College Conversations

I was still religious in college, though deeply unhappy with the practices and theology I was raised to believe. I dealt with it most often by doubling down on the things I’d been taught to believe. Challenging views that would require changing your whole life is difficult…

When I worked in the writing center, I had plenty of downtime with friends in the breakroom. We had lots of philosophical conversations back there, and I spouted some nonsense which at the time I wanted desperately to believe, because that would mean I could go home to Boro Park, go to shul and community functions, go out on dates set up by shadchanim, and not rock the boat. Not that I actually wanted any of those things, but the alternative was what I was told was a cold, uncaring world – though you’d think I would realize that these conversations were proof that the dire warnings of no one outside the Jewish community caring about anyone or anything except themselves were wrong…

A few instances I remember where I did this, and felt uncomfortable, and that my college friends still tease me about to this day:

  1. In a conversation about women’s roles, we got onto the topic of how Orthodox Judaism views men and women. I explained that, according to Orthodox Jewish thought, men are more suited to the world of learning and women are more suited to the world of mothering and home-making. A friend pointed out that this is in essence sexist, and that didn’t my presence in college contradict that? Didn’t that prove I was just as good as men? I responded that men aren’t better than women just because they’re usually better at learning. Men’s and women’s brains are just wired differently, I said. One’s not better than the other. She pointed out again that here I was, obviously smart and excelling in college, even teaching a grammar workshop at the writing center. I smiled uncomfortable and stayed silent.
  2. In a conversation about dating, someone asked how dating works in the Orthodox Jewish community. I explained about matchmakers and “arranged dates” as opposed to arranged marriages. At one point, I echoed my mother’s point about how in the Orthodox Jewish community, dates and matches are made based on more than just physical attraction. Two of my friends, who were in serious relationships (and are both now married to the men they were dating then) said “wait, our relationships are not based on only physical attraction! Are you saying you think non-Jewish relationships don’t have any emotional aspect, and it’s all lust and desire?” I said, “well…” and shut up. Because it occurred to me just how fucked up that statement was, and now I didn’t know what to think was so special about shidduchim and Jewish religious relationships…
  3. This one’s a little different, not actually a conversation I had with college friends. A friend was administering a survey for her psychology class. The survey was about religious tolerance, and the first question asked us to define what we think religious tolerance is. I wrote something along the lines of “acknowledging that every person has a right to think and believe what s/he thinks and believes, and that every person has the right to act and behave according to those beliefs.” That night, I mentioned the survey to my mother and her response was this: “Religious tolerance is not actually possible unless you don’t fully believe in your own religion. You can say everyone has a right to make mistakes, but that’s tolerance of mistakes and stupidity, not tolerance of another religion. For true religious tolerance, you have to be so non-committed to your own religion that you don’t care if other people believe nonsense.” This was a surprise to me, because Judaism is one of the few religions that don’t actively proselytize and in fact discourages converts.


3 thoughts on “College Conversations

  1. I remember realising that my thought patterns were totally messed up when a colleague said something on the lines of how Jews are cool because they are the only ones who dont actively proselytize and dont do anti gay demonstrations etc, and my immediate thinking was “Isnt it great that we make non jews think we are awesome. What a ‘kiddush Hashem'”

    And then a few days later thinking about it again and being horrified that I thought that way. I knew right away that jews are not accepting of other lifestyles and have zero religious tolerance and they might only seem that way because they think they are ‘above’ everyone else and an exclusive club so dont feel the need to talk about people that are not in their club. And I realised that even though I knew these things I was ok with Judaism being wrong, as long as we are making a kiddush Hashem. Which is so messed up.

  2. > That night, I mentioned the survey to my mother and her response was this: “Religious tolerance is not actually possible unless you don’t fully believe in your own religion.

    In a comment somewhere I saw someone say that “fundamentalism” is beleiving that your religion is true. There’s some truth to that.

    Mostly, though, I think this is a part of what I’ve come to think of as the “absolute certainty” problem. If you’re absolutely certain that your religion is correct, you can’t be tolerant of others. But it is possible to “fully believe” without absolute certainty. One can believe that Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe at Har Sinia, but be humble enough to accept that there is a possibility, however small, that they’re mistaken.

    To a fundamentalist, even the remote possibility that they’re wrong is unthinkable. And that kind of absolute certainty is dangerous. It too easily leads to atrocities.

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