Sunday, 19 July 2015

My hostess's ultra-Orthodox neighbour

I went to a barbecue with some friends yesterday in Stamford Hill. My hostess had moved in a few weeks ago and had been round to greet the neighbours. The guy who opened the door was an ultra-Orthodox Jew. She went to shake his hand, and he drew back and explained that he couldn't touch women. Later, she found out by googling that this was because she might be menstruating and therefore impure. (AFAICS this is partly true; the other reason might be to prevent sexual desire.)

She was fairly scathing about this. As she put it, "why should I respect someone who doesn't respect me?"

This caused some umming and aahing.

I suppose one reservation is that people cannot entirely be blamed for following their ancestral traditions. They may just not know any better.

Another thought is that ultra-Orthodoxy has one thing going for it at least: survivability. Modern secular culture is always changing, advancing and developing. (Ultra-Orthodox life is not unchanging, but it is strongly oriented towards tradition, and makes deliberate efforts to be so.) Our lifestyle has changed drastically in the past fifty years. For that reason, we do not know what its long-run advantages and disadvantages might be. The correspondence between a cuture's rationality and its survivability may be weak. A possible example comes from (I think?) Bruno Bettelheim's observation of Jehovah's Witnesses in the concentration camps. Psychoanalytically trained, he had expected these rigid and rule-bound personalities to survive least well. The opposite happened.

We agreed that it was all very tricky, and proceeded to demolish the two excellent kinds of pudding.