One Orthodox freshman engages secular culture
By Yishai Schwartz
Since I arrived at Yale a few months ago to begin my freshman year, I have been in frequent conversations with my peers regarding my faith and observance. These conversations have taken place with people from a variety of backgrounds in a numerous contexts. The common denominator, though, was a full recognition and awareness that I was talking to the “other,” a person who neither shared my religious premises nor felt constrained by doctrinal Orthodoxy. These conversations and interactions, therefore, represent a major shift from my previous years of intensive Jewish thinking, years I have spent within the institutions and among practitioners of the modern Orthodox stream of Judaism with which I identify. And this very shift has allowed me to think about, articulate and advocate elements of my tradition I have never focused on before, and express perspectives and use mechanisms of explanation I would never had considered otherwise. These conversations, and the novelty of their formats, have deepened both my understanding of my Judaism and my relationships to those outside the fold.
However, at the heart of these interactions lie those tensions that naturally exist when a thinking religious person exits a world of comfortable religious homogeneity for an environment that champions diversity. And among the most significant conversations that a believer experiences in making this journey are those that raise red flags and highlight elements of tradition with which the believer is himself uncomfortable or simply unsure how to explain and handle. In the context of Orthodox Judaism, there are plenty of these elements: national particularism, kashrut, the biblical condemnation of homosexuality and the inequality of men and women in ritual law, to name only a few. In religious environments, questions about the reasons underlying these principles may be addressed occasionally, but the bottom line nearly always remains the fundamental need to remain subservient to the inscrutable divine will. Although this approach is remarkably unsatisfactory, the consistency with which it is applied eventually conditions a person into an ambivalent state of grudging acceptance. But that weak house of sticks and stones comes under fierce assault in an environment where personal choice is glorified and obedience to an inscrutable will sounds like crazy-talk. And so believers will talk to “outsiders” differently.
How we choose to address these questions with those who do not share our faith and observance, and the nuances and differences in approaches that we adopt in distinct situations, reveals deeper truths about how we ourselves view our traditions. In reflecting on these different approaches through the lens of my own experiences, I hope that we can understand these revelations better. Even more, I hope that we recognize that the difficult trial and error process that constitutes an individual’s navigation through the occasional turbulence of cultural dissonance (a process with which I am just beginning) deepens our understanding of our own beliefs, discomforts, insecurities and traditions.
Some of these difficult questions came up for me fairly early on in the year over lunch with friends from my philosophy class in Yale University’s Kosher dining hall. They asked very innocently: what is kashrut was and why does it exist? There was a moment of real paralysis. On the one hand, I wanted to be truthful and direct regarding the way I deal with the issue. But doing so would have required offering the non-explanation of the “we don’t understand God” variety. I have always struggled with the validity of such a response, but when faced with the prospect of saying such a thing to my peers, I balked. Instead, I resorted to a Maimonidean explanation. (Maimonides, who in his Guide to the Perplexed embarked on a project to provide reasons for as many commandments as he was able, has the virtue of being consistently rationalistic, even if his explanations ultimately fail to be fully compelling.)
But as I sat in my room later that evening, I couldn’t help but think that any answer that I wasn’t comfortable offering to others couldn’t possibly suffice for myself. If I were too embarrassed to say something to my classmates for fear of sounding ridiculous, wouldn’t that mean that I myself found the argument ridiculous? There is a terrible fear that accompanies such a realization; there is an awareness of the weakness of the defenses we have constructed against questioning, the dependence of those defenses on a particular environment for support and our own discomfort with those very same defenses.
At the same time though, there is a feeling of release and of justification as your explanation passes muster and draws approving nods of comprehension. Maybe Maimonides wasn’t so far off?! But it’s more than that. If I was willing to offer such an explanation to my peers, might that also be a sign that I find it to be meaningful and compelling myself? Since that conversation, when I felt the responsibility to actually argue for the Maimonidean position, (rather than against it, as has often been my tendency in the past) I have found myself more drawn to it, more convinced and more satisfied. And so in the awkwardness of justification and defensive argumentation, perhaps we find that explanations we have previously disregarded are actually personally helpful and fulfilling.
