Mocking Versus Understanding Religion

Today a friend* posted this on Facebook:

I’m here at the Detroit airport waiting for my flight back to New Jersey. There’s a Jewish fellow here who was just doing his morning prayers, complete with the little boxes strapped to his head and arm, and the strap coiled around his arm, bobbing back and forth and talking to himself.

I’m not trying to make fun of him nor mock him but doesn’t he feel silly? He should. I don’t want to be mean to him but I just want to ask him, “Why are you doing that? What do you think that actually accomplishes? Do you feel silly when you do it in public?” I understand ritual as a part of how humans make sense of their environments, especially in unfamiliar places, it can be comforting. But I have no respect for this type of behavior. It’s so obviously manmade and cultish.

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tefillin

This predictably started off a long discussion, in which some people implied that asking the man, “Don’t you feel silly?” is a form of mockery. The OP and others insisted that there’s nothing mocking about such a question, to which I responded:

Some questions aren’t just questions. They carry assumptions within them. Asking someone if they feel silly doing something presumes that there’s a reason for them to feel silly doing that thing. Plenty of people do “odd” things in public, for religious reasons or cultural reasons or mental health reasons or just they feel like it. Why single out an “odd” religious thing for this line of questioning?

Further, what does it matter? Why are you so curious how he feels about this? He almost certainly does not feel silly about it, and I know this because I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them, but it doesn’t matter to them very much because they’re used to it. In fact, if you approached him and asked about his religious practice, he would probably calmly and politely answer all of your questions, because Jews in this country are so used to being interrogated about our practices, beliefs, and culture all the damn time by random people who don’t know very much about us. I include myself in this “we” because, as a Jewish atheist who grew up in an area where there were almost no Jews, I was always treated as the sole representative of an entire culture to whom all questions could reasonably be directed, and I answered them patiently because the alternative would be to allow these people to continue believing all sorts of stereotyped, bigoted rubbish.

I’m not saying you, personally, believe stereotyped, bigoted rubbish, but your response to this person comes across as ignorant and callous, like you’re gawking at an exotic animal at a zoo. Worse, like you’re doing it in order to score political points on Facebook. If you’re genuinely curious and interested in starting off a discussion about religious practices in public and how people feel about them and why they do them, I would be happy to suggest some language that could’ve started this discussion without alienating so many people (mostly atheists).

I wanted to hash out some of the points I made there because it’s an interesting topic.

About the questions that aren’t just questions: the OP themselves specifically stated that the Jewish man “should” feel silly, which is a judgment. (Right or wrong, it is a judgment.) So there’s no way to ask the man whether or not he feels silly in a vacuum. As I said, asking someone that usually implies that you think the answer ought to be “yes,” and this is no exception.

I’ve met many people who stubbornly insist that everything they say be taken in the most literal manner, without any implicit content. This is facile. The majority of the time, someone who says, “Don’t you feel silly?” or even “Do you feel silly?” is implying that they think there’s a good reason for the person to feel silly. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that a given person who asks such a question is including that implication in it.

Often, questions like these are merely a passive-aggressive way to say, “I think you look silly,” or “You should feel silly.” But these things are very inappropriate to express in our culture, so we’ve developed other ways to express them–ways that have plausible deniability. “I wasn’t saying I think they’re silly! I was just asking a question!” Yeah, right.

Ditto for the OP’s other questions, such as “What do you think that actually accomplishes?” If you really, earnestly have to ask a religious person this, then you don’t know much about religion. If you earnestly ask it, they will probably say, “It helps me feel a connection with god,” or “It helps me feel good,” or “It allows me to ask god to keep me and my family safe.” That’s why I think the question is not earnest, and it’s not really a question. It’s a statement, and the statement is, “Prayer doesn’t accomplish anything, you know.” You should say what you mean.

This whole post is weirdly presumptive. Why should a random person care that the OP thinks they “should” feel silly, or that they “have no respect for this type of behavior”? Plenty of people think I “should” feel silly because I like games, and even more people “have no respect” for the fact that I dress the way I do, have sex the way I do, and interact with people the way I do. If you’re hoping to change people’s behavior, expressing an opinion about it that they aren’t likely to care about isn’t going to do it. (Neither is attacking the extremely low-hanging fruit of “silly”-looking public prayer, but that’s a separate issue.) Jewish people in particular are very accustomed to non-Jews expressing judgmental, ignorant, and rude opinions about their practices, religious and otherwise. This has been happening for millennia. If ridicule hasn’t deconverted them yet, it’s not going to.

