A Sikh and a Jew Walk Into an Airport….

November 11, 2013

by Rachel Kohl Finegold

Last week, I participated in an interfaith panel of Jews and Sikhs at the Le Mood Festival. For those who have been to a Limmud conferences in the States, picture Le Mood as the Montreal (read: hipper, slightly “euro”) version.

Some of our U.S. readers may not be aware of a troubling bill which has been proposed here in Quebec. The Charter of Quebec Values would prohibit any government employee from wearing a religious garment or conspicuous religious symbol. The intention is to maintain a clear separation between religion and state, symbolized by the secularism and neutrality of public sector workers. The reality is that this bill would prohibit employees in diverse settings such as daycares, hospitals, and universities from wearing a kippah, hijab, turban, large cross, or any other overtly religious article of clothing. Here in Quebec, where so many social services are funded by the government, it’s hard NOT to be a government worker. This bill would force employees to either remove their religious clothing, or lose their job. [I should note that this bill will likely not become law, but obviously even its existence as a bill is disturbing.]

When I moved to Montreal three months ago, I was shocked to learn that a law like this could even be proposed in the 21st century, where religious expression should be recognized as a basic human right. I have learned that it is predominantly the secular Quebecois population, who live in parts of Quebec that are far from the cosmopolitan city of Montreal, that support this bill. Religious groups around the Montreal area have mobilized around letter-writing campaigns, media appearances, and protests, hoping to educate government officials as to how this bill would negatively impact their daily lives. Diverse religious communities have united in this fight.

Hence, the interfaith panel. Entitled “Holy Hair,” the program explored the ways that Judaism and Sikhism deal with hair. Besides the discussions around how the proposed Charter of Values has caused much upset in our two communities, we spent time comparing the turban worn by Sikh men, and the kippah. Beyond that, when I discovered that Sikh men not only cover their head, but also never cut their hair or beard, I could hear echoes of our own tradition where men refrain from shaving their beards (or use only an electric razor) as well as the tradition of the Nazir, who refrains from cutting hair as a show of devotion to God.

We also compared the daily experience of a Sikh man who wears a turban to an Orthodox woman who covers her hair. As someone who covers her hair all the time, but often does so with a hat, I may go undetected by those who are unaware that my hat is a religious head covering. A Sikh turban, however, is overtly religious. Not only does this mean that we would be treated differently under the proposed Charter of Values. It also means I can “pass” in my everyday life. I walk down the street relatively undetected as a religious individual. Not so a turban-wearing Sikh.

There was one experience which we had in common: the airport head patdown. Whenever I go through security at the airport, I am told, “Ma’am, please remove your hat.” I explain that this is a religious head covering and that I cannot remove it. I am then told to step aside, and that I need to be subject to a “pat down”. We’ve all been there at one time or another, randomly selected for a full-body pat down. I am in the “pat down zone” every time I am in the airport, but just for my head. As I step aside, a female TSA employee dons a pair of gloves, and proceeds to pat my head and every part of my hat, including the brim (if there is one), to ensure that there is no contraband. Hey, I can’t blame them – if explosives have already been hidden in shoes and underwear, why not in a hat?

As I related this experience to our audience at Le Mood, the Sikh sitting near me immediately identified with it. Yes, he, too, was regularly subjected to the turban pat down. I then learned that in Sikh culture, the head is holy. So a turban pat down is actually quite disturbing to a Sikh, and even feels invasive. The first time it happened to this individual, he felt violated, as if someone had touched an intimate and holy part of himself. I found this fascinating. Did I feel that way when getting my own hat patted? Not really. But once I thought about it, yes, it did feel like a violation of my personal space to be asked to remove an article of clothing that I would only remove in the privacy of my own home. For others, removing one’s hat might be like removing one’s jacket. But for me, my hat is a basic covering like my shirt or skirt, which one would never dare ask anyone to remove in public, even at airport security.

My Sikh colleague sensitized me to my own tzniut. He had such a deep connection to his head and its covering, that he felt a dimension of shame or violation when a stranger touched that place. I learned that I have a similar gut reaction when asked to remove my hat. I also learned that the Sikh community has educated TSA employees with regards to this cultural sensitivity of the head. These days, a Sikh may don the gloves himself, rub his hands along his own turban, and then remove the gloves for inspection, which is sufficient to detect any explosive device or dangerous weapon. What an incredible show of tolerance and respect, without compromising anyone’s safety!

I have found myself far from home here in Quebec in many ways, politically and otherwise. But I have also found kindred spirits in my fellow religionists. We have much in common in the political arena, out on the street, and even in the airport.

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Physical beauty transformed: From Anthony Weiner to Sara of the Bible -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 8, 2011

I recently came across a fascinating blog. It is authored by an anonymous single mother inSan Franciscowho suffered horrendous sexual abuse as a child at the hands of her own father and contains some of the deepest spiritual insights I have read. In a post entitled “Does your grandmother look good naked?” she writes:

“In our culture today, we seem to have allowed the porn industry to define female beauty for us. …I thought my grandmother was a beautiful woman. Actually – I know she was a beautiful woman. I remember the day I chose to name my only child after her: she was eighty-two years old, visiting her forty-three year old son in a nursing home (a horrible accident left him brain-dead). But she didn’t just visit him. She also brought gifts and smiles and attention to the other residents of that nursing home. Every one she touched could see how beautiful she was…I know what you’re thinking – my grandmother had spiritual beauty, not necessarily physical beauty. But how have we come to separate the two? They are not separate….My grandmother’s laugh lines, her arthritic hands, her dowager’s hump, her aged and tender skin-all of that was beautiful to me. Her body was beautiful because she lived in it. Your body is beautiful because you live in it…When we separate a body from its spirit; we turn that body into a corpse….Let’s stop treating our bodies as sex objects, and start embracing ourselves as sexual subjects. Only then will we have a shot at genuine beauty.”