Or, did I lie to my classmates and am I now lying to myself again just as I lied to them? There is of course, still the very real possibility that I am really ready to commit to a divine law that I don’t understand, but that I self-justify internally just as much as I harness arguments to offer a pretty picture of Judaism to the outsider. If so, then that too has told me something about myself: that I am emotionally ready to submit even as I am made uncomfortable with that reality intellectually.
In presenting an explanation which I did not (initially, at least) find satisfactory, I was offering a “dishonest justification.” And after considering this and other similar episodes, I realized that the phenomenon of the “dishonest justification” holds real meaning and reflects deeply on a person’s own place and strength of faith. It represents a lack of confidence in a certain approach, either as a personal explanation or as a communicable truth. Even more, the offering of a “dishonest justification” challenges us to reconsider the basis for our obedience. Yet at the same time, the very fact that we are willing and struggling to offer a justification of any sort reflects on a deep commitment to the principle which we are attempting to justify. And the flexibility in the offering of explanations reflects an even deeper truth: Often, deep emotional/spiritual connections to the principle run deeper, and are far more significant, than any particular intellectual statement of rational support.
However, the decision to defend Orthodoxy through rational argumentation is only one of many possible responses to questions from the outside. There’s also plain old giving in. When challenged, a person can, and often does, say that all of this religion stuff is bogus anyway. People do this on both the large scale and a smaller scale all the time. But here once again, the challenge is precisely what allows, or more accurately, forces a person to decide what can be conceded and what cannot. I, for example, have nothing to say in defense of the inequality of the sexes, and so I don’t bother to defend the status-quo on anything other than procedural grounds (i.e. the importance of slow speed, religious authority figures and communal consensus in the process of halachic development). At the same time, I realize that those procedural matters matter to me, that I care strongly about how the Jewish legal process works, and that I am willing and able to offer that as reasoning to those who have no concept of the process I describe. So through being required to defend, I learn what I think can be defended.
Also, as much as concessions emphasize the elements that individuals stand ready to discard, the choice to concede highlights those places where we choose not to. And so I have discovered that while I can think confidently that gender inequality is wrong, I cannot say the same thing about prohibitions on homosexuality and forbidden food. In these, I find myself willing to say I do not understand. This manner of response has meaning as well. The contrast between my reactions to some complicated and thorny challenges and to others has confirmed for me, that it my mind, not all theological difficulties are created equal.
Sometimes, being asked a question by those without obedience to the tradition is precisely what allows the individual to determine which elements of the tradition he thinks must be obeyed. And in this context, not only are we probed, but if our answer is at odds with elements of the tradition, then the pressures of communal homogeneity that enforce doctrine are noticeably absent, and we are free to proceed as we like.
A third mechanism for dealing with these tougher questions is avoidance. Avoidance can take a number of forms: ironic self-deprecation, counter-questions or actually changing the topic (subtly, or not-so-subtly.) Over the course of the last few months, I have used the various forms of avoidance a number of times. But I realize that it has almost always been a reflex, a shield which allows me to avoid talking about things that I don’t want to talk about or ideas which I don’t want to think about at a particular moment. And this decision too reflects on the strength of a an individual’s faith, to what extent she is comfortable with confusion in religious life, and the degree to which she feels comfortable expressing herself in foreign environments.
When my classmates pressed me on the biblical condemnation of homosexuality, I was torn. Part of me finds the passage deeply troubling; at the same time, I am not prepared to throw out an explicit verse in Leviticus based on current conceptions and rejections of sexual normativity. But I didn’t particularly want to engage in that conversation over lunch, so I pivoted. I declared that I didn’t get why people make such a big deal out of homosexual sex when the Bible is just as clear in the banning of sex with a menstruating woman. Rather than addressing my questioners, I launched into a polemic against the “buffet religious” who emphasize those biblical passages which support their own personal feelings and ignore those which are inconvenient. This changed the topic, but it hardly made the underlying question go away. I sidestepped a thorny moment, but I didn’t really help clarify anything. Indeed, both biblical prohibitions and punishments appear in the same biblical list, so equating the two just shifts the brutal moral question from one verse to two.