Some atheists think of religion and religious privilege in very stark terms: religious people are privileged, atheists are oppressed. Even if this is true in the strictest sense, Jews do not command religious privilege comparable to that of Christians. I don’t think I need to try to provide a catalog of the ways in which Jews have been oppressed, including in the United States, including today. I have personally experienced anti-Semitism, despite being an atheist.

In fact, a number of people in the thread said that they would be scared to fly in an airplane with someone that they had just noticed openly wearing tefillin and praying. I’m not sure how this is anything other than a grossly bigoted thing to say. While the OP did not themselves say such things, neither did they call out in any way the people who said it. That’s how discussions like these allow anti-Semitism and other bigoted attitudes to flourish. I’m sure the OP did not cause the people who said these things to have those opinions, as they probably had them before, but their unremarked upon presence in the thread normalizes the idea of presuming a religious person to be dangerous simply because they prayed in public. While this is a type of bigotry more dangerous to Muslims (and people perceived as Muslims), I’m not exactly happy to see it spreading to Jews.

I mentioned that I’d be happy to offer some language for asking people about their beliefs and practices (religious or otherwise) that is less likely to be pointlessly hurtful. The OP has not taken me up on that offer, but I will include it here:

  • “I noticed you praying in public. I’m curious about it. Do you mind telling me about why you do that?”
  • “What’s it like being a member of a minority religious group in such a visible way?”
  • “Do you ever feel self-conscious when you pray in public? How do you deal with that?”

Notice how all of these questions get at the issues that the OP claimed to be curious about, but in a way that communicates interest and curiosity rather than judgment and scorn. And maybe the OP really does feel judgment and scorn (at least, that is the impression I got from the post), but most people understand that there are times judgment and scorn can get in the way of learning and understanding. Even if you’re looking to ultimately change their mind, you’re going to be more successful if you don’t make them feel shamed and judged from the get-go. Shaming is actually not a good motivator.

Of course, if your actual goal is to mock religion, that’s different. That doesn’t interest me at all, but some people do it for personal reasons or political ones or some combination. Whatever, I’m not interested in telling people what to do so much as in telling people when their stated goals are not compatible with their actions. The OP said they wanted to understand, not mock. To me, it seemed like a bunch of statements with plausible deniability, and very little attempt at understanding.

