For our next installment of The Lily’s “Talk Different to Me” we asked two women with different views on religion to ask each other five questions.
They sent us the questions and we facilitated the exchange.
Here are their questions and answers to each other, edited and condensed for clarity:
Batsheva Neuer: At one time, atheists didn’t have a safe space in public conversation. Thankfully, there’s been a dramatic shift so that all groups can feel comfortable. Do you think government commitment to separating church and state and making public deliberation secular ultimately privileges atheism over religious views?
Pamela Whissel: When it’s enacted properly, the government’s commitment to separating church and state results in a system in which one religion is never favored over another, and religion is never favored over non-religion. A secular government is the only way to achieve true religious freedom for all. This is commonly misunderstood in some religious circles, where church/state separation is conflated with religious persecution. For example, not allowing a Ten Commandments monument to be erected outside a courthouse is not religious persecution, it’s simply that our government is remaining silent on an issue. Privileging of atheism would be erecting a monument to atheist thought to the exclusion of other views.
Simply pointing to religious views and pretending that the hard work of convincing the other side you’re right has been done because “God says so” isn’t good enough, particularly when members of the same faith can’t even agree on what God says. Not getting special treatment or special recognition isn’t persecution, it’s equality.
BN: In Judaism, the separation of men and women who are not married is actually part of the halakha (legal code), dating back thousands of years. Would you have seen value in such an archaic idea prior to the #MeToo movement, and has your opinion changed since then?
PW: I have never seen any value in a blanket prohibition like this, and the #MeToo movement hasn’t changed my opinion. There may have been some value to this restriction thousands of years ago, but not in present-day America.
This sort of segregation only serves to perpetuate discrimination and inequality for women by preventing us from equitable access to community, education and business networking with the men who are already in power. I have no interest in an approach grounded in the false notion that men cannot control themselves and victims are to blame for harassment and abuse.
The solution is to have frank conversations about consent and power in American life and to be more transparent and more open, not to shut women away from men and prevent us from claiming our status as equals.
BN: In the book “Ethics of our Fathers” Rabbi Ben Zoma uses a poetic line to highlight the importance of respect for others: Eizehu haham? Halomed mi-kol adam. Who is wise? He who learns from every person. Jews have a rabbinic imperative to learn from all peoples. Does the same principle exist among atheists and if so, what ethical code or literature serves as the foundation?
PW: The lines of that poem describe my own experience perfectly. I didn’t expect it to happen, but after I stopped attending church, life became more interesting with each passing day. I was still devoted to learning the answers to the important questions, but I wasn’t limited anymore to what my religious tradition provided.
Because they no longer had to square with scripture, good ideas could now come from anywhere, and once they did, I was able to be more compassionate, more productive, and more capable of making my actions truly helpful to the people around me.
For example, Catholic tradition dictates that abortion is never justified because of the view that life begins at conception. Therefore, the Catholic solution to preventing abortion is to outlaw it. But in reality, the places with the lowest abortion rates are the places with affordable reproductive health care that includes access to abortions. The simple truth is that illegal abortion does not make for low abortion rates. Providing safe, accessible, and comprehensive birth control and sex education does far more than banning the procedure. Being truly in favor of curtailing abortion means acknowledging the truth about what really works.
BN: As a result of assimilation and Americanization, many American Jews have lost their Jewish identity and social distinctiveness. Do you see this as a positive development?
PW: I don’t see it as positive or negative, I see it as inevitable because change is inevitable in all things. Identity isn’t some immutable, unchanging monolith. In a nation as diverse as the United States, identities rise and fall — even within individuals — in response to internal and external forces. People’s identities are complicated, overlapping and often in competition with one another. A person may identify as atheist, as Jewish, as LGBTQ and as a parent all at once.
Judaism is not immune from this. Over time, it has evolved and has been shaped by the circumstances of the members of the community as they’ve moved through time and the realities of the world around them. From the Canaanites to Jews to Christians to Muslims, religious traditions borrow from one another and evolve constantly. And that evolution will continue. It’s important to keep in mind that we, as individuals, each have opportunities and abilities to maintain the identities we value, despite the world being in a constant state of change.
