October 2, 2012

On the Jewish Question

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“Posing as Professor, Cornell Alumnus Slams Jewish Student’s Religion in Email.”


When I first read the above headline — published in The Sun on September 21 — I was confused, bewildered and, admittedly, a bit outraged. Furthermore, especially after reading the email that alumnus Brian Mick ’10 sent under the guise of Prof. Bruce Monger, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, to a freshman student, I was angered that an alumnus of the University that I love would bill an indictment of my religion as having a “little fun” and as “a little bit of trolling” (Mick’s words published in The Sun, not mine.)

Mick went on in the same Sun article: The email “underlies a serious issue with religion and academia today. We need to not make allowances for people based on their religion. Everyone can have their own religion, but when it comes to academia, which you’re paying $50,000 a year for, you need to get your priorities in order.” Mick has since denounced the sentiments that were contained in his email and in his comments published in The Sun so I will refrain from thoroughly lambasting him. However, his initial email brings up the very interesting question of the role of religion in an academic setting.

I will admit that I practice a very relaxed form of Judaism. Much like a stereotypical American Jew (at least like the ones who I have interacted with) my religious life is not hugely important to my everyday life. Every year I attend a handful of Shabbat services, I learned a Torah portion for my Bar Mitzvah and my family and I celebrate the age-old tradition of Chinese food and a movie on Christmas day. However, the two events on the Hebrew calendar that I treat with reverence are contained in the 10-day stretch referred to as the High Holidays. These two holiest of days are called Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and if you ask any Jew on which days he values his faith most, he will likely respond with these two days.

Practitioners of Judaism are typically referred to as Jews first and their own nationality second. Although the Jews are a disparate and scant people who number only around 0.2 percent of the world’s population, many scholars argue that the umbrella term “Jewish” defines an ethnic group, not simply the faith of a devotee. Indeed, although Jews come in all shapes and spiritual sizes (from hasidic to Westchester housewife), we all share the same ancestral traditions (and hopefully the same self-deprecating sense of humor). It is with this established reverence for these shared age-old traditions in mind that I proceed with the rest of this column.

From the perspective of a Cornell student, it seems to me that the University is secular to a point where religion is shunned, rather than celebrated. And by that I mean that being a Jew when the High Holy Days fall during the first wave of preliminary examinations absolutely stinks. There is really no other word for it (actually there several unpublishable words).

One of my friends decided to cancel his bus ticket home to Pennsylvania for Rosh Hashanah because one of his professors refused to move a prelim for him on the grounds that he would technically be back in time to take it. The exam was on a Wednesday morning and he would have returned to Ithaca late the day before and the professor apparently compared his plight to people getting home late from going to a football game. Seems absolutely reasonable (where before you read self-deprecating humor, read here disgusted sarcasm.)

Here is the fact of the matter, at least how I see it: Jews make up 22 percent of the Cornell population, according to Cornell Hillel. That is 22 percent of the student body that the University ignores when they pretend that there is nothing sacred about these two days. It is 22 percent that the University disrespects when a faculty member compares a hallowed celebration to a football game.

This year, Yom Kippur fell on a Wednesday and, since I have four classes on Wednesdays, I decided that I would not attend services. However, a key aspect of Yom Kippur is the fast and with the fast comes the commitment to reflect on your previous year and on ways that you may live better in the upcoming 354 days (a lunar year). As I sat in class, I could not help but reflect on what I was missing, on how my father was attending services alone this year and about how I was sitting in lecture, focusing more on spirituality than Economics.

David Fischer is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Fischy Business appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Fischer