But I suppose the real source of disagreement here is that I can’t bring myself to care about the mere fact that some person is religious and prays. If that’s all the information I have, I don’t care. I care about the ways organized religion harms its adherents, other people, and society. This is why I argue with people about things like abortion, sex education, separation of church and state, coerced prayer, science education, homophobia, and so on. If a religious person has views on these things that I disagree with, then I will argue with those views. The religious belief itself is something I also disagree with, but doesn’t harm me, so I don’t care about it. I don’t believe that religious belief somehow necessitates sexism, homophobia, or anything else, and I don’t believe that sexism, homophobia, or those other bad things can be fought simply by fighting religious belief, and I do believe that people will continue to believe in supernatural entities until we find a way to provide what they’re looking for without religion. We haven’t done that yet.

~~~

*I intentionally left this person’s name out of this thread even though the post was public. That’s because I want this to be a discussion about these ideas (and my ideas), not about this person and what else they may have said before and who they are as a person. There’s nothing wrong with discussing that, but I’m not interested in hosting that discussion here. I will delete or edit comments that name this person, or go off-topic. If the OP wants to identify themselves in the comments, they are welcome to.

[#wiscfi liveblog] Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m finally up and watching Katha Pollitt speak! Pollitt is a poet (say that five times fast) and a columnist for The Nation.

10:10: I chose the topic of my talk today because I didn’t know the answer: can religion be disentangled from the misogyny in its texts and its practices. I asked a random selection of people what they thought. My cousin Wendy (an observant Jew) said no. My daughter, a militant atheist since kindergarten, also said no.

The world’s religions are all deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas of a woman’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world. For Mormons, men in the afterlife can have many wives, but a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her by her “secret name,” which only he knows. Also, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife to produce people to populate her husband’s planet, because he gets a planet after he dies!

In the Islamic afterlife, men also get a bunch of wives. Meanwhile, in Christianity, men and women are supposedly equal before god. But regardless of whether or not that’s true, the society Christianity establishes on earth is not egalitarian at all. (See: St. Paul on women.)

There are no female prophets in the bible, no female founders of a major new faith (except Christian Science), very few female religious leaders with independent power. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, and we don’t even know much about those religions. In any case, men are quite capable of worshipping a female god (i.e. Athena) while repressing women.

10:16: What about the bible? It’s full of misogyny, of attempts to control women’s sexuality (evidenced by the obsession with prostitutes).

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding “no.” The subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion. It’s the rulebook of patriarchy.

Today, priests and rabbis tend to talk in terms of complementarianism: men and women are equal; they’re just different!

Up until 100 years ago, there was none of this separate-but-equal stuff. Women’s sexuality was considered dangerous and potentially polluting. Today, though, you’d have a hard time finding a rabbi who’d say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is just that menstruation is disgusting. Instead, they say that the ritual bath “honors” women and is empowering and whatnot.

10:19: Orthodox Jews claim that men refusing to shake women’s hands has nothing to do with women being taboo; it’s just about “modesty” and “respect.” “We just think the sexes shouldn’t be so quick to touch each other.” They’re reframed it as no longer about a specific resistance to women, but a general thing.

When American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab, they invoke it as a simple of religious identity, not as something to keep men from being lustful. Some Muslim women choose to start wearing it even though their mothers didn’t. After 9/11, some well-meaning liberals suggested that non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who were being harassed. My suggestion was, maybe men should wear the headscarf. That did not go over well.

10:23: You can historicize away and reinterpret away anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. Some Muslim feminists argue that everything objectionable in the Koran is applicable only to Mohammed’s time, and everything good in it is inherently true.

“I don’t know what the difference between a skeptic and an atheist is…” [audience groans] The question is, why did god put his word in such a way that, up until the day before yesterday, it was understood for certain that it meant a certain thing, but now we claim that it was all misinterpreted? In terms of literary criticism, this is interesting, but people actually try to dictate their lives and social policy by their holy books.

God could’ve given the Ten Commandment to Miriam and said, “Thou must have equality between men and women.” But he didn’t. He spent four of the commandments demanding that he be worshipped. Somehow, he sounded exactly like the patriarchal society in which he was made up. But “God didn’t have to write like an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

So feminist theologians have their work cut out for them.

10:28: People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That’s why The Da Vinci Code, a terrible book, was such a huge success. We like the idea that the church was originally an egalitarian place and that this history was erased by sexists. This requires a lot of historical revisionism.