BN: If you decided to be religious for a day, which religion would you choose and why?
I would choose to be a member of the Episcopal Church for three reasons. The first is the tradition of choral music built into their worship services. It is one of the world’s greatest artistic achievements.
Second is the inclusiveness. Women are not inferior to men and are not excluded from being eligible for holding the highest positions in the organization. And although it wasn’t always the case, marriage equality now exists in the Episcopal Church. LGBTQ people are no longer inferior like they still are in the Catholic Church I was born into. The Catholic Catechism explicitly states that “tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “under no circumstances can they be approved.” I will have no part of that.
My third reason for choosing this religion is the promise of an afterlife. I would love for there to be a master plan that will all make sense eventually. I would love to experience the death of a loved one as a temporary separation. In short, I would love to live forever in eternal happiness with a creator who cherishes me on a level that my human brain cannot begin to comprehend. But there is not one shred of credible evidence for this. If there were, I’d start believing again immediately.
I fault no one for wanting to believe that death is not final and concluding that there just has to be more than this life. I also understand the desire for religious faith. I spent years in focused contemplation before leaving mine. Faith is, by definition, choosing to believe something to be true despite the absence of proof. For me, with my set of circumstances and experiences, there came a time when I could no longer make that choice in good conscience. When I lost my belief in an afterlife, the appreciation for the life I have right now blossomed immensely.
Pamela Whissel: What are some misconceptions you hear about Orthodox Judaism? How do we combat misconceptions about your community, about atheists, and about other minority religious groups?
Batsheva Neuer: As a woman in the modern world, one of the most common misconceptions I hear is that Orthodox Jewish women are victims of a patriarchal legal system and society. This is inaccurate contemporarily, and historically.
Certainly one cannot escape the fact that Jewish law (like most ancient to modern legal systems) was drafted over the ages by men. Nonetheless, the status quo has favored women, especially at a time when it was hardly de rigueur to do so. Dating back nearly two millennia, the following standards were laid out in the Talmud: a man cannot force himself upon his wife. If she finds him undesirable, or if there is sexual incompatibility or neglect, she may divorce him. In certain circumstances, abortion is permitted. The list goes on. Though these precepts sound obvious to the modern ear, they must be examined in relation to surrounding cultures, settings and civilizations. They were revolutionary.
Contemporarily, some critics point to Orthodox modesty as objectification of women. When practiced by a woman’s volition, these same precepts also serve to protect women from predators.
Further, if we as a society are serious about combatting female objectification, let’s be consistent. Many popular songs refer to women in expletives or as pure objects of men’s desire and control. Why are these popstars and their misogynistic messages celebrated? Where is the moral outrage? I find raising daughters in 2018 liberating in some ways, terrifying in others.
In terms of other cultures, I have read similar accounts by Muslim women who feel liberated by their own ancient practices and dress codes, despite those customs being regarded as backward by Western standards.
One way to combat this and other attacks on groups both religious and non is to ask questions in terms of the people involved instead of a particular psychology or framework. We need to respect each other’s differences rather than impose our own sensibilities.
PW: What are some things that come to mind when you think of atheists? Your children are young now, but when they’re grown, how would you react if one of them decided they were an atheist? How would you react if one of your children wanted to marry an atheist?
BN: Judaism demands less in terms of dogmatic fidelity than other religions. Its focus is ultimately on the practice. There are 613 commandments that dictate an Orthodox Jew’s daily life, up to the minutiae of how to tie shoes. That isn’t to say that belief in a deity isn’t presupposed (according to some sages) or commanded (according to others), but it’s hardly the emphasis.
To that end, my children’s philosophies are less relevant to me than their actions. Ultimately, my goal is to raise kind, thoughtful humans who want to make the world a better place. Beliefs aside, I am convinced that our halakhic (Jewish legal) system is the best structure for my children to achieve this — and our long history as a nonbelligerent, peace-seeking people proves this.
