Thursday, January 14, 2010

In Which Orthodox Jews Are Called 'Culturally Deficient'

Yesterday, in a class discussion about cultural norms and nonverbal communication, handshaking came up as a topic of conversation. The professor asked what sorts of people are not expected to shake hands. One of my classmates answered children. The professor agreed. Another answered Orthodox Jews. The professor again agreed, responding, "Right—the culturally deficient." He repeated that phrase referring to Orthodox Jews a few more times regarding the same point and then moved on.

The culturally deficient?

I was taken aback. I have long thought of my academic pursuits as contradictions to my religion. Not because I think that Judaism prohibits secular study but because the two are different forms of knowledge, predicated on different foundations. My academic path is certainly not the norm in the Orthodox world. And, in general, universities do not have reputation for being particularly religious places. Academics, at least the stereotype goes, tend to believe in knowledge or science or the intellect more than God.

But my internal sense of contradiction never really found any sense of validation in the real world. The two never actually conflicted for me. After Columbia Unbecoming and to this day, people ask me whether I felt discriminated against at Columbia, and the answer is a firm no. While I wouldn't call what happened in my class discrimination, it certainly made me uncomfortable.

That said, I do understand that much of what Orthodox Jews do is, well, weird. We shake palm branches and citrus fruits, we fast, we call turning on a light on Saturdays "work," we wear wigs when we're married, we don't eat animals unless they chew their cud and have split hooves, and yeah we try not to shake hands with members of the opposite gender. Weird? Absolutely. Culturally deficient, though?

Because of how weird some of our practices are, I have always been more than willing to field any questions related to religious practices. (Though the kosher wine one does get a little awkward.) And I do not expect anyone else to totally understand them. There is a leap of faith required in religious practices, and just because I believe doesn't mean I am looking to convince anyone else even as I explain what I do and why.

And I have never minded the incredulous looks that follow some of these explanations. Like I said, I understand them. But that is different than passing judgment on those practices. And it's certainly different than a professor passing judgment in front of an entire class.

And it doesn't make me feel really good about the fact that I need to miss this professor's class twice for Pesach.


At 1/17/10, 5:44 AM, Blogger K said...

That sounds kind of prejudiced to me. What's a 'cultural deficiency' anyway - a practice that differs from the norm? The horror! An academic should know better than to use that sort of discourse.

At 1/24/10, 8:45 AM, Blogger Shira said...

Ridiculous - you should call him out on that either in class or outside of class. Orthodox Jews are at the tops of their fields (wasn't there a math genius from Israel a couple years ago who won a nobel prize - for game theory?).

Also, to drop a slur like that - would he do that for Muslim women who also don't shake hands? doubtful. Would he comment about burkas? doubtful. What happened to open minded liberals...

He's being "culturally insensitive" to put it mildly. Good luck.


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