For instance, Mary and Miriam were fairly marginal figures in the bible, but some try to elevate them to mean more than they actually did.

10:30: Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and hostility to sex. This probably originally made it stand out as a religion. But you can’t derive our contemporary sex-positive gay-friendly culture from the New Testament. But some theologians try to do it anyway.

Atheists get mad when it looks like the goalposts are constantly moving. Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants. That’s not what you were saying when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

But in reality the goalposts have always been moving. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Church underwrote monarchy and Jesus was described as the “king of kings.”

Religion changes when society changes. Well, maybe 50 years after society changes.

That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed rules and decisions. That’s how many of us atheists tend to see it. But you can also see it sociologically: it’s not really about the proper analysis of texts, it’s a social practice that reflects the society in which it is practiced. As society changes, people sift through the grab-bag of religion and pick out the bits that make sense.

Religions themselves don’t put it like that. They have to make it seem like there’s a direct line going back to the beginning, because that’s where their authority comes from.

This constant rewriting of history while never admitting what’s happening is how religions claim moral weight and power.

Some people believe that Judaism is inherently socialist, that Jesus was a pacifist, that Mohammed was a feminist, and that we need to get back to this original vision. But others believe that the “original vision” is that it’s okay to cut thieves’ hands off.

The bible used to be cited as a justification for slavery and Southern Baptism was invented to justify it. But nobody nowadays claims that the bible justifies slavery and we should really get back to that. Witchcraft was always condemned with the bible, but Pagans believe that witches are actually considered good in the bible. In any case, most people in the West don’t believe in witches, so nobody really cares.

10:36: The modernization theory would predict that, as human society progresses, people abandon religion or it becomes a shadow of itself. But reactionary religious movements are gaining strength while resisting modern roles for women. We see this in many faiths around the world. Does this prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it prove that the knot cannot be untied?

I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see reactionary movements as a testament to the lack of modernity.

Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dump religion they will become feminists. The French revolution was made by men of the Enlightenment who were hostile than religion, but it did nothing for women’s rights. In fact, they were slightly worse-off legally. Ditto for the Soviet Union and Communist China. When the Soviets wanted to increase the birth rate, abortion was outlawed.

You can be good without god, and you can be sexist without god. We’ve seen plenty of secular justifications for inequality–evolutionary psychology, for instance.

10:40: When we do have gender equality, religion will be reinterpreted to support it. The bible will be said to have always supported feminism.

10:43: Religion is comforting to some women because it gives them a measure of power. For instance, a wife has to be her husband’s helpmeet, but in return the husband has to come home at a reasonable time at night.

The knot between sexism and religion will be untied when feminism becomes the norm, but religion will get all the credit.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Christmas From The Outside

Just some personal reflections on Christmas from an outsider.

It is impossible to be a person living in the United States, of any ethnicity, religious affiliation, or national origin, and not understand the meaning and significance of Christmas.

It’s a religious observance. It’s a sparkling monument to consumerism. It’s a celebration of family, of charity, of miracles, of food, of childhood, of living ethically–depending on who you ask. It is the only holiday I’ve ever heard of that has an entire genre of music dedicated to it, that requires over a month of preparation via that music playing in every public space, hours of shopping, and decorations covering trees, roofs, walls, doors, countertops, bathrooms.

Growing up as an immigrant and a secular Jew in a particularly Christian and conservative part of the Midwest, I grasped all of this so early on that I don’t even remember learning it.

It’s bizarre and a bit unsettling, having such a detailed understanding of a set of traditions, beliefs, and principles that I have never participated in. With absolutely no effort, I learned about jingle bells, advent calendars, stockings, Santa Claus, coal, elves, milk and cookies, chimneys, Christmas Mass, eggnog, nativity scenes, reindeer, holly, mistletoe, and more. It’s not like I ever had to ask a Christian friend about their observances or attend one on my own. I just absorbed all this information passively by virtue of living in the United States.

This, to me, is part of what it means to live in a Christian country. Christianity is the default here, which is how I came to be so knowledgeable about its traditions while few of the people I meet know anything about my traditions.

This isn’t in itself a “bad” thing. If you live in the places I’m from, you’ll experience the same thing. It’s impossible to live in Russia without understanding what New Year’s Eve means to us. It’s impossible to live in Israel without knowing exactly how we observe Shabbat, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chanukah, and many others that you probably haven’t even heard of.

