Friday, February 8, 2013

SUNY puts religions on a (slightly more) even playing field

SUNY New Paltz has announced it will not close for Jewish holidays any longer.  This opens the door to real religious freedom on the campus, and should be celebrated by members of all faiths.

The idea that a public institution, open to all, should close its doors for the sake of an observance of a single faith or group of faiths is one of those traditions that's been carried on for so long that most people don't even question it.  Most peoplewho practice a religion in this country, after all, follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, those which intellectually descend from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham; these include the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic sects, among others.  Among those, Judaism has the smallest number of worldwide adherents, but closing of educational institutions in particular for its most sacred holy days is quite common in some parts of the country.

Closing for a religious observance makes sense in some cases.  I am familiar with a coffee shop that closes for Yom Kippur because it's located in a religious enclave, and the owners recognize that it doesn't make business sense to open up if 95% of the customers won't be showing up.  But generally speaking, shutting down completely because some members of the community will be engaged in observances isn't a sound practice, because it's not practical to close up shop every day that's sacred to some amount of the community.

By electing to close for the holy days of one religion, the college sent a message, intentional or not, that it valued members of that faith differently.  In truth, members of any faith can opt out of work or class obligations for religious reasons; the college is, and should be, accommodating of those requests.  But in a society that takes a long break for Christmas and closes down every autumn for a couple of high holy days, an 18-year-old freshman could easily feel uncomfortable requesting time for Ramadan, Vesak, or Samhain.  Are those days less important, because the student or staff member must make a request?  Not to the adherent, they're not.

Of course, there remains the question of Christmas, which is one of the least important days on the Christian religious calendar, but is given tremendous weight by our society.  (If you're a serious Christian, you're far more interested in the messiah's resurrection than his birth.)  For good or ill, Christmas has been secularized and subsumed by our consumption-dependent economy.  As a minor religious observance it doesn't deserve the "holiday break" it gets any more than other holy days, but as a secular celebration of gift-giving it's probably going to have a special place for a long time.  (Those Christmas traditions which are most commonly trumpeted by retailers, such as the trees, the gifts, the lights, and the carols, derive from non-Christian practices that have been conflated with the messianic birth celebration over the centuries, so other than the confusing misuse of the name, they have nothing to do with Christmas as it was originally intended by Christians.)

I hope that Jewish members of the campus community see this decision as liberating, rather than an affront.  Without the undue weight given to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, observant Jews should feel more comfortable asking for accommodations to observe Pesach, Purim, Sukkot, and other major holidays which never were given to campus closure.  And it should make it much easier for members of other faiths, even more thinly represented than Judaism, to similarly embrace their faiths without awkwardness.

Good job, college.

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