Sunday, April 19, 2009

Finding Religion in College

The other day I was sitting in the library at college, trying to get my mind to focus on the poly-sci textbook in my lap, but as usual, being far more inclined to space out and let my mind wander wherever it pleased. As I watched the myriad students passing all around me, one particular student caught my eye. I vaguely recognized him from a class we had shared some semesters ago, but that wasn't what had grabbed my attention. From the distance where I was sitting, it seemed that he was carrying something unusual. As I looked closer, my suspicions were confirmed. He was carrying something, something totally unexpected.

A brick.

Not just any ordinary normal-sized brick, but a large, cinderblock-sized one, heavy enough that he had to carry it with his arm raised up, hoisted over his shoulder. In the library. On its side was painted a purple symbol I didn't recognize.

I was dying to know what the deal was here, so I approached him, and inquired as to the unusual behavior I was observing.

"It's a fraternity initiation rite," he explained sheepishly. "I have to carry this thing around for a week, everywhere I go, never entirely letting go of it."

I sat back down, pondering the absurdity I had just witnessed. Why would anyone subject themselves to such a pointless exercise, I thought to myself? And what's with these crazy fraternities that they make people go through these idiotic rituals?

Eventually, the obvious answer became all too clear to me. I realized that it's simply a loyalty thing. The guy is doing this to prove to the fraternity how loyal he is willing to be for them. By fulfilling this meaningless ritual, he's demonstrating to the group that not only does he want to be a part of their group, but that he is willing to subject himself to their demands, even when those demands go against his own self interest. They're not asking him to perform 30 hours of community service, or maintain a certain GPA, or score a certain number of foul shots. They're asking him to do something that has absolutely no sensible rationale whatsoever; something which no sane person would ever agree to doing. And why? Why perform a pointless task? Only because they told him to do so. It's an act of pure obedience. By agreeing to perform this task, he's implicitly acknowledging that their authority takes precedence over his own moral and logical sense. Although this act might indeed seem harmless enough, by his willingness to surrender his interests to those of the wider group, he's proving to them that, in the future, if need be, they can rely on him to protect the welfare of the collective over his own needs. They can rest assured that if he is ever faced with a choice between doing what his own mind tells him is right, and doing what the group tells him is right, he will act appropriately. In appreciation of this compliance, the person will no doubt be amply rewarded. He'll be granted entry to a select group of people, and be provided countless benefits that outsiders are denied. But his access to these privileges will be contingent on his continuous and unyielding submission to the demands of the greater group.

As I sat there contemplating this incredibly brilliant system that the inventors of the fraternity came up with, it suddenly occurred to me that I had actually just been deconstructing one of the key aspects of religious society. After all, hadn't I just described so much of what religion is about? Doing things that in ordinary circumstances you'd find ridiculous and pointless, but because some authority figure deems them necessary, you acquiesce to their demands? Isn't so much of religion about subverting your will to a greater interest?

The parallels were uncanny.
  • Religion often (not always, but often) asks people to live their lives by a set of rules that doesn't make any sense whatsoever to a rational person. And why? Because the religious authority (god, the rabbis, the talmud, etc.) says so.
  • Religion often says to its adherents, "Don't trust your own moral sense of right and wrong. It's only right or wrong because we say so."
  • Isn't it common to find religion highly averse to independent thought?
  • Doesn't religion grant its adherents countless benefits denied to outsiders, in exchange for its members' continued loyalty and devotion?
It's amazing the things you learn in college.

46 comments:

gamzoo said...

you have a point there. The difference is that some religious groups require you to "carry the brick" your whole life, not just during the initiation phase

gamzoo said...

also, most religious authorities actually believe that the rites are either divinely sanctioned or that they lead to some transcendental experience. While the fraternities fully acknowledge the pointlessness nature of the rites. It makes it much harder to do when you know it is just made up nonsense because there is no feeling of accomplishment

Anonymous said...

Great post! Circumcision's got to be the ultimate fraternity initiation rite

Mark said...

Yup, black hat and jacket enforcement rules came to mind.

frumheretic said...

Gevaldig observation!

G*3 said...

That's a great insight.

Fraternity hazing is also (literally) the textbook example for cognitive dissonance. The initiate is required to endure ridiculous and often strenuous or humiliating tasks. This creates dissonance – it’s very unpleasant, and not something he would choose to do. Yet he did choose to do these things (he could walk away from the fraternity). The dissonance is usually resolved by the initiate deciding that the fraternity is very important to him, and so the hazing is worth it. Typically the worse the hazing, the more committed the initiate is to the fraternity. After all, if he had to go through something really awful, it must be really important to him.