The truth is, though, that I have to understand Christmas. If I didn’t, it’d be kind of weird, don’t you think? Friends would tell me they can’t leave the house and go do something on the 25th and I’d wonder why. We’d be asked to sing Christmas songs in class and I wouldn’t know any of the words. When asked what I did for Christmas, I’d say that I sat around at home and read a book rather than understanding that I’m supposed to say that I spent it with my family.

I have to understand Christmas in order to interact with people normally at this time of year. But they never have to understand the things my family and I do for holidays in order to interact normally with me. It’s standard for people to ask me why I’m shopping for “New Year’s presents,” or why Chanukah lasts eight days.

My little brother’s teacher once asked someone from our family to come to their class and give a presentation about Chanukah, so I showed up with a menorah and a bunch of dreidls and gelt, explained the history of the holiday to the class, and showed them how to play the game. It was fun and they seemed to have a good time, and it occurred to me that nobody ever had to give me a presentation about Christmas.

Some of my earliest memories of living in the United States have to do with Christmas. I remember singing Christmas songs in school in kindergarten. At first I was jealous, naturally, of the other kids. I’d pass by my neighbors’ houses and see the glowing Christmas trees through their living room windows. Although in Russian culture we have “New Year’s trees” (or novogodniye yolki, I guess you would say), my parents abandoned that tradition. I think they realized that people would pass by on the street and assume that we celebrate Christmas just like everyone else. The fact that a decorated evergreen tree could have any other significance probably doesn’t occur to many people.

Anyway, I grew up and stopped feeling jealous, instead growing proud of my own holidays, traditions, and language. But it stings sometimes to have our observances roped into this amorphous Holiday Season when, in fact, the similarities end with the fact that our holidays happen at the same time of year. Chanukah is nothing like Christmas, and neither is New Year’s Eve (except for the fact that the Soviets stole some of those traditions from Christmas).

These days it has become politically correct to acknowledge non-Christian wintertime holidays as part of the Holiday Season. Grocery stores now carry dreidls, gelt, and menorahs; people celebrate winter solstice; kids in school sing a song about Chanukah in addition to all those Christmas songs. Kwanzaa, a holiday observed by the African American community that the majority of Americans might not have otherwise heard of, is often given an obligatory shout-out. “Happy holidays” is often considered more appropriate to say instead of “Merry Christmas” if you do not know which holiday(s) someone observes.

It’s nice that people are finally recognizing that not all Americans celebrate Christmas–and, hell, not all of us are even Americans. But nevertheless it feels like, in a strange way, we’re still being asked to conform by participating in The Holiday Season even if we don’t have such a thing. (In fact, the Jewish version of the “holiday season” are the High Holidays in the fall.)

Despite these well-intentioned concessions, it’s still quite clear that Christmas reigns supreme among wintertime holidays. It feels weird knowing so much about something that has never been part of my life and never will.

Sarah Silverman and Mandatory Childbearing

Sarah Silverman in “Let My People Vote.”

A few weeks ago, a certain Rabbi Rosenblatt that I’d never heard of before wrote an open letter to Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman, criticizing her for…her political beliefs? Her comedic style? Her fashion sense?

Nope, for her decision not to have children. Which apparently means that she’s not “really” Jewish, which means that she shouldn’t be using Jewish terminology in her comedy, as she did in her video, “Let My People Vote.”

You will soon turn 42 and your destiny, as you stated, will not include children. You blame it on your depression, saying you don’t want to pass it on to another generation.

I find that confusing, coming from someone as perceptive as you are in dissecting flawed arguments. Surely you appreciate being alive and surely, if the wonder of your womb were afflicted with your weaknesses and blessed with your strengths, it would be happy to be alive, too.

I am not surprised that Rosenblatt finds this confusing, and I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that he’s never been depressed. Unless you have, you don’t really understand what it’s like, and why someone might not wish to inflict that on their children. No doubt the wonder of Silverman’s womb would indeed be happy to be alive. But it’s not like her unconceived children can regret the fact that she chose not to have them, can they?

You said you wouldn’t get married until gay people can. Now they can. And you still haven’t married. I think, Sarah, that marriage and childrearing are not in the cards for you because you can’t focus on building life when you spend your days and nights tearing it down.

This is such a childish thing to say. “OHHH, but you said you wouldn’t get married till gay people could, and now they can! Why haven’t you gotten married, then? Huh? HUH?!”

One thing to note is that Rosenblatt is completely and predictably ignorant about the state of same-sex marriage rights. You would be forgiven for assuming that because Rosenblatt is Jewish, he lives in New York, which recently legalized same-sex marriage. Actually, though, he’s from Texas. Not only does Texas ban same-sex marriage in its constitution, but it even had anti-sodomy laws on the books less than a decade ago. Oops.

Not only does Rosenblatt not understand basic legal reality, but he also, apparently doesn’t understand English. Silverman did not say, “Once gay people can get married, I’ll get married too.” What she actually said was this:

Not only would I not get married until everyone can, I kind of am starting to get appalled by anybody who would get married in this day and age. Anyone who considers themselves for equal rights, to get married right now seems very odd to me.

