False priests pretend to protect Notre Dame from contamination by Barack Obama

False priests pretend to protect Notre Dame from contamination by Barack Obama

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.


Last week we read about the Obama Notre Dame controversy in “Degrees of Acceptance at Notre Dame,” an op-ed by Richard V. Allen in the Times: “There is turmoil in South Bend, Ind. – and around the country. The Rev. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, has invited President Obama to deliver the commencement address at the university on May 17 and to receive an honorary degree.

“As a result, many alumni are up in arms denouncing the decision. Priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have criticized the university and its president. South Bend’s own bishop, John D’Arcy, has announced that he will not attend. At the same time, other members of the Notre Dame community have responded, with similar force, that Mr. Obama should be allowed to speak.”

This debate has provoked us to think about what might be called “protecting” a university from “contamination” by an “unclean” speaker.

Functionaries seem to have appointed themselves the guardians of the precincts of religious universities. They make a fuss now and then about how one particular party or another needs to be kept away from the sacred space of the holy school.

We saw this on a small scale not long ago in a debate about whether a certain Bible scholar, James Kugel, should have been allowed to speak at the Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva University. But that was small potatoes.

We are seeing this played out on a larger scale now, with the outcry over whether President Barack Obama ought to be given an honorary degree and be permitted to speak at the graduation this spring at the Catholic Notre Dame University.

It’s easy enough to reduce all this hollering to brute politics and dismiss it out of hand. Some ardent religious conservative wants to ascend a bully pulpit, and this type of occasion gives him just the ladder he needs to climb up and demand attention.

We’ve never been a big fan of pure reductionism as a means of religious analysis. We are eager to believe that there is more going on than just that superficial process of finding a place to yell out loud about your pet social or political peeves.

Accordingly, we think it’s important to examine the dynamics of these “guardian” activists and try to abstract some deeper cultural meaning or understanding from the hue and cry that they are raising.

We recall that keeping a holy precinct free from contamination of uncleanness is a classical role that priests play in the major religious traditions of the world. The examples from Yeshiva and Notre Dame may permit us to explore how this process plays out in our modern society.

The contemporary religious university does present us with an essential quandary. It’s an institution that has to function as an open society of inquiry because it is a university. Yet the religious university is also a symbolic presence of the religion that it stands for – a quasi-sacred space – an eruption of the holy into the profane world around it.

Of course there are all kinds of gradations of the holy precincts in all religions. Universities can never be classified on the level of holiness as pure places of worship (though they surely will have within the campus walls some actual places of prayer).

Still, we recall the classic Peanuts cartoon wherein one of the cartoon’s characters declares to another, an anxious student who is fretting aloud in a religious way before an exam, that “hoping and praying should never be confused with studying.”

Students of classical Judaism will recognize the concentric circles of spatial holiness that the ancient sources documented, namely, in increasing levels of sanctity, all other countries on earth, the Land of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Temple structure itself, and within that, the Holy of Holies.

In modern times we find more complex and often overlapping notions of sacred space. But our premise says that people have decided Notre Dame and Yeshiva are sacred spaces, regardless of what kind of real inquiry or behavior goes on inside the brick and mortar structures of those American religious campuses.

The premise thus established, the struggle can commence over who ought to be allowed to enter and be honored in such precincts.

If that is the case, we think this struggle sorely lacks subtlety. Opponents of the potentially “defiling” commencement speech by Obama at Notre Dame say nothing about whether he can enter and speak at a classroom at the law school on the campus. That, apparently, would be just fine. They say nothing about whether the library ought to buy and lend Barack’s books. If the guy is not kosher, should we even let him into the house? Well, you get my point.

This lack of refinement over the presence of the defiling agent in the spaces of holiness makes us abandon analyzing the whole debate as if it were a bona fide religious struggle to maintain purity in some pristine priestly precincts.

We’ve replayed the tape of what we think is going on here in the Obama versus Notre Dame affair. And yes, as the referee at the football game would say, upon closer examination, we’ve got to say that it’s not a legitimate touchdown, that a foul has been committed.

Our replay indicates that purely political actors have wrapped themselves up in the garb of priests as if they were holy men guarding the holy sanctuary, thereby attempting to prohibit their opponents from “defiling” speech.

In fact, they are in no way holy, they guard nothing, they just want to make pure political points, to stand on the back of religion to help broadcast their messages and aggrandize their own images.

Our bottom line conclusion then is that by their cheapening actions, these would-be priests in fact guard nothing and debase their own religious traditions.