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Darwin Vs. Religious Fundamentalism

Although probably not the iteration of that conflict that you'd be expecting . . .

One of the articles from the Forward that landed in my inbox today was one of those stories that make you think and think and think, and in the end, it's pretty hard to know where to place your sympathy.

Here's the article, should you want to read it for yourself. In summary: On Yom Kippur, a highly Orthodox woman and her daughter were hit by a car while attempting to cross a street in Jacksonville, Florida, to reach their synagogue for Kol Nidre services. The woman was killed and the daughter was severely injured. The reason that they were hit by the car was that the pedestrian light on that street is very short. It's longer if you push the "walk" button before crossing the street, but this family is very observant and wouldn't push the button, thereby operating an electronic device, on a holiday.


Clearly, this is a tragedy for the family and the community. But it's also the tip of a very thorny problem. Part of the blame is with the driver, who doesn't seem to have noticed the two ladies walking in front of his car. Even if you have the light, as the driver did, you shouldn't be mowing down pedestrians.

Another part of the problem is the car culture that led to this problem. Jacksonville isn't the only community in the country that's not built to accommodate pedestrians. Walk lights are short, sidewalks can be badly constructed or entirely absent (I spent high school walking a mile to and from school each day along a route that had possibly as many as twenty yards of sidewalk; the rest of the trip, I had to walk either on the shoulder or, when snow had piled shin-deep in winter, on the street). Drivers absorb from this the idea that they have absolute right of way over pedestrians -- you wouldn't believe the number of times drivers have gunned their engines at me in frustration that I was trying to cross a street with a walk light. Right-turn-on-red laws may have saved us from a wee bit of air pollution, but they've also spawned drivers who'll nudge at pedestrians crossing on a walk light so that the drivers can make that almighty right turn on red.

There's also the fact that the synagogue is separated from its community by a highway. It seems that this is a thing that negligent city planners do, cutting highways between houses of worship and their congregations. In this sense, it's almost as if this accident was set up. Highly observant Orthodox families who cannot drive themselves to shul and are prohibited by religious law from pushing the "walk" button are forced to dash across a highway full of entitled drivers once a week for a religious observance that's important to them. As one of nature's pedestrians, I am deeply angry at this situation.

However.

When you have all these different cultures trying to coexist, a little bit of common sense has to be applied from all angles. And the Orthodox aren't doing it. First of all, they seem to have forgotten the teaching that any Shabbat prohibition -- in fact, any religious law -- may be broken in order to save a life. Clearly, as the unfortunate accident victim has demonstrated, pressing the "walk" button is very much a life-saving action.

The other thing is a quote from near the end of the article that just enraged me. The city of Jacksonville was properly horrified at this accident and has been trying to come up with ways to fix the traffic problem. They recognize that not pushing the "walk" button isn't only an Orthodox Jewish thing, and there are several possible solutions to the problem. One solution might be longer lights on Shabbat and holidays. Another might be to put up a pedestrian bridge. A third solution is to replace the manual "walk" button with a passive sensor mat that sends a "walk" signal when it's stepped on.

Oh, no! According to the article: Rabbis said there are questions about whether observant pedestrians would be permitted to cross the intersection if they know that their presence triggers the electronic sensor system.

Really? Really, Orthodox rabbis? A passive system -- you don't have to lift a finger -- that will demonstrably save lives, and you're going to rule it out for purism's sake? A woman has already died needlessly, and you can't unbend even that little bit? Really? It's not even that the observant pedestrians would choose for themselves not to step on the sensor mat -- it's whether the rabbis would allow them to do so.

But that's a problem, not just with Jewish fundamentalism, but with religious fundamentalism in general. Eventually, as fundamentalism gets more extreme, it becomes more and more rigid about rules, adding more rules, strengthening and intensifying the ones that already exist, closing loopholes and banning exceptions. The rules push out the people, and then you get a situation like this, where The Rules cost a woman her life. It's bitterly ironic that the only religious law that wasn't obeyed was the law that explicitly explains when it's okay to fudge the law a bit. Because fundamentalism is about rules, not people.

Of the three solutions, my favorite is the pedestrian bridge, if only because it would cause the least fuss to the Orthodox and is probably a more reliable solution than a sensor mat, which can malfunction just like any electronic device. But I don't know how much it would cost to build such a bridge, or how fast it could be done relative to installing a sensor mat. I don't think the fundamentalist rabbis know, either. The problem is, I don't think they care. Their interest is in preserving and strengthening and narrowing their own rules system beyond all boundaries of city life or plain common sense. In effect, their position is that they'd rather force their families, friends, and neighbors to Darwin themselves than take the legal sticks out of their butts. (And if this community has an eruv, then my anger is doubled; an eruv is already a loophole in strict Shabbat rules, just one that's been around longer than passive traffic sensor mats. If you can write an eruv into the law so that people can continue to function on Shabbat, surely you could write something similar for traffic sensors, which allow people to continue to function in a more -- dare I say it? I dare, I dare! -- fundamental way.)

So I don't really know what to feel about this. I feel bad for the woman who was killed. I feel even worse for her daughter, who lost her mother. I'm angry at a driver who put green lights and his own sense of self-importance over the squishy bodies that were right in front of him. I'm angry at the city of Jacksonville for setting up this situation by running a highway through an Orthodox community. And I'm angry at the rabbis who are obstructing the city's efforts to make things right. No one comes out of this well, and the worst part is that there were so many opportunities to do the right thing, and yet no one took any of them.

Comments

frenchpony
Oct. 3rd, 2013 02:14 am (UTC)
I don't think the driver was exactly ruthless -- although I believe that he's had problems before with hitting pedestrians -- but I can well believe that he just wasn't paying all that much attention to the road. That's bad. That's why some places are starting to pass laws against distracted driving. He should have been paying attention. I'm sure that he didn't run anybody down maliciously, but he bears some fault for not paying attention. And even if you do hit someone, you don't just drive away from the scene of an accident.

If ultra-orthodox Jews allow you to fashion keys into bracelet charms and wear a housekey as jewelry rather so you don't carry something around on Shabbat and therefore perform "work" - if that's permissible, then surely there's a way to find a solution to problems like this.

There is. It's called "a traffic sensor mat." I kind of suspect that, had the person killed either been a man or a rabbi's wife (or anybody's wife, for that matter -- the woman was a widow), the ultra-Orthodox rabbis would have been tooling away posthaste to find some way to make traffic sensor mats halakhic. I think that the problem here is that, in a fundamentalist community like that, women aren't really seen as people, and them what makes the rules don't really care much about the people anyway, not as long as there's rules to play with.

And, while this specific case applies more to me than to you (not much to me, since I'm Reform), the general principle about fundamentalist religion applies to everyone. It stands out more in an orthoprax religion like Judaism, but the same basic disregard for human life in the face of The Rules is there in most fundamentalist systems. For instance, check out John Scalzi's post on the ACA, where he traces the opposition back to "angry Calvinism." It's the same thing as this case -- a group of Very Religious People have their Rules, and the Rules allow them to turn away from real people who have real problems that need solving. In the case of the rabbis, the excuse is The Law; in the case of the angry Calvinists, it's "you must deserve this somehow."

Edited at 2013-10-03 02:15 am (UTC)

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