In other words, legalization of same-sex marriage is a necessary condition for Silverman to get married, but it is not a sufficient one.

Rosenblatt continues on his Quixotic quest to produce the stupidest open letter ever written:

You have made a career making public that which is private, making crude that which is intimate, making sensual that which is spiritual. You have experienced what traditional Judaism taught long ago: when you make sex a public thing it loses its potency. When the whisper is replaced with a shout there is no magic to speak about. And, in my opinion, Sarah, that is why you have had trouble forging a permanent relationship – the most basic desire of the feminine soul.

Oh, that ludicrous idea that sex is something to be kept Sacred and Secret and Intimate or else it stops being awesome. I saw this myth trotted out during the Northwestern fucksaw controversy of 2011, and here it is again. I’ll address it in detail some other time, but for now, let me just say this: it’s false.

So wrapped up is Rosenblatt in his medieval conception of “the feminine soul” that he never realizes that women who don’t want children do exist, and that childless (or childfree) women are not necessarily so because they have “trouble forging a permanent relationship.” Or because there’s anything else wrong with them, for that matter.

And I totally get that it can be very difficult to imagine that something you hold very, very dear isn’t really important to someone else, especially when it comes to life choices. Personally, I don’t really understand people who want to spend their lives doing stuff with money on computers rather than being therapists, but I’m sure that it’s not because of some terrible flaw in their character.

Judaism celebrates the monogamous, intimate relationship with a spouse as the prototype of the intimate relationship with God. Marriage, in Judaism, is holy. Family, in Judaism, is celebrated. But for you, nothing is holy; in your world, nothing is permanent. Your ideology is secular. Your culture may be Jewish, but your mind is not.

 

I think you have latched on to politics because you are searching for something to build. There is only so much pulling down one can do without feeling utterly destructive. You want to fight for a value so you take your belief – secularism – and promote it. As an Orthodox rabbi, I disagree with just about everything you say, but respect your right to say it. All I ask, respectfully, is that you not use traditional Jewish terminology in your efforts. Because doing so is a lie.

So there’s his whole thought process. Silverman isn’t married, doesn’t have/want children, and talks about sex, so therefore she’s not “really” Jewish, and therefore, she can’t use “traditional Jewish terminology.”

Ironically, the use of traditional Jewish terminology that Rosenblatt takes issue with isn’t even part of a comedy routine, and doesn’t even involve that nasty sex stuff he’s so upset by. The “Let My People Vote” video exposes Republican attempts to restrict voting rights by requiring photo IDs and shows how certain groups of people may effectively be disenfranchised by them. The only objection Rosenblatt could possibly have with the video is that it uses the word “fuck” prodigiously, in which case he should probably get over himself.

Rosenblatt ends his self-righteous and myopic letter like so:

I pray that you channel your drive and direct your passion to something positive, something that will make you a better and more positive person, something that will allow you to touch eternity and truly impact the world forever. I pray that you pursue marriage and, if you are so blessed, raise children.

 

Marriage and children will change the way you see the world. It will allow you to appreciate the stability that Judaism, the religion of your ancestors, espouses. And it will allow you to understand and appreciate the traditional lifestyle’s peace, security, and respect for human dignity – things you have spent your life, so far, undermining.

Don’t get me wrong, marriage and children can be great things. I personally look forward to both. But to pretend that they are more “positive” than political action and that they “impact the world forever” is naive and narrow-minded.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: nobody but you, your friends, and your family (and apparently Rabbi Rosenblatt) really cares about your marriage and your children. If you’re going to get married and have kids, do it because you want to and because it’s meaningful for you, not because you want to make a mark on the world.

For that, you’ll need to actually leave your house and do something.

When Religious Minorities Oppose Freedom

Among the many different reactions garnered by Obama’s historic announcement of support for same-sex marriage, one that flew under the radar of most people–at least, most non-Jewish people–was that of two prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) and the Orthodox Union (OU).

In a statement, the NCYI wrote:

As members of a community that abides by the precepts of the Torah, we are deeply disappointed that a growing number of prominent American leaders, including President Obama, have expressed support for same gender marriage. As a national organization dedicated to Torah values and guided by Jewish law, the National Council of Young Israel is diametrically opposed to same gender marriage, which is a concept that is antithetical to the religious principles that we live by. As firm believers that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, we simply cannot accept a newfound social position that alters the value, definition, and sanctity of marriage as set forth in the Torah, which has guided us for thousands of years.

The interesting thing about this is that legalizing marriage between same-sex couples would have absolutely no effect on marriage and life in general within Orthodox Jewish communities. Orthodox congregations are free to define marriage as they choose (gotta love separation of church and state). For instance, Orthodox rabbis will generally not perform weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew, but that’s completely legal in the civil marriage system. Legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t mean that Orthodox rabbis will be forced to officiate same-sex weddings, and I’m pretty sure they know that.

