torah is fascinating and disturbing. In the Torah the Yom Kippur ritual, which is actually the one off desert ritual of cleansing the Tabernacle of sin, which was then converted by the Holiness code, and then the Rabbis, into the annual Yom Kippur Temple ritual, is introduced with the following verses: 

וַיְדַבֵּר ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי ה׳ וַיָּמֻתוּ

וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל יָבֹא בְכָל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל פְּנֵי 

הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֹן וְלֹא יָמוּת כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת

And God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons when they came forward before God and died. And God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come at all times into the sacred zone within the curtain in front of the cover that is on the Ark, lest he die. For in the cloud I shall appear over the cover.”

As one of the great Hassidic masters says: והספיקות רבו/and the questions are many. In these two verses, God speaks to Moses twice, וידבר ה׳ and then ויאמר ה׳, but only after the second introduction “and God said to Moses” do we hear what God said. Aaron only had two sons, so would it not have been enough to say Aaron’s sons rather than Aaron’s two sons? The verse says that God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons. This might imply that it was immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu—but that happened a while ago, and God has said many things between then and now. Also, speaking of Nadav and Avihu, why did the Torah not mention them by name rather than just saying Aaron’s two sons? Why is the incident of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths described as בקרבתם לפני ה׳ וימותו/when they came forward before God and died, rather than offering an explanation for why they died as in Leviticus 10, where it says that they brought foreign or strange fire before God? The verse here seems to be saying that they merely came “close to” God, or “came before” God and they died. 

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