Joshua Skootsky said...

There is a pretty big difference here that I'm feeling.

Unlike a fraternity, a religion gives you a philosophy and a lifestyle that is satisfying over a long period of time.

That is to say, 10 years from now the pledge will probably have nothing to do with his fraternity, and maybe even regret his time spent there. That's because, inevitably, a person outgrows stuff.

Religions are designed to have you covered - emotionally, intellectually, physically, etc. from cradle to grave.

The Hedyot said...

> 10 years from now the pledge will probably have nothing to do with his fraternity, and maybe even regret his time spent there. That's because, inevitably, a person outgrows stuff.

You know, that can perfectly describe many (formerly) religious people.

Ezzie said...

Isn't so much of religion about subverting your will to a greater interest?Are you saying that that's a bad thing? All in all, whenever I notice similar things (even for example, stuff I'd call "stupid chumrahs" or strange minhagim), I also understand just how those serve a rather great positive purpose most of the time and their impact the rest of the time is often neutral. Carrying around a brick helps nobody, though the idea of loyalty and trust is an important one to build. Shabbos, meanwhile, has a tremendous impact on family and communal life. (Shabbos because it's a basic entry requirement for Orthodox Jewry.)

The Hedyot said...

> Are you saying that that's a bad thing?

I wasn't making a judgment about it. I was simply showing the similarities.

JBoy said...

> All in all, whenever I notice similar things I also understand just how those serve a rather great positive purpose most of the time and their impact the rest of the time is often neutral.

I'd love to hear the great positive purpose served when a homosexual teenager is told that he or she must deny their intrinsic nature and be burdened with a lifetime of guilt and shame.

Orthoprax said...

The 'evil' son isn't evil because he holds a different opinion, but because he seeks to separate himself out from the klal.

Of course the added dimension to apparently strange religious practices is that religious people do not believe they are pointless like carrying a brick, but tend rather to believe them to be deeply significant. And Judaism in particular rarely "initiates" people in any such manner.

Your post hits on valid points where the effort put in translates into loyalty, but the practices are not believed pointless nor are they meant as initiation.

"Doing things that in ordinary circumstances you'd find ridiculous and pointless, but because some authority figure deems them necessary, you acquiesce to their demands?"

Sounds like half of higher education too.

Mark said...

>Sounds like half of higher education too.

Haha, that's very much to the point.
The difference between religion and a fraternity is acquired rather than inherent. A fraternity accepts each member individually, thus giving each member the ability to choose whether to join or not. This also allows the fraternity to demand outright meaningless initiation rites, provided there is a strong enough incentive to join.
Religion on the other hand, is passed on from parents to children, which prompts its adherents to come up with rationalizations for what may have been originally meaningless rituals, meant simply to distinguish the group.

Chasid Kofer said...

great point! and great post!

abandoning eden said...

ahh i think you have hit on the concept of latent functions. In the functionalist school of sociological thought, we refer to "latent functions" as the unintended consequences that some actions have that are not readily apparent to the actor, but that serve a function in society (Functionalism is out of fashion in the sociology academic world, but I think some of the concepts have merit).

For instance a few latent functions of religion would be to encourage group solidarity/loyalty (in part to provide protection to the members), to provide comfort and a sense of order in a scary chaotic world, to reinforce gender differences/power (via the priesthood, everyday practices), etc.

So a latent function of having people constantly do meaningless rituals is to encourage group loyalty. Also to keep them so busy they don't have time to question their authority figures. And probably lots of other things you/I haven't thought of. :)

Emile Durkheim talks about religion as a way of encouraging group solidarity in the book "The Elementary forms of religious life"

here's something from Durkheim's wikipedia page:
"Durkheim condensed religion into four major functions:
1. Disciplinary, forcing or administrating discipline
2. Cohesive, bringing people together, a strong bond
3. Vitalizing, to make livelier or vigorous, vitalise, boost spirit
4. Euphoric, a good feeling, happiness, confidence, well-being"

abandoning eden said...

oh and might I also point out that Emile Durkheim (considered by sociologists to be one of the "Founding fathers of sociology" along with Karl Marx and Max Weber) was a skeptic/completely secular Jew who was descended from a long line of Orthodox Jewish rabbis (including his own father) and who grew up in an orthodox household.

The Hedyot said...

> The 'evil' son isn't evil because he holds a different opinion, but because he seeks to separate himself out from the klal.