However, the OU statement included this line: “Such legalization is also problematic with regard to religious liberty, as dissenting institutions are pressured to support or recognize relationships they cannot.” This is false. Who, exactly, is pressuring “dissenting institutions” to officiate same-sex marriages? Their constituents, perhaps? Because that’s an entirely separate issue that has nothing to do with any presidential proclamations.

If there are any legal scholars reading this blog, they can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the government does not have the authority to force religious leaders to officiate weddings that they oppose on religious grounds. (I’m pretty sure that no same-sex couple would want their wedding conducted by a rabbi who is hostile to their relationship, anyway.) If what the OU is really worried about is that the cultural tide is turning with regard to gay marriage, then they might as well issue a statement condemning the majority of Americans.

But back to the point. An Orthodox Jewish law professor named Hillel Y. Levin wrote a great piece about this issue in which he explains the distinction between civil marriage and kiddushin, or a Jewish marriage. This distinction is the reason why civil marriage laws in the United States should be of absolutely no concern to observant Jewish communities. He also writes:

Unlike our Christian friends and neighbors, Jews grow up with our minority status deeply ingrained and without the instinctive expectation that our religious traditions and beliefs will naturally be reflected in the broader law and culture. As a minority within a minority, Orthodox Jews recognize that we reap the benefits of pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation. After all, if religious beliefs in this country were to orient secular law, we would find ourselves deeply disappointed and possibly threatened, just as we historically have in every other diaspora country.

What this is, then, is an unfortunate lack of perspective. While Jews have faced discrimination in the United States, as they have everywhere else in the world except Israel, the US has historically protected the rights of religious minorities, including Jews. It is by virtue of our separation of church and state that Orthodox Jews have been so free to practice their religion as they see fit. So sure, when it comes to gay marriage, they are in a rare moment of agreement with conservative Christians. But to willingly participate in the attempts of another religious group to impose its values on the rest of society seems painfully ironic.

For the record, I don’t expect Orthodox Jews to enthusiastically endorse same-sex marriage–although many do. If it’s against your religion, it’s against your religion. I didn’t expect these organizations to applaud Obama’s announcement. But I didn’t expect them to denounce it, either, because it has absolutely nothing to do with them, and it will have absolutely no effect on the lives of Orthodox Jews.

I get it, though. Sometimes people just really want to make statements on issues that should be of no concern to them (especially if said people are Jews, and I’m allowed to say that because I’m Jewish). However, a great deal of Orthodox Jews–some of whom support gay marriage and some of whom do not–believe that the NCYI and the OU shouldn’t have spoken out about Obama’s statement. Reading the comments on the petition is enlightening.

It’s disappointing to see such influential voices within my faith, which has suffered so much from discrimination and prejudice over the past two thousand years, make statements like these. American democracy has provided us with freedom of religion, but we should make sure it safeguards freedom from religion, too.

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.

Coming Home

[TMI Warning]

This weekend I went home to Ohio, where my family lives. I hadn’t been home since winter vacation (I spent spring break in New York) so the time seemed ripe for a visit.

The drive was spectacular in that unspectacular way. I took the Megabus, sat on the upper level, and spent whatever time I didn’t spend sleeping looking out the window at the Midwestern landscape. I watched as it changed from the industrial utilitarianism of Chicago and northwestern Indiana to the vast fields, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and islands of fluffy deciduous trees, that I grew up with.

When I got to Ohio, I was stunned by how green it was. Green trees, fields, and shrubs stretched in every direction. I was reminded of how I felt three years ago, when I came home from a summer in Israel–I felt like I’d never seen so much of one color in my life.

Coming home has a certain routine. I greet my family, especially my little brother and sister, whose screams of “Mashaaaaa!” (my Russian name) are always followed very closely by screams of “iPaaaaaaaad!” (my iPad is possibly their favorite thing about me). Then I go through the house and take an inventory of everything that has changed since I was last there. My sister has a new car seat, a much bigger one. There are new drawings and school projects and children’s books lying around. My dad has been cleaning out the little closet under the stairs.

My room, though, is just as I left it, more of a museum than a space where someone actually lives. Every time I’m home, I make changes to it, because that’s the only way I can continue to believe that someone actually inhabits it. Usually I box up some relics of my old life and put them in the closet. This time was no exception.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid the reminders of the fact that I don’t belong here anymore. The first thing my dad said upon seeing me was that my outfit (leggings, boots, and a long, non-revealing top–de rigueur in Chicago) was an “outrage.” He repeated this point several times, saying that just because I could wear something in Chicago doesn’t mean I can wear it in Ohio. Then he said I look like a slut.