I think she is talking here about an entirely new way of seeing beauty, sexuality, and attraction. That physical beauty must not be separate from emotional, relational, and spiritual beauty but that the two can be seen as deeply connected, as actually the same. Not jettisoning the physical for something deeper but seeing it in a new light, illuminated by the person themselves.

What would it mean to see each other in this way? How can we reframe when we feel attracted to someone due to their physical beauty alone? How do we see beauty as still beautiful and attractive but at the same time emerging from who someone is, the real person that inhabits that body, not from their skin? Is it even possible to see emotional and values driven beauty as inseparable from physical beauty? Not as many do, to see the soul and self in place of the body, but to see bodily beauty and sexuality as a manifestation of the soul? To see ourselves and others as beautiful, as sexy, but not because our skin is taught, not because we are an ideal figure, but as the “us” that inhabits our bodies.

It is interesting in this vain to reread the Bible’s description of the first Jewish woman, – Sara, who at 66 years old is described as physically, not spiritually beautiful. Shouldn’t the bible be more concerned with the spiritual or emotional beauty of Sara rather than her physical beauty? Is a 66 year old woman really the Bible’s image of physical beauty? Indeed the Bible does not describe many younger women this way.

Even stranger is that the context is one in which Abraham is afraid that due to Sara’s incredible beauty she will be taken by Pharaoh for a liaison. Pharaohs typically had access to all the young beautiful women their hearts desired, so why would Pharaoh notice Sara at 66 years old and take her? Is it possible that the blogger is right? That were we not inundated with media indoctrinating us to believe that beauty is only a manifestation of certain kinds of skin, certain weights, certain breast and leg formations, that beauty would be a wholly different type of experience for us? One in which the person and body were not separate, one in which the person themselves manifested their physical beauty?

In an age of Anthony Weiners who wish to be known only by their skin, in an age inundated by pornography and sexually oriented advertising, of television that only encourages us to see others and ourselves as objects, how can w cultivate the instruction of the anonymous but wise San Franciscan blogger? How do we move toward an appreciation of Biblical Sara whose physical beauty is her spiritual beauty and vice versa?


On Modesty and Misogyny by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 23, 2011

The sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week brought me to think a bit about the role of modesty in religious countries.   Egypt is a country in which most women are religiously required or encouraged to cover themselves completely.  Yet paradoxically it is also a country in which women on the street, even those who are covered, are constantly at risk of being sexually harassed by men.

The following paragraph is from the Canadian government’s travel advisory on Egypt:

“Women, particularly foreign women, are frequently subject to unpleasant male attention, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse. This often takes the form of staring, inappropriate remarks, catcalls, and touching.”

Trying to make sense of this dichotomy the author of a recent Associated Press article reacting to the Lara Logan case hypothesized the following:

“Harassment is often the flip side of conservative mores. Men who believe women should stay out of the public sphere tend to assume that those seen in the streets are fair game.” If this is so it paints the picture of a perverse and one sided take on the idea of modesty.

It seems to me the role of modesty in religion is two fold.  Firstly, to be modest before God.  Flaunting the body is a kind of haughtiness because it shows we wish to be desired, respected, and approved of, not for who we are essentially (a being made in God’s image according to the Bible) but for something external.  This is the quintessence of hubris, to be lauded for what one has rather than what one does.   The same is true of flaunting one’s car, one’s money, or one’s house.

Secondly, modesty keeps sexual desire in its place.   Spiritual paths all seem to understand that sexuality is one of the most powerful human drives and that, if utilized correctly in specific contexts, that power can produce the holiest of things: the creation of new human beings with divine souls, and the deepest of human connections between two willing people.

While the Associated Press theory above may be correct, it bespeaks a one sided sense of modesty gone awry.   Formulating modesty as something that focuses on women and not upon men leads to only half the population cultivating the important values that modesty should teach, and seems to actually result in an overall lack of modesty.   Delineating a modest society or religion by how its women dress and not by how its men act leads to a bizarre double standard such as that in Egypt: women in extremely modest dress being sexually harassed by men who supposedly buy into the same religious value of modesty, but practice it not at all.

A double standard of modesty is sometimes depicted, (admittedly with out the same violent results) in a county close to my heart, Israel.  There are very religious Jewish sections of Jerusalem where upon entering one sees signs warning women to dress modestly, yet there are no signs warning men to watch what they look at, though there is much written in Judaism’s books of religious law about this very issue.   In fact if one looks in the Talmud, Judaism’s most basic source of tradition and law, or even in later codes of Jewish law one finds almost nothing prescribing  female dress, but much about the care men must exercise in guarding their eyes and speech.

Unless we see modesty as more than just how women dress but also as how we all act then we have facilitated hypocrisy rather than religious humility before God.  As the prophet Micha (6:8) said so long ago, “What does God ask of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”