Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Power & Politics Column: From minyan anxiety to female modesty

This week I attended a delightful Sheva Brachot, the festive meal held during the first week after a couple is married, during which seven benedictions are added to the standard Grace after Meals. In Orthodox tradition, this requires a minyan, or quorum of 10 men.

Ours was an eclectic gathering of Orthodox, Masorti and Reform Jews - mostly observant - as well as a number of non-observant Jewish people and a sprinkling of non-Jews from abroad. In such cases, etiquette requires that Orthodox standards be followed: It could not be 10 Jews - it had to be 10 Jewish men.

As we were about to begin the Grace, I noticed that we barely had a minyan, so I asked a guest who was about to leave if he could stay on.

"I promised I'd meet a friend and I'm already running late," he said, glancing nervously at his watch.

"In that case, do you know if Mike - sitting over there - is Jewish?"

The guest gave me a peculiar look: "I have no idea."

ONLY AFTERWARDS did it occur to me that he had no clue why I was trying to delay his departure with talk about "a minyan," or why I was uncouthly, it seemed to him, enquiring about the religious affiliation of a fellow guest.

Such misunderstandings are bound to follow when cultures - or sub-cultures - bump into each other.

I'm not talking about "culture" as in art or entertainment, but in the way anthropologists and sociologists understand it: "the integrated system of socially acquired values, beliefs and rules of conduct which delimit the range of accepted behaviors."

It's easy to see your own culture or sub-culture as normative while remaining oblivious to the values of others. And it takes hard work not to fall into that trap.

TAKE SHIGELLA, a bacteriological infection of the intestines, which recently spiked among the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect in Brooklyn. The disease is spread when infected fecal matter contaminates food or water, which is why the local health department suspected poor hygiene as the cause.

It's not that Satmar children don't wash their hands after going to the toilet, the problem is they don't necessarily use soap and hot water. Instead, they ritually wash by pouring cold water several times over each hand before reciting the Asher Yatzar prayer, which thanks God for the continuous daily miracle of the body's proper functioning.

No one is suggesting that ritual washing, per se, is the problem, only that the process probably needs to be supplemented by soap and hot water. Fortunately, the public health authorities in New York City are clued into the possibility that group values can provide insights into the spread of disease. Having solved the mystery, they've now distributed pamphlets in Yiddish on personal hygiene.

OF COURSE, even when we do pick up that a particular behavior is culturally rooted, that doesn't necessarily make it any more palatable. Under a current crackdown in Iran, for instance, women can be lashed if they appear on the street in "revealing" headscarves or outfits too suggestive of the female form.

While I understand that modesty plays an important role in Iran's cultural framework, it doesn't make me tolerant of lashing people in the streets.

Or take virginity. Many cultures - Islam in particular, but Orthodox Judaism probably no less - place paramount value on female virginity. Now medical advances make it possible, as The New York Times reported last week, for surgeons to restore the hymen in women who have been sexually active.

In one case, according to the Times, "a 26-year-old French woman of Moroccan descent said she lost her virginity four years ago when she fell in love with the man she was now planning to marry. She and her fiancee decided to share the cost of her $3,400 hymen-replacement surgery in Paris. His extended family in Morocco is very conservative, she said, and required that a gynecologist - and family friend - in Morocco examine her for proof of virginity before the wedding."

It's hard to get your head around this sort of hypocrisy, until you consider that Muslim women are often murdered in so-called honor killings for having sexual relations outside marriage.
What happens when Muslim mores and Western jurisprudence rub up against each is equally interesting. Last week, a French appeals court overruled a lower court decision that had annulled a marriage because the bride turned out not to be a virgin. French law says a marriage can be annulled if a person lies about his or her "essential qualities," though it does not define them.


POLITICAL BEHAVIOR can often be tied to culture. South Korea has lately been rocked by protests over a government decision to import American beef.

After an urban legend circulated on the Internet that the Korean race had a gene which made it particularly susceptible to mad cow disease, 700,000 people rallied in Seoul irrationally convinced that the racial homogeneity of their society was at imminent risk. When Korea's agricultural minister went to the rally to reason with the multitudes, he was quickly driven from the podium.

These are the "good" Koreans, mind you. God only knows what lessons may be drawn by policymakers trying to negotiate with the North Koreans.

And speaking of Koreans, one of the Hebrew papers reported on the many South Korean Bible students who arrive in this country - some going on to obtain PhDs from Hebrew University - without any knowledge of contemporary Israel.

Talk about cultural misunderstandings. One graduate student revealed: "I did not even know that Israel was a Jewish state. I didn't actually know what a Jew was. Only after I arrived did I realize, one day, that I was among Jews."

EVER SINCE a vacation in Cairo earlier this year, I've been fascinated by how Egyptian culture affects perceptions. In a series of brilliant vignettes about life in Egypt, New York Times Cairo bureau chief Michael Slackman has been illuminating the chasm between Western and Egyptian values.

Ask someone for directions, and they feel obligated to help: "'Here, even if someone sends you in the wrong direction, he still feels he did what he is supposed to do,' said Karam al-Islam, a professor of communications at Al-Azar university. 'He doesn't think he misguided you. He helped. Right and wrong is a relative thing.'"

In another brilliant piece, Slackman writes about the over-the-top use of the Arabic insha'allah, meaning "God willing."

Slackman orders a burger with onions at McDonald's. "Insha'allah, with onions," comes the reply.

A young, relatively secular Cairene tells Slackman about being invited to a party. She really doesn't want to go, yet doesn't want to offend with an explicit refusal. So she replies with "Insha'allah." Now no one can fault her for not showing.

This ubiquitous use of "insha'allah" reminds me of the way Orthodox friends use b'li naider, meaning, I can't absolutely promise because, at the end of the day, everything is in God's hands.
The moral of all this? Be sure - b'li naider - that you are never again oblivious to the role culture plays in the lives of people and nations. Insha'allah.

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