This was far from the first time I’ve felt this way here. Come to think of it, I’ve always felt painfully out of place in this little suburb. I was one of very few foreign-born students in my high school, and one of even fewer Jews. I didn’t know anyone else who had ever visited Israel, let alone lived there. I looked different, dressed different, talked and acted different.

I was the subject of much speculation and well-meaning humor. I’ve been called such epithets as “commu-Jew,” “Russian spy,” and “weird Jewish Russian flute player.” I’ve been asked all sorts of naive questions; ranging from the innocent, such as, “Have you ever tried wearing your hair straight?” (Yes, I have. It’s ugly. I am Jewish and my hair is meant to be curly) and “Which church do you go to?” (Um, actually, I don’t go to any church); to the simply ridiculous, such as, “Do they have cars in Israel?” (Yes, Israel has come a long way since biblical times).

(Or, as an addendum–do I like bagels? Do I like vodka? Do I party a lot? How much can I drink? How much can my parents drink? Do my parents belong to the Russian mafia? Are they spies? Political refugees? Do they keep nukes in the basement? Will my dad beat up any guy I bring home? And while we’re at it, why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah?)

I also found myself struggling to explain my developing identity to those around me. Whenever I tried to tell my friends about my life in Israel, I was generally met with blank stares, because many of the people I knew had never even traveled outside of the United States, and some had never even left Ohio or the Midwest. When discussing my travel plans, I usually encountered dumbfounded confusion as to why I would ever want to go to “that place,” since American media tends to portray Israel as a war-torn wasteland. One friend’s mom, a well-meaning woman who treated me like family, asked me to consider not going to Israel anymore because, and I quote, “We want you to be safe with us.”

Everything I’ve mentioned above, I generally took in stride, often even with a laugh. But sometimes the ignorance drifted subtly (or not-so-subtly) into prejudice. A boy in my third-grade class called me a “stupid Jew” (an experience now shared, sadly, by my nine-year-old brother). When a high school friend jokingly insulted me and I got a bit defensive, he smugly suggested that perhaps my defensiveness has to do with my Israeli nationality. Somewhat more disturbingly, a close friend in high school began to tell me once that her mom considers me egotistical–here I wondered, How? She’s hardly even talked to me–but then my friend inserted the explanatory qualifier–because I’m Jewish.

Oh, okay then. Makes perfect sense now.

Whether harmless and funny or crude and prejudiced, the way people interpreted and responded to me when I lived in Ohio could only have told me one thing–you don’t belong here.

Chicago is a different story. People mostly couldn’t care less which country my passport comes from or which type of religious congregation I attend (or, in fact, whether or not I attend one at all, which by the way, I don’t). When I tell friends about my time in Israel, they say “That’s really cool” and tell me about studying in Argentina or traveling through China. Although prejudice of various sorts still exists, even here, I don’t know which is rarer–someone deciding that I’m “egotistical” because of my ethnicity, or feeling like enough of a smart-ass to tell me that their mother thinks so. For the first time in my life, I’ve met people my own age who share  bits and pieces of my culture, and my identity has become even stronger because of it.

And yet…and yet. How I love coming back to Ohio. I miss the greenness and simplicity of it, the friendliness of the people, the lack of noise and traffic. Sometimes I even miss the prevalence of lawn gnomes and pickup trucks. I love escaping the pace of the city, and the police sirens screaming past my window at all hours of day and night. And the girls in heels and sunglasses looking down their noses at me, and the men who try to say things to me on the street.

In Ohio I don’t have to feel bad that my shoes are from eBay and my perfume is from T.J. Maxx–because so is everyone else’s. Even the extra pounds on my body seem to melt away when I’m home, because the “fashionable” waifishness I encounter every two steps at Northwestern is, needless to say, very rare back home.

In Ohio, in other words, I’m a big fish in a small pond.

I used to hate Ohio and especially Beavercreek, the suburb where I lived. They represented everything I hated about the United States–the stifling conservatism, the ethnocentricity, and, on a less serious note, the complete and utter lack of things to do. But over time I’ve grown to appreciate this leafy town. It is, in its own small-minded way, comforting, familiar, and serene.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world that I’m coming

Why I Chose Humanistic Judaism

[This is cross-posted from the Interfaith at Northwestern blog, which I was asked to contribute a post for. :)]

When I was a kid, I was absolutely convinced that God exists. I prayed all the time, in fact. Sometimes it was for the silly sorts of stuff that kids worry about; sometimes it was for things like having my parents come home safe and sound from a trip.

My parents come from the former Soviet Union, where religious expression of any kind was strongly discouraged. As a result, they were never religious or observant at all, so they were pretty surprised that I was. I encouraged them to light Shabbat candles and take me to the synagogue on Friday nights, and they bought me a children’s Bible and an encyclopedia about Judaism.

As a teenager, I began questioning things much more. I loved science and therefore had a lot of trouble taking the Bible at its word, but I was still open to the idea of being Jewish in a traditional way. The summer after my junior year of high school, however, everything changed.

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