I've heard this point made so many times before, and I think it's time to finally address it. Why is this so terrible? Why is it such an unforgvable sin to remove oneself from what one sees as a source of pain, oppression, and falsehood?

You know, I originally didn't want to leave the community. I just wanted to live in it in a way that was compatible with who I was. I tried for years to make that work, but eventually I realized that the community was never going to let me do my own thing. They were the ones who created a situation which I found untenable. They were the ones who basically said, "If you don't want to follow our rules, then just leave!" I never wanted to separate myself from anyone until the community made it clear that I would forever remain a second-class undesirable in their midst.

It's the biggest hypocrisy ever to blame the "wicked son" for "separating himself from the community" when it's really the community itself which says "Get out of here! We don't want you!"

gamzoo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Hedyot said...

> I think you have unreasonable expectations if you think that the OJ community is going to allow you to break their rules and that you will still remain part of the community.

gamzoo -

I agree with you. I don't seriously have such expectations. I'm just saying it's hypocritical to criticize and condemn people for leaving the community as a horribly evil act, when the community itself, in effect, is telling people to do that.

gamzoo said...

DH,

You and I look at it as a club but they look at it as a divine vocation that is upon us whether we like it or not. When you say that you don't want to keep the rules, you are also saying that you don't want to obey the divine will, which is an evil in their mind. I disagree with their judgment, but I don't expect them to change their mind to suit me any time soon. Furthermore, the community doesn't want you to leave, they want you to stay. But staying means keeping halacha. What would it mean to be a part of the halachic community, but to disregard halacha openly?

Also, what do you mean when you say you wanted to stay, but they told you to leave. Did anyone actually say you couldn't go to shul? Were you not keeping halacha openly at this point? I'm curious about this

Jackie said...

I wouldn't be so quick to generalize. Not all religions condemn individual thought -- take Buddhist meditation, which allows time for random thoughts, or the Unitarian Universalist church which allows individuals to bring their own ideas about God to the table. It's also not always correct that religions don't allow for personal moral codes. Take the Quakers, who believe one's actions should be guided by the inner light rather than specific rules and regulations.

Love the stuff about the fraternity. Just beware generalizations (of course, we all generalize from time to time, don't we?).

http://www.religiontranscends.com

Orthoprax said...

Hedyot,

"Why is this so terrible? Why is it such an unforgvable sin to remove oneself from what one sees as a source of pain, oppression, and falsehood?"

Well, when you put it like that...

But seriously when one separates themselves from the community they then exist as a rogue element. A rogue element which has historically been the source of exhaustive suffering for the Jewish people. Renegade Jews have historically been amongst the worst persecuters of the Jewish people and the worst denigrators of the Jewish tradition.

I'm not saying that's you, but you can surely appreciate it in context.

Haliczes said...

So, then, it's ok to bully people because one's past experiences have led to a fear of being bullied?

I don't get it.

The Hedyot said...

> what do you mean when you say you wanted to stay, but they told you to leave.

Throughout the period that I started being less yeshivishly frum all the way through when I was actually modern orthodox, I was continuously reminded by my peers and family how the way I was living was unacceptable and illegitimate (well, not by my MO peers). Admittedly, no one directly said, "Leave already!" but the endless haranguing about my halachic "shortcomings", my "krum" hashkafa, the many scornful comments, and the condescending and hostile attitudes made me finally realize that I was never going to be welcome in their community.

The Hedyot said...

> But seriously when one separates themselves from the community they then exist as a rogue element.

What? A rogue element? Are you just making things up now? What does this even mean? In what way is the person a rogue element?!

The Hedyot said...

> What would it mean to be a part of the halachic community, but to disregard halacha openly?

I don't think this is as crazy as you might think. In fact, as I understand it, it's pretty much how many Jewish communities existed in America until pretty recently. People drove to shul, even if it was Orthodox. They kept a basic kosher home, but ate non-kosher outside the home. They sent their kids to a religious school, even if they themselves weren't shomer shabbos.

They were part of the community, even though they might not have been halachic themselves.

Nowadays though, even for something as minor as not eating chalav yisrael, people shun their neighbors!

The Hedyot said...

PSA: For some reason Blogger is removing the line break between the closing italics tag and the next line of text. You can fix this by inserting a double [br] tag after the [/i] tag.

(You can ignore this if you have no idea what I'm talking about.)

gamzoo said...

> I don't think this is as crazy as you might think. In fact, as I understand it, it's pretty much how many Jewish communities existed in America until pretty recently.

