Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Bad Jew: JVoices Variation on a Theme

Today, Marisa on Jvoices posted “Could you make that a kosher triple grandé latte, please,” an account of a run-in she had with an aggressively judgmental Jew at a Starbucks last Saturday morning. As some of you may know, Annie and I are differently observant (is that similar to being “differently abled”?). As a result, we often (read: always) have different perspectives on matters of halakha and yiddishkeit. We are able to be perfectly respectful of the other person’s viewpoint by some magic that occurs when we are in the same room. In the interest of providing different perspectives on complex issues of religion and faith, I will first post Annie’s comment and then respond to Marisa’s post myself.

Annie: Your boyfriend is correct in that you are breaking “dozens of laws” but here is the issue: if you think that it is ok to buy coffee on Shabbat or chag, then it is ok for you to do it, wearing whatever you would be wearing. The idea of moret ayin (or fools eye) is a bit ludicrous in the modern poly-denominational world. If you wear a kippah and you go to bars, you should wear your kippah in bars, as it is a legitimate expression of your Judaism. It IS ok for Jews to buy coffee on Shabbat, that is the correct message to send. It is ok: halakhically there is a prohibition against engaging in acts of business on Shabbat or chag. However, if, for instance, you are Reform, and believe that you have the right to choose which halakhot that you observe, you are not doing anything wrong. It is more important for secular/unaffiliated/disenfranchised Jews, as well as non-Jews to see Jews who can be identified as Jews doing “ordinary” things. If we have learned anything about the recent anti-Muslim sentiment (see Jack Straw’s comment about hijabs) it is that we should engage in both our own religious community as well as American communal life.

Harley: With Marisa’s post, we return once again to the question of what constitutes a Bad Jew. So long as her actions coincide with her views, is Marisa a Bad Jew for going into a Starbucks on a Saturday? Is the Angry Jew a Bad Jew for confronting and shaming Marisa and her boyfriend in public (see my post on A Lesson in Manners)?

First things first. Marisa is not a Bad Jew for going into a Starbucks on a Saturday. Using money on Shabbat makes her a Jew who makes the choice not to observe that particular halakha or who feels unbound by halakha, in general, or who has found a teshuvah written by a 15th Century sage that says she can use money on Shabbat if she is buying coffee ground in South America.

According to Pirkei Avot (3:11, also check out Talmud, Sotah 10b), Angry Jew is a Bad Jew for embarrassing Marisa and her boyfriend in public. Following the logic of analysis I applied to Marisa, Angry Jew is a Bad Jew only if he follows the teachings of Pirkei Avot and the Talmud. If he does not think he is bound by those texts, then he is not a Bad Jew. But he is still a Bad Person.

You cannot be bound by laws that either you don’t recognize as valid or don’t apply to you. But there, I admit to a logical flaw in my argument. You can be bound by laws that you don’t recognize as valid or applicable. In the United States, regardless of whether you are a citizen of this country, you are bound by its laws when on its soil. Unlike the United States, the Jewish legal system, codified in the Mishnah and subsequent commentaries and in effect when Jews were still living under the kahal system, has no apparatus of enforcement beyond the social (and theological, which is an effective tool on for those who are theists). As a young Jewish woman living in New York, I may feel, at times, as if I am being punished for differently enacting my Judaism. For example, when Annie wears pants in her shtetl of an apartment building, she gets derisive commentary. She says, “It being worthy of comment makes me uncomfortable.” We refuse to socialize with and marry those who express their Judaism differently from us. We label those people “too Jewish” or “not really Jewish” or, of course “Bad Jews.” Beyond ostracization or associating only within our niche of Judaism, there’s not much we can do to enforce Jewish law, particularly as the law tends to be inclusive of dissenting opinion instead of exclusive (unlike U.S. law).

Judaism is more than just law, it’s also a culture, a history, a set of traditions (which are themselves time and place-bound), an ethnicity, an ontological epistemology of the universe. Is it realistic to hold everyone to a halakhic standard (a standard which itself is fraught), when not all those engaged believe in the legitimacy and power of the halakha? In a world with no Bad Jews, what does it mean when an Angry, non-traditionally observant Jew confronts another non-traditionally observant, but traditionally dressed Jew. On that fateful morning in Starbucks, Marisa was dressed in “frumster drag… So the end result was that we looked like a straight Orthodox couple, which couldn’t be further from the truth.” Marisa experienced the sting of anti-Orthodox bias in that Starbucks.

