How Orthodox should Israel’s Orthodox university be?
There’s a major controversy at Bar Ilan University about the institution’s policy of compulsory yarmulke-wearing during Jewish studies classes.
It has long been policy that male students should cover their heads when studying sacred texts, though many professors turn a blind eye when they don’t. However, a recent incident saw a professor, Haim Talbi, insisting that a student donned a yarmulke or left class, and the student leaving. “How is it possible that a lecturer tells a student to get out of class for not wearing a kippah, and the university backs that teacher?,” the student posted on Facebook.
The university has said that students sign on the rule when they enter the establishment, so Talbi was perfectly justified. But the real question isn’t whether it’s justified on paper but whether it makes sense. Bar Ilan isn’t like Yeshiva University where students study religion in yeshiva alongside their degree, but rather a place where Jewish studies are treated academically. For many Orthodox Jews, the reason it’s important for a man to wear a yarmulke when looking at sacred texts is that it draws a distinction between reading as a purely intellectual activity and one with metaphysical importance. And this is exactly the distinction that some of Bar Ilan’s secular students think they shouldn’t have to make.
The precise way that it sees the balance in Jewish studies between academia and doctrine has long been a grey area at Bar Ilan. This controversy looks set to force some significant internal debate and some clear conclusions.
Aside from the latent anti-Semitism that motivates the European political fringe, there are two possible explanations for why Marine Le Pen felt it necessary to explain that if France is to proscribe the hijab or chador in the public square as she favours, “it is obvious that we must ban the kippa.” She added that both kosher and halal meat must be outlawed together, since the greater good of the republic must be placed above the wants and needs of any one community.
The first was unwittingly alluded to by Le Pen herself, in an interview given to French television.
“Jewish skullcaps are obviously not a problem in our country,” she said, but France has to “ban them in the name of equality.” Tellingly, she concluded, “What would people say if I’d only asked to ban Muslim clothing? They’d burn me as a Muslim hater.” French Jewry is innocent of any offence against the republic, but Le Pen has to offer up the kippa ban, lest she be suspected of only hating Muslims.
The other is that Le Pen made another outrageous and inflammatory statement in a sad bid to sustain her already overly-augmented national profile. Le Pen managed to finish third in the first round of the presidential election in April, and missed out on a seat in the National Assembly by only 118 votes in June by exploiting fears of rising crime and socio-cultural change amongst white working class voters. It is not coincidental, then, that this interview was given just before the start of the Front National’s summer conference, and at a time of cultural conflict between secularism and Islam regarding the cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad that were published in a French satire magazine.
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