A lesson from the Diaspora

Why is the pluralism I encountered in the US nonexistent back home?

June 15, 2015 22:00
4 minute read.
L'Empire State Building de New-York aux couleurs du drapeau français

L'Empire State Building de New-York aux couleurs du drapeau français. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On 112th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam in New York City there is an off-campus Columbia University housing building called Beit Efraim, or “the Bayit.” Officially a food co-op, it houses 28 Columbia undergraduate and graduate students who wish to live in a Jewish environment.

I chose to live at the Bayit primarily since as a Modern Orthodox Jew it seemed like the best living arrangement. I was aware, though, that it was a pluralistic community ranging from secular to observant Jews.

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Bearing this in mind I was expecting an experience similar to what I underwent in my Israeli army service. I served in Military Intelligence, and there found that many of my secular fellow soldiers adopted a passive-aggressive attitude toward Orthodox Judaism and those who practiced it. There was a consensus that belief in God stemmed from ignorance, that religious observance was therefore by definition absurd and illogical, and even that kosher food was automatically less tasty or nutritious than non-kosher food.

To my surprise I encountered nothing like this at the Bayit, nor anywhere else in the US.

When explaining the rules regarding separating meat food and dishes from dairy in the kitchen, I expected the usual comments about how arbitrary and unscientific it all was. Instead people just wanted to make sure they had understood. When the Bayit-mandated restrictions regarding cooking or using electronics in common spaces on Shabbat and holidays were read out, I braced myself for the usual groans and eye rolling. Instead, people asked questions to make sure that they would be respectful of the rules. In fact, the person who later grumbled the most about these restrictions was probably me: I found the Diaspora’s second-day holiday restrictions very inconvenient, especially since I had never before been abroad during a holiday.

Another thing that struck me was how colorful the spectrum of Jewry really is. In Israel we have very specific categories: Non-religious (hilonim), traditional (masortim), religious (dati’im) and ultra-Orthodox (haredim). In the US, I discovered that not only were there many more categories, but that in fact these weren’t categories at all but loosely-labeled areas of a spectrum with no clear borders.

Why is the pluralism I encountered in the US nonexistent back home? I believe it originates with how we associate religion with politics and state in Israel. In Israel there is constant tension regarding the religious character of the state: will the religious impose their practices on everyone and try to establish a halachic state? Will the non-religious secularize everything that is holy until it becomes impossible to recognize Judaism within the state? We link our religious beliefs to political opinions; the Right is associated with the National Religious group, and the Left with secularists (the ultra-Orthodox are a different story entirely), even though there are many religious people on the Left and vice versa. Political issues are often addressed – and attacked – on a religious basis. In the recent elections, artist Yair Garbuz gave an infamous speech at a left-wing rally, linking right-wing voters, “amulet-kissers,” criminals and ignoramuses.

Soon afterwards, a comment against “kissers of mezuzot” by playwright Joshua Sobol led Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party, to say, “My brothers on the Left, you’ve lost it.”

IT IS legitimate to try to establish one’s own political opinions by attacking others, and since we turn religion into a political issue we feel that this legitimacy crosses over into the realm of religion as well. Although there is a link between religious practice and political conservatism in the US, it is the political position that is legitimate to attack and not the religious background that might have made it more likely for these opinions to exist in the first place. Moreover, in the US one’s place on the Jewish spectrum isn’t necessarily associated with politics, so one’s religious beliefs are not threatening in any way.

I never found the comments I heard during my army service particularly offensive. I merely respected the opinions of others and wished that they would be a bit more sensitive regarding others’ religious beliefs. However, I believe that it is time for all of us to take a step back and to disassociate religion from politics. Some political views can stem from religious beliefs, it is true, but the appropriate counter-argument to these views is not to delegitimize religion, but rather to try to prove why such a position might be politically misguided.

Let’s debate, discuss and argue about all the political issues that are important to us, no matter what their origin, but let’s treat people’s religious choices (secular or otherwise) as their spiritual choice. If 28 Jews from all over the spectrum and the world living at the Bayit can do it, as can so many Jews in the US, then surely all of us, from all over Israel’s political spectrum, can as well.

The author is a student at Columbia University in New York City.

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