The issue I have with the post, is that she perceives the “the “culturally” Jewish segment of New York’s Jewish community” to be uncomfortable with her, whereas the Orthodox community accepts her when she shows up at davening “wearing my rainbow kippah instead of a doily.” If she is passing for an Orthodox Jew, then why would Orthodox Jews be anything but open to her? Furthermore, why is “culturally” in quotations? Is only her version of non-traditionally observant Judaism acceptable, but those whose Judaism has no religious influence unacceptable? She is unquestionably a better person than Angry Jew, but is she also a better Jew because she stopped at Starbucks on your way to shul? She speaks of “the amazing diversity of practice that exists today.” She“reject[s] any concept of [the Torah] containing a fundamental “truth” that isn’t open to interpretation.” And she “think[s] every individual has the right to decide what their Jewishness will entail and be respected for it, especially by other Jews.”

I keep re-writing this post, so it does not sound accusatory and I apologize if any sting remains. I don’t wish to be combative because I agree with Marisaa's perspective (and because I find coming to the defense of someone like Angry Jew repugnant). I simply wish to point out a possible double-standard in her own views and also the complexity of the issue of halakhic and religious observance.


rokhl said...

I've really enjoyed this whole discussion of self-proclaimed "bad jews." I find it quite sad when friends and acquaintances say that about themselves. Though I'm pretty tough on myself and have a long way to go in terms of my jewish education, I'm pretty comfortable with my level of ritual observance. I've never thought of myself as a bad jew, even when a typical shabbes morning for me might, hypothetically include taking the subway to hadar and then having brunch out on the UWS with a friend afterwards. I think part of this has to do with my level of "cultural observance" (which I suppose I may be attacked for even suggesting that it is the same as keeping the mitzves, [which i'm not] but oh well). Being an active part of a Jewish community, and having Jewishness be an everyday part of my life (some ritual and some purely cultural) feels right to me.

Though I sympathized, for the most part, with Marisa, I was a bit turned off by her use of quotation marks for "cultural" jew (angry dude). It implies that culture is some sort of default left over when you get rid of the ritual, and that's just not true. Frankly, the guy was being a real dick, on many levels. And- she ends up reifying her oppression, if you will, by judging and quantifying him in the same way he did her.

On the other hand... maris eyen is a real concern, one which I think about a lot. I do think you have a responsibility, if you are going to present yourself as an orthodox jew, to consider the implications that has for all Jews. Of course, how far does that go? My firm's cafeteria always serves matze during pesakh. I feel obligated to put matze, and not a delicious roll, on my plate, as I walk by all the other Jews, as we ring up our meals in the totally treyf cafeteria. Hypocritical? I'm not sure...

Anonymous said...

I gotta know -- did guys or girls make the derisive comments aobut Annie's pants?

AnnieGetYour said...

Rokhl: I agree that culture should not be the last stand of Judaism, the default if all else fails. However, I disagree with your view on moret ayin. By continuing to act as you think orthodox Jews "should" (at least in terms of religious observance) you are perpetuating the belief that orthodoxy is the only authentic version of Judaism.

If, for instance you said that you feel that you have to give money to the guy panhandling while on a date with a kippah-wearing boy, then I would agree, but if you don't eat matzah on Passover, then don't do it for show.

David: Both.

Guy: I'd date a girl who wears pants, but I wouldn't marry one.

Girl: Oh, hi, I didn't recognize you in pants.

MMM awkward.

Anonymous said...

"The issue I have with the post, is that she perceives the “the “culturally” Jewish segment of New York’s Jewish community” to be uncomfortable with her, whereas the Orthodox community accepts her when she shows up at davening “wearing my rainbow kippah instead of a doily.” If she is passing for an Orthodox Jew, then why would Orthodox Jews be anything but open to her?"

Wearing a rainbow kippah in an Orthodox shul is not passing as an Orthodox Jew. I can't comment on what else Marissa was wearing, but her implication was clearly that she was accepted by Orthodox Jews while not looking Orthodox.

rokhl said...

Let me clarify something: I don't present myself as an Orthodox jew. I am not, nor do I present as one. I was referring to Marisa and her beau who, according to her description, were dressed up in "ortho drag" and shlepping around lulav, esrog etc. That is presenting yourself as an Orthodox Jew. A reform jew, stopping by starbucks for a coffee before shul would NOT have looked like that. That's the whole nub of the maris eyen issue- isn't it?

