“In Particular With Regard to Dietary Matters”

In today’s Post, Chris Selley wonders whether Quebec’s proposed values charter will turn out to be a paper tiger, qualified as it is with all sorts of conditions and loopholes.

“When an accommodation is requested,” Bill 60 explains, “the public body must refuse to grant it if, in the context, the refusal is warranted for security or identification reasons or because of the level of communication required.” …  Private companies doing government work, for example, might have to adhere to the new rules regarding religious symbols “if such a requirement is warranted in the circumstances, in particular because of the duration, nature or place of performance of the contract or agreement.”  That’s not what you’d call specific.

Selley may well be right.  But his third example of a seemingly qualified or conditional restriction caught my eye:

A repeated activity or practice stemming from a religious precept, in particular with regard to dietary matters, must not be authorized if its aim, through words or actions, is to teach children that precept.

To Selley, this framing seems almost designed to allow for lax enforcement: “Is young Mordecai becoming more Jewish as he eats his kosher lunch, or is he just eating his lunch? … [G]ood luck to the inspectors[] trying to figure that one out.”

But here’s the thing: Jewish laws (the “mitzvot” or commandments) are, by tradition, divided into two main categories.  The first, “mishpatim,” are commandments “whose benefits in this world are evident, such as the prohibitions of stealing and murder,” as Maimonides explained nearly a thousand years ago.  The second category of laws are called “chukim,” often translated as “decrees”; they are the commandments “whose reasons are not evident.”

Jewish tradition teaches that both categories of commandments are of equal stature, and that all commandments must be fulfilled.  But tradition recognizes that the motivation involved in fulfilling each category differs.  We follow the mishpatim because we recognize the divine wisdom reflected in the order they establish.  We follow the chukim because God said so.

Guess which category the kosher laws are in?

“The chukim are those mitzvot,” Maimonides explained, “whose reasons are not evident … such as the prohibition of pig’s meat, [or] meat and milk.”  As a kid I remember being told that pigs were inherently (and literally) filthy – that they lived in their own filth and muck.  That may or may not be true, but it’s certainly not why they’re not kosher.  They’re not kosher because God said they’re not kosher.  And we don’t eat them because He said not to.

So maybe young Mordecai isn’t “becoming more Jewish” when he eats his kosher lunch in class.  But as a matter of Jewish tradition – and by tradition here I mean Jewish understanding and interpretation of Jewish law – Mordecai is certainly participating in a “repeated activity or practice stemming from a religious precept … [whose] aim, through words or actions, is to teach … that precept.”  That’s a pretty good, rough and ready definition of what the chukim are – practices based on precepts whose purpose is to teach the precepts.

Curiously, the relevant section of Bill 60 makes explicit reference to “dietary matters” as an example of such a precept-teaching practice.

Or perhaps it’s not so curious.

So Here’s the Thing

I get the desire for vigilante justice for the boys who allegedly raped Rehtaeh Parsons.  Her story is so sad, her life so short, her death so unnecessary that we desperately seek some sort of response – and we’re outraged that there’s been none.  So we fantasize about naming and shaming the boys, shaming and hounding the police, making heads roll, knowing that we can’t right the wrongs done to Rehtaeh but wanting to make damned sure the wrongdoers suffer even a fraction of the pain she suffered for months and years before it became too much.

I get it.  But it misses the point.

Rehtaeh went to a party when she was fifteen.  What happened at the party is, according to press reports, a matter of he-said/she-said: she said she was raped; he – or they, four unnamed “boys” – apparently said she consented to sex.  That there was sex is undisputed: one of the boys took a picture, and sent that picture around, and the people who got it forwarded it on, and soon enough it seemed that everyone had seen it.  And they shamed Rehtaeh, and called her a slut; they texted her, even if they didn’t know her, and asked for sex; they harassed her on Facebook; they wouldn’t leave her alone, wouldn’t let up about it, even when she moved away.  They tormented her for years – maybe not constantly, but enough.  Whether or not Rehtaeh had other troubles; whether or not she suffered mental illness – the shaming, the tormenting, the harassment was enough.