I think you're correct. The thought occurred to me after I posted my comment. Even when I was growing up things were more relaxed. I think within the last 30 years there has been a real sharp right turn in the Orthodox community. I'm told outside the New York area it still relatively laid back.

gamzoo said...

>but the endless haranguing about my halachic "shortcomings", my "krum" hashkafa, the many scornful comments, and the condescending and hostile attitudes made me finally realize that I was never going to be welcome in their community.

Do you know if your family/friends regret treating you that way now?

Off the Derech said...

Great points.
Frum Judaism is basically like a gang, and if you choose to leave it, expect to be treated viciously.

The Hedyot said...

> Do you know if your family/friends regret treating you that way now?

Of course they do. But the really sad thing is that it doesn't actually make them change how they function or think. I still see them relating to people now the same way they did to me then. It's only after the fact, after the person takes drastic steps, such as leaving frumkeit, or dropping out of school, do they try to relate to the person with any semblance of acceptance. But until that happens, they usually continue to be derisive of the persons less strict approach to halacha.

Orthoprax said...

Hedyot,

"What? A rogue element? Are you just making things up now? What does this even mean? In what way is the person a rogue element?!"

I don't know why this confuses you. A person who leaves the Jewish people has probably lost their sense of loyalty and historically often used their knowledge of Judaism against the Jewish people.

The Hedyot said...

> I don't know why this confuses you. A person who leaves the Jewish people has probably lost their sense of loyalty...

Here's why your statement confuses me: Firstly, just because someone stopped being religious doesn't mean at all that they left the Jewish people. They just left the religious community.

Secondly, just because one leaves a group doesn't make them a rogue element towards that group. People leave things all the time without becoming 'anti' the group they left. I'm not denying how things might have been historically, but I'd like to know what I have done to consider me a rogue element towards the Jewish people. (Or even towards the religious community.)

Thirdly, it's probably worth considering that historically, much of the antagonism that did develop towards the community of origin might well have been a result of how the person was treated when they left (or as they were leaving). One only need conduct a brief survey of the blogosphere to see some of the horrible reactions that people who left have encountered. Quite a few people who left out of simple frustration and disillusionment found their feelings turning much more bitter and angry after encountering the hostile reactions of the frum community.

The Hedyot said...

> Frum Judaism is basically like a gang, and if you choose to leave it, expect to be treated viciously.

I object to this categorization, both in its tone and content.

Susan said...

> I'd love to hear the great positive purpose served when a homosexual teenager is told that he or she must deny their intrinsic nature and be burdened with a lifetime of guilt and shame.

True. But not just homosexual teens. What great purpose is there in making even straight kids feel guilty about doing something (or just wanting to do something) that's perfectly normal and healthy?

The Hedyot said...

> but the endless haranguing about my halachic "shortcomings", my "krum" hashkafa, the many scornful comments, and the condescending and hostile attitudes...

By the way, what I'm referring to here is not in regard to any outright violations of halacha, but rather simply to not keeping up with their standards. Some examples:

* When telling a friend that I was going to a certain yishuv for shabbos, his reply was, "You're going there? But aren't they mizrachnikim?!"

* When telling a friend that I had a seder in learning chumash, his reply: "But that's not real learning!"

* When walking into a relative's house on erev Rosh Hashana, dressed in sneakers and a polo shirt, and being greeted by my cousin saying, "This is how you dress on erev Rosh Hashana!?"

* The countless times I had people give me a look or comment on the fact that I wasn't wearing a hat & jacket in minyan.

* The hours long shmuez that a high school friend of mine subjected me to when he found out I was only learning in the mornings, and not full time.

* A rabbi friend of mine making a derisive comment when he saw me talking to a female acquaintance.

* The countless comments I put up with from my yeshiva-mates because I was always finding odd jobs to keep me busy instead of keeping myself hunched over a gemara where I belonged.

Don't get me wrong here: I'm not saying that these are reasons I stopped being frum. They're not. (Although they no doubt contributed to my eventual transition.) I'm just bringing them as examples of what made me realize that I was not welcome (even though I was totally frum) in the chareidi world.

Orthoprax said...

Hedyot,

"Here's why your statement confuses me: Firstly, just because someone stopped being religious doesn't mean at all that they left the Jewish people. They just left the religious community."

That may be true today, but we're working with concepts from a time when this was hardly an option.

"Secondly, just because one leaves a group doesn't make them a rogue element towards that group. People leave things all the time without becoming 'anti' the group they left."

'Rogue' doesn't mean 'anti.' It means being outside of normal control and potentially dangerous.