Besides righteous indignation against some other group even more offensive in their religious practice, humor also plays a crucial role in allowing us to avoid really addressing the tougher questions. When asked how, as a believer, I could be so dismissive of polytheism, I responded: “Well, atheism makes the most sense. So clearly the fewer gods the better.” I got a laugh, but I didn’t really clarify anything for anyone. Then there was the time that a friend asked me about some of the more minor details of Shabbat observance. The conversation quickly degenerated into giggling over some of the more silly-sounding Talmudic discussions and esoteric legal minutia. But as I walked away, I realized I hadn’t made any statements of explanation or justification.
This mode of dealing with tough questions, like false justification or concession, follows on the heels of a lack of confidence in the strength of our own convictions. Because we are uncomfortable addressing certain problems with outsiders, worried that they will not understand our premises and assumptions or respect our perspectives, we pivot and avoid.
But the methods of avoidance also have significance. Self-mockery or polemics against other groups reflect a desire for acceptance and inclusion. When we laugh at ourselves and our traditions, we set ourselves up as outsiders to the very tradition which we practice. And the reason we do that is crystal clear: we want to be the same as those we talk to, we want to be understood and we want to be accepted. And by becoming the other for that one laugh, we can connect with the person we talk to as we never could have otherwise.
So too with my criticism of those who privilege one sexual prohibition over another. I pivoted to this point, not because it answered the question being asked, but because it allowed me to eliminate the gap between speakers. I was no longer representing and defending the offensive texts of a bizarre religion, I was part of a group united by our common vilification of those people “even worse” than I. This mode of avoidance then, not only sidesteps uncomfortable questions but addresses the fundamental insecurity that lies at the heart of why those questions were uncomfortable. Through self-mockery and polemic, we eliminate the chasm between insider and outsider and find commonality with our interlocutors in common criticism of ourselves or others.
Discomfort with religious practice isn’t a necessity. Earlier this year, I sat with some Moslem students at their Ramadan break-fast. After a few minutes, one began to speak freely about the animal sacrifices that her family continues to perform back home. I was intrigued by the ceremony, but even more so, I was impressed with the freedom and nonchalance with which she spoke. I could never have talked about a religious ritual diametrically opposed to modern values so directly, openly and honestly.
But then again, I wondered: would she have spoken this openly in an environment which was not specifically geared toward the presentation of ritual? Would she have felt as secure discussing animal sacrifice with someone who didn’t openly identify with a faith that prays daily for the return of the Temple cult? I can’t answer for her, but I suspect that feelings of insecurity when explaining observance is a phenomenon that exists across religion, time, or place. And the deep-seated desire to belong, to identify with those with whom we speak is as fundamental human need as any.
This then is the true real newness (and perhaps danger) of discourse with the “outsider.” The questions and theological challenges that the “other” presents aren’t really new, but the immediacy and stakes that rest on the answers are higher. No longer are answers simply intellectual confirmations of emotionally and communally established truths. Rather, our answers now have real world meaning: our relationships, friendships and personal respectability seem to depend on our ability to articulate our faith and observance in an understandable, palatable and respectable fashion. In these conversations with those outside our faith-communities, our reflections and analyses are deeper and more meaningful, because our conclusions will determine something practical: whether the “other” remains “other.”
But perhaps that “otherness” is part of the point. In the Bible, sanctity and separation are two halves of the same coin. The same Torah portion which contains so many of those rituals that we often find problematic ends with the commandment: “And you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Leviticus: 20:26). The Jew is in some sense ordained and prescribed to be separate. S/he is connected to a Law which can perhaps never be fully understood or explained, and which can only be truly accepted through the experience and conditioning of being raised in an environment of its enforcement. And yet we choose to live in the world and we desire to connect and participate fully with the peers who surround us and with the values of a modern culture. And so we totter and rebalance, rethinking our choices, self-justifying, conceding and avoiding tough questions. And through that process we are afforded the opportunity to rediscover and redefine our own practice, and to choose to what extent we will be a nation apart and/or connect fully and absolutely with our peers.