Unruly Religion

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion about “discrimination on religious grounds.”[1] At the end of the discussion, someone in the audience asked me whether I had experienced a rise of anti-Semitism during the past months. I was not sure what to answer: No one has ever offended me, neither verbally nor physically, as a Jew. Yet, this answer would convey a message I did not want to convey, namely, that everything is fine. Nothing is fine. Just that the problem does not look like you think it does.


At some point in my life, I converted and became a “religious Jew.” I didn’t expect this to cause any relevant upheaval in my socio-cultural milieu: Academics from the humanities, people, who are engaged in Jewish Studies, travel regularly to Israel, and have Israeli friends. Among my peers, it surely was ok, even superb, to be a Jew. And yet, the appearance of another “kind” of Jew – the religious Jew – triggered their profound discomfort. Nothing I had done affected them in any straightforward, practical way, but glossing over it was nonetheless not an option: I learned that you could not be a member of their club if your identity, however discretely, pointed at a non-secular frame of reference. You could not represent the not-yet-reformed versions of Judaism.

When you belong to the not-yet-reformed, you are a traitor to cultural evolution. As the rest of humanity had progressed from paganism to Judaism to Catholicism to Protestantism to secularism, you were making a u-turn and despite knowing better return to some earlier, less elaborated, less free, less noble state of being. I was told that I could have chosen between “champagne and water,” and took the water. I was told that my husband will cheat on me once I would have produced him children, because this is what they do in “these kinds of societies.” I was asked if I am not afraid to marry into that “African tribe,” my husband’s Yemeni family. I was told that it is very, very sad that “someone like me” needs to put up with something like this (“something like this” being the observance of the Shabbat). Everybody oppresses and brainwashes me, I was told: the Jewish law, the rabbis, my husband, everybody from that other side, where God rules, instead of reason. I was being asked if I could keep on writing my dissertation despite my religion. I was told that secularism is the only guarantor of peace, that my religion will force me into cruel tribalism as evidenced by the rite of circumcision…

It felt like being trapped in an everlasting job-interview. When you are tagged as a “fundamentalist,” you are constantly checked as to your compatibility. Before being admitted as a relevant partner of debate, you have to prove that you’ve learned the rules, that you are a liberal, free and critical mind even though you stick to a set of archaic rules. Your word is never relevant as is, a priori, but always in danger of de-legitimization because of its situatedness, subjectivity, its being tainted by religious bias. At best, my position was that of a tragic transitional character, the one that knows of the sweetness of freedom and bravely manages to finish a Ph.D. despite religious constraints, but is not strong enough to get rid of those constraints entirely. Tradition, you know, is a very heavy chain.

I recount this not so much as a personal testimony, but as a piece of a puzzle of a larger point: In contemporary Germany, Jews and Muslims are not categorically discriminated as Jews and Muslims, but as unruly Jews and Muslims. We have a ban on head-coverings in state offices and almost criminalized ritual circumcision, because head-coverings and circumcisions do not comply with hegemonial assumptions about how a “religion” should function and look like. Thus, when the opponents of circumcision claimed, that they are not motivated by Jew-hatred, at least some of them could be believed: The criminalization of ritual circumcision was, indeed, not meant to be an anti-Semitic assault, but rather, an educational endeavor meant to transform the archaic into the enlightened: it was well meant, it was left wing, it was even feminist.

Of course, there exists racial xenophobia, that type of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism that is categorically directed against Jews and Muslims. Yet, this kind of xenophobia is a social outcast and a political no-go: The New Right is keen to dissociate itself from a racial stigmatization of Muslims (and to that end, the AfD’s Muslim members are its greatest asset). The discourse, which is nowadays activated in order to legitimize xenophobic politics, is not one of racial purity, but of cultural progress from the “backward” to the “enlightened,” from tradition to reason, from tribalism to individualism. It is an evolutionary narrative, in which our predecessors peeled, layer by layer, “religion” from their skins, and thereby turned from child-like victims of religious paternalism, incapable of “independent reasoning,” into self-determined, individual agents. Secularism is this evolution’s glorious end-product, where religious differences and particularity are neutralized, where the limits of bodily existence are overcome by pure, bird-eyed reason: an ultimate truth.

The structuring element of this evolutionary narrative is religious: At the bottom, there is fundamental, non-reformed, non-liberal religion. In contemporary Europe, this kind of religion is currently associated with Islam. At the top is Protestantism, hardly distinguishable from secularism, and accordingly perceived as wholly congruent with “universal norms,” rather than with any particular “religion.” Judaism is an ambivalent in-between: On the one hand, it is entirely appropriated and incooperated into Protestantism, yet on the other hand, it is always kept as “the other,” whose existence testifies to Germany’s multiculturalism. It is the quintessential “other that is like us” – which explains my German friends’ unease with a Jew, who is “not like us”: The existence of this kind of Jew, who is a little closer to the bottom, was a surprise to many during the “circumcision-debate” in 2012, and erupted the new Germany’s self-image: The nation was torn between a wish to maintain a tolerant self-image, and a refusal to tolerate religious difference of the non-liberal kind.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish boy wears a costume ahead of  Purim in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood

Purim in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood February 22, 2013. Reuters/Amir Cohen

So yes, something is going wrong here. The problem, however, rests neither with a particular political party, nor with any particular religiously defined group. The problem rests with an evolutionary model of cultural progress, which positions Judaism at an intermediary stage: a necessary, yet imperfect stage, that ultimately needs to be overcome, that is: to be transformed and expressed along particular, socially acceptable lines. This is a secularized version of Christian supersessionism, and it surrounds us in a million of ways: It is ever present in discussions about “Islam,” it comes up when the “level of female emancipation” in Jewish orthodoxy is scrutinized, it is a self-evident, automatic framework of any public assessment of “religion” – and it hurts.



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2 Responses to Unruly Religion

  1. Sabriya Palm says:

    Dear brother or sister “Mandolina”, thank you very much for these wise words. Blessings to you, Sabriya

  2. Sister Mandolina:) Thank you.

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