"I'm not denying how things might have been historically, but I'd like to know what I have done to consider me a rogue element towards the Jewish people. (Or even towards the religious community.)"

If you're not bound by the values and interests of the group then you have the potential of turning against it. Intentionally or as a tool for others who wish to do them harm. This is in the historical sense, I'm not applying it to you personally.

"Thirdly, it's probably worth considering that historically, much of the antagonism that did develop towards the community of origin might well have been a result of how the person was treated when they left (or as they were leaving)."

That very well may have played a role.

alex said...

"Religion often (not always, but often) asks people to live their lives by a set of rules that doesn't make any sense whatsoever to a rational person."

You probably meant "...by a set of rules, /some of which/ don't make any sense..."

"And why? Because the religious authority (god, the rabbis, the talmud, etc.) says so."

That's a backwards-looking "why." There's also a frontwards-looking "why."

"Religion often says to its adherents, "Don't trust your own moral sense of right and wrong. It's only right or wrong because we say so.""

That happens in every group, even amongst so-called freethinkers. (Recall the Perez Hilton slam of Miss California for stating her views on homosexual marriage.)

"Isn't it common to find religion highly averse to independent thought?"

That happens a lot in many fields of science, even. Groupthink 'n' all.

"Doesn't religion grant its adherents countless benefits denied to outsiders, in exchange for its members' continued loyalty and devotion?"

Like the National Society of Accountants?

Joshua Skootsky said...

> Frum Judaism is basically like a gang, and if you choose to leave it, expect to be treated viciously.

That's an unfair criticism. All social groups have expectations of members, and in return for meeting these expectations they get some benefits.

Judaism has expectations. 613 big ones. In return for orthopraxis, you get benefits, like shabbas dinners.

Orthopraxis (I really need a better word farther removed from Orthoprax) is defined by the community you are extracting benefit from, nothing more or less.

Child Ish Behavior said...

Nothing new here, Economist Eli Berman discusses this idea in a truly methodical manner in his paper, Sect,Subsidy,and Sacrifice. It all has to do with being part of the club. If you want to get the benefits of being part of the group, you have to show you are really part of the group.

Jason I said...

Brilliant observation. I am 63 and have never thught of orhodox life from that perspective. To sum things up or in the proverbial nutshell. Many of us are no longer observant but have chosen to remain living in their world. So goes the charade

shoshi said...

Well actually I recently read a newspaper article that says exactely this: it´s all about loyalty.

Orthoprax said...

One point is that it really isn't about doing acts that appear irrational to outsiders but in doing acts that are personally taxing in some way.

Wearing the full chasidish costume even during a heat wave helps demonstrate that you're a loyal member.

This also reminds me of evolutionary sexual selection where traits that seem counter to biological expediency nevertheless persist in a species. Like the feathery plume of a peacock which apparently only offers its host only additional weight to carry about and bright colors to attract predators. Or like the oversized antlers of deer which can serve no defensive or offensive purpose.

The theory behind these traits are that they are indeed a strain on the animal's constitution and do in fact make them less fit with respect to the basic habits of living. However, what they demonstrate to potential mates is that this individual is strong enough not just to survive but has ample vitality to the point that they can support gaudy additions.

This may also help explain the concommitant shidduch "crisis" and the ever-widening acceptance of stricter and stricter chumrot.

Ezzie said...

I wasn't making a judgment about it. I was simply showing the similarities.As Orthoprax explained well, the similarities are not meaningful. Whether you agree with it or not, the practices required in Orthodoxy are intended to have meaning (whether spiritual or actual). Holding a brick is not any more than showing that sense of sacrifice on behalf of the community. (Which, btw, ties into the "rogue element" OP noted - it is not so much the specifics of how a person breaks from the klal that is the problem than it is that they are breaking at all that is the problem. Whether those views are often too narrow - as most reasonable frum Jews would say regarding most of your examples - is an issue within Orthodoxy, but not a specific trait about Orthodox Judaism any more than any other group.)

As for the rest of the commentary, pretty much what OP said as well.

alex said...

Orthoprax, you might want to get more up-to-date on peacock research:
http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/03/26/peacock-feathers-females.html
http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/
03/26/peacock-feathers-females.html

“The determination throws a wrench in the long-held belief that male peacock feathers evolved in response to female mate choice,”

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"Barrett, however, mentioned that this theory, along with the rest of the new findings, is bound to be controversial, since other researchers have presented data suggesting that a peacock's train does influence whether or not a female will choose to mate with him."

I guess we'll see then.