I’m choosing my words carefully here because I have an important point to make and I want to make it as clearly as I can without being misunderstood, so bear with me, and if you can’t believe I’m saying what I’m saying, please ask me if that’s what I’m really saying.  Here’s what I want to say:

It matters a great deal whether or not Rehtaeh consented to have sex with anyone at that party when she was fifteen.  It matters because we each have an unassailable right to control our bodies, to decide whether, when, with whom and how to have sex.  It matters because each of those decisions is immeasurably more fraught when faced by a kid, a teen, especially (I think) a teen girl, especially at a party, especially when there’s booze, especially when there are cliques and judgment and pressure and hormones and confusion.  It matters because sex with an unconsenting partner is not cool, or masculine, or expected, or just one of those things – it’s rape.  So when I say what I’m about to say, I don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t matter whether or not Rehtaeh was raped.  For the reasons I’ve just given, and a thousand reasons besides, it matters a great deal.

But it also doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter, because the manner in which she was treated is unacceptable and unforgivable regardless of whether she consented to sex that night.  Assume, just for a moment, just for the purposes of illustration, that she consented to have sex at that party.  Assume that she knew, and in a moment of madness and indiscretion did not object, when someone in the room took the picture.  How – how in the world – how would that possibly make it okay to share the story, and the picture, with everyone at school?  And once the picture went around – a picture that we’re assuming, just for the moment, was taken with knowledge and consent, showing consensual sex – once that picture went around, how would the circumstances possibly justify shaming her, calling her a slut, harassing her on the phone and on Facebook?

Assume everything that the boys said was true, and you’re still left with a fundamental human failure – a failure of empathy, of humility, of respect.  Now add the barest suggestion that things weren’t consensual, and that failure – a failure entirely separate from the failures of the law and law enforcement – is compounded a hundred- and thousand-fold.

By all means, let’s figure out how the system failed Rehtaeh Parsons.  Let’s find out whether the police dropped the ball in their investigation, failed to act quickly, failed to make every effort to develop a case against the boys.  Let’s figure out whether our laws are too lax, whether they could be revised, or new ones written, to prevent, or at least punish, the undisputed conduct here.  Let’s treat this as a failure of the system, and let’s address that.

But let’s not pretend that legal reform, or disciplining police or prosecutors, or meting vigilante justice on the accused will fix the failures that drove Rehtaeh Parsons to suicide.  Those were human failures, and it’s not up to the police, or the courts, or the law to fix those.  It’s up to us.



We Get E-Mail

From: David Mader
To: Canadian Consulate, New York
Re: Question Regarding Authorization to Acquire a Firearm


I’m a Canadian citizen residing in New Jersey, currently on a non-immigrant NAFTA (TN) permit.  Pursuant to United States law, non-immigrants in my situation are prohibited from acquiring firearms; however, a non-immigrant may obtain a waiver of this prohibition by petitioning the Attorney General of the United States and submitting, inter alia, “a written statement from the embassy or consulate of the petitioner, authorizing the petitioner to acquire a firearm or ammunition.”  18 U.S.C. §922(y)(3)(B)(ii).

I haven’t been able to locate any published criteria by which the consulate would issue such an authorization.  Would you please tell me whether the consulate (or the Department more generally) has a policy regarding such authorizations, and if so, would you please forward me a copy of any such policy?

Thank you very much,

David Mader

From: Canadian Consulate, New York
To: David Mader

Dear Mr. Mader:

After lengthy inquiries regarding your request, we believe that the first step would be for you to contact the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to find out what they specifically require from both an applicant and their foreign government in order for them to consider such an application and whether an individual in your particular visa situation would be eligible to petition for a waiver.


Consular Section

Offered Without Comment

… but in the admitted hope of blowing your mind:

Justice Thomas, in particular, remained willing to front new theories on critical questions, often writing only for himself, as in NAMUDNO. No other member of the Court is so independent in his thinking. The irony of course is that there remains a public perception, rooted in ignorance, that he is the handmaiden of other conservative Justices, particularly Justice Scalia. I disagree profoundly with Justice Thomas’s views on many questions, but if you believe that Supreme Court decisionmaking should be a contest of ideas rather than power, so that the measure of a Justice’s greatness is his contribution of new and thoughtful perspectives that enlarge the debate, then Justice Thomas is now our greatest Justice.