Now, personally, I would never be on a date with a kippah wearing boy, so the whole giving to pan-handlers thing is moot ;-) In fact, I've come to the conclusion that it's actually easier to date non-Jewish men and get them to convert than it is to find a compatible Jewish man. But that's neither here not there, is it? ;-) Oh, the smiley emoticons are flying tonight, never a good sign.

I take the matze in the cafeteria because a) i want to keep pesakh (at least I try) and b) to not take the matze, in front of all my jewish peers, who all know I'm jewish, would feel like a kind of davka, af tselakhis (contrarian) act which I don't feel comfortable with.

AnnieGetYour said...

Rokhl- let me clarify. A Reform Jew who wears a kippah all the time (some do) looks just like an Orthodox Jew, unless you are au courant with the symbology of different types of kippot/tzitzit/manner of dress. Moret ayin exists for two reasons:

1) So that Jews are not fooled into breaking halakha, and
2) So that Jews can present a "unified front" of what is acceptable Jewish practice to non-Jews.

I have issues with the first because I think that everyone is responsible for his or her own observance. We no longer live in a culture where (and this is another halakha) it is acceptable to tell someone that they are observing incorrectly, and isn't telling someone that they should not be dressed as they are while "breaking halakha" a version of that?

The second issue is one that I have even more of a problem with. There is no longer (if there ever was) a single interpretation of Judaism. If you don't think that buying coffee on Shabbes is a desecration of the Sabbath, why should you act like it is? This idea of a double-life is repellant to me. Do whatever you want, but do it honestly, your religious observance should in no way be for the benefit of others.

Anonymous said...

rokhl, Marissa made a distinction between two seperate instances which you don't seem to understand. In the first case she was dressed in ortho drag, most likely a long skirt, long sleeve shirt, and no either a hat or no head covering. She was then attacked by a secular/cultural Jew for not being religiou enough.

In the second case she was not dressed as an Orthodox jew. Most likely she was in her "high-queer-femme regalia." At minimum she was in a "rainbow kippah" which is very far typical Orthodox dress. If you're not familiar with what Orthodox women wear, single women do not cover their hair at all, married women either wear a hat, a wig, or a doily. You would never see a traditional Orthodox woman in a kippah. And even among guys you would not see a bright rainbow kippah. So Marissa most definetly stood out in an Orthodox setting, yet she felt more accepted.

I'm not going to comment on the implications of those two stories, but you need to at least understand the facts and distinctions between the two.

BZ said...

If they were carrying a lulav and etrog on Shabbat, then anyone in the know should have figured out that they weren't Orthodox. I'm surprised that Reb Chaim HaQoton didn't seize on that point in the comments.

Annie, I totally agree about mar'eit ayin. I generally don't wear a kipah if I'm eating in a non-kosher restaurant (even though I'm only eating foods that I consider kosher), because someone might see me and conclude erroneously that the restaurant was kosher (and thus that the other food on the menu was kosher). There, it's a case of misleading people on a factual matter. However, I have no problem with wearing a kipah on the subway on Shabbat. No one would see me and conclude that it wasn't really Shabbat. They might conclude that what I'm doing is ok for Jews to do, but hey, I think it is. If they have a problem with that, then why are they on the subway on Shabbat where they can see me?

Marisa James said...

I just found this post - thanks for all the comments! First of all, let me say that I've never had so many people so interested in what I wear. For the record, then... I was wearing a long skirt, long sleeves, no hat, and my rainbow kippah on some crazy unbrushed Saturday morning hair. And I don't usually wear the long skirt to the orthodox shuls! Sometimes I wear pants (shocking, I know) and I've still been welcomed and even invited to return.

Second, I put "cultural" in quotations because I couldn't think what else to call angry man. I'm honestly not so happy with my own choice of word there either, but I wasn't sure how else to describe him. I respect people whose Jewishness entails very little or no religious practice - they are just as Jewish as I am, or anyone else, and I don't generally believe that there is such a thing as a "bad Jew." But I would personally never walk up to someone else and tell then that they weren't being Jewish in the "right" way, and I found it bizarre that he saw that as acceptable. I don't judge him for his own Jewish practice (which, by the way, I did not question him about), but I don't think it was nice of him to question/attack us as he did. He didn't want an exchange of ideas, or to understand us better; he wanted us to admit that we were doing something wrong.

And yes, my boyfriend specifically pointed out that if we were orthodox we wouldn't have been carrying on Shabbat, much less getting coffee! My own standards for observing Shabbat involve making it a true day of rest and reflection, even though my standards certainly are not halachic.