As Orthodox Jews, we are biblically commanded to be kind. To give to the poor and needy. To care for the widows, elderly, downtrodden. For the most part, to belong to an Orthodox community is to know that everyone is accounted for, and no one is left behind. These are the values (among others) that attract me to Judaism and I hope my children carry on these values regardless of their theological tendencies.
PW: Secular communities allow us to belong to a group of people with shared values, history, traditions and ceremonies, support networks and opportunities to help those in need. Other than a belief in a deity, what does religion offer that would compel a person to convert?
BN: Unlike other popular religions, Judaism today doesn’t seek converts. That isn’t because its values are unattractive but because its legal system is cumbersome — it’s not easy to follow 613 commandments, even for those who grew up doing so.
I cannot think of another culture with as deep a sense of history as Judaism. Most people are familiar with the term never forget as a post-Holocaust calling to prevent genocide. To Jews, zakhor or remembrance is biblically mandated. Several times a day our liturgy recalls the Exodus, sovereignty in Jerusalem, and our pursuit of peace. Our homes are built with a missing brick to recall the destroyed Temples in Jerusalem.
What is most attractive about Judaism in particular begins with its forefather: in Genesis, Abraham famously pled with God to save the people of Sodom, despite their wickedness. He was history’s first human rights advocate, intervening on behalf of others—with nothing personal to gain. Abraham had a moral, global mission.
Belief is easy—whether belief in atheism, agnosticism or religion. Being kind is challenging.
Today, there are secular movements that call for unplugging once a week. Many people know this to be beneficial but fail to complete the task. How are Orthodox partners and executives at top firms able to turn off their cell phones and computers for 25 hours, something virtually unheard of in an age of constant connectivity? Only a divinely mandated Sabbath can ensure that level of devotion. Our goal as Jews is to serve mankind with the same devotion that we serve our Deity, knowing that both directives stem from the same divine source and are equally valued.
PW: Until I was 32, I couldn’t have imagined not being Catholic, let alone not believing in God. To my great surprise, I learned that morality doesn’t require a belief in a deity because once I left my faith, I was able to be more compassionate, more giving, and more productive in my quest to make the world a better place. I’m going to ask you to put yourself in my place and envision your life being good without God. What does that look like?
BN: Because Judaism isn’t dogma-centered, belief in a deity isn’t regarded as a sufficient condition for anything — including compassion. After all, some of history’s most heinous crimes have been committed in name of God. There are practical laws that need to be followed in order to “be a good Jew”. For example: we are required to honor our parents, visit the sick, feed the hungry. In the book of Isaiah, God rejects the sacrifices of those who don’t follow the commandments. In Judaism, moral negligence precludes true communion with God.
Having grown up Jewish in North America, it would be nearly impossible to distinguish my own version of morality from that of the surrounding culture and my own upbringing, even if I adopt atheism tomorrow. I would imagine the same to be true of a Catholic, or anyone who grew up with a particular moral code.
PW: Religious freedom, religious exemptions, and the influence of religion in public policy are central to our current national political conversation. Do you perceive a tension between protecting the civil rights of marginalized people while also protecting religious freedom? What is the appropriate balance? What do you say to people who conflate understanding the importance of government neutrality with an attack on their religion?
BN: Religious freedom is a powerful idea and one that doesn’t have to be at odds with progressive values. It includes the right of individual conscience without governmental influence—something is lacking in many countries where tyranny rules.
One of the unfortunate outcomes of religion being relegated to the private sphere is that defending its liberty is misconstrued as a tribal or partisan issue rather than a fundamental human right. Religious liberty has broad intersectional value affecting America’s minorities, including the fight against anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism.
Progressives have a long history of advancing fair policies: religious liberty needs to be incorporated. At the same time, conservatives need to embrace diversity and resist discrimination. A healthy balance of progressive social values and religious liberties can be mutually reinforcing. In such a hyper political climate, I hope all groups can join forces to achieve this.