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Devout or Deranged?

August 9, 2012 2 comments

Men OnlyThe AP recently reported that some ultra-Orthodox men, “in an effort to maintain their strictly devout lifestyle,” are now buying sight-blurring eye-glasses in order to avoid seeing women (“Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men offered blurry glasses look to keep Israeli women out of sight“).

Is this really “devout”? Or is it deranged?

I want to be clear: I support freedom of religion. And as fanaticism goes, blurry eye-glasses seem pretty benign, especially in the context of the increasingly common connection between religious zealotry and explosives. But why do we call this behavior “devout”?

"Fanaticism comes in many varieties, and either it's all devout or none of it is."If the Oxford English Dictionary is to be trusted, “devout” is anything that has to do with devotion to the divine. But for me, and, I suspect, most other English speakers, “devout” implies that in addition to being religious, the behavior is (1) unusual, (2) authentic, and (3) desirable.

The first quality is why the AP (again, following common usage) applies “devout” to the ultra-Orthodox, but not, say, to me in my role of Religious-School director, or to my father is his role of rabbi. Both of us look like most other Americans, while the ultra-Orthodox attire is unusual. Similarly, giving charity and helping the downtrodden is a way many people express devotion to God, but precisely because so many people do them, those practices seldom earn the adjective “devout.”

It’s the second and third qualities that concern me. Both the ultra-Orthodox men (when they oppress women) and the Taliban (when they blow up infidels) are doing what they think is God’s will. When we call the first group “devout” and the second “fanatical,” we are tacitly giving approval to what the ultra-Orthodox do. It’s as though we’re making the case that misogyny is like kindness: laudable, even if we aren’t all always up to the task.

I think that a different division is called for. We should be clear that the blurry glasses are part of a cult of fanaticism, along with segregated buses and other modern inventions of a group of people calling themselves the guardians of tradition. The Taliban are likewise fanatics. And I suppose there are those for whom my own religious practice of lighting plain white candles Friday evening before it’s even dark could come under the category of fanatical. Fanaticism comes in many varieties, and either it’s all devout or none of it is.

It seems to me that the important distinction here is between benign and destructive. When I light Sabbath candles, I’m not hurting myself or anyone else. The same cannot be said for segregated buses or suicide bombers.

I’m not entirely sure where the blurry glasses fall, but either way, I think the AP does everyone a disservice when it excuses some otherwise detestable behavior by calling it “devout.”