We are now at the moment in the school year where the chaos of Camp Yale and shopping period begins to wane. For me, though, life is about to get significantly more hectic. As an observant Jew, I refrain from work (academic and otherwise), one day a week, on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. But during “the holidays” — which for me are not in December but land somewhere in September or October as the Jewish calendar shifts — I find myself with even fewer days of productivity. The work restrictions I adhere to on Shabbat apply on holidays as well, and the Jewish fall holidays are mostly multiday.
Over the next month, I will miss 10 of the 20 classes I should be attending. I’ve done the annual legwork, familiar to collegiate observant Jews, of coordinating with professors and arranging office hours, makeup chats and replacement reading responses. I’m grateful to my professors for their understanding, and nonetheless feel an inevitable panic descending: I will spend the coming weeks completing seven days of work in three or four.
The nature of religious observance is that it is sometimes challenging, and I am committed to the conviction that this is a feature, not a bug. I value the opportunity to remind myself of my own priorities, even as this incurs stress. But the challenge of holiday observance goes beyond the practical. Taking many days to engage in prayer, feasting and fasting (respectively), study and time spent with family and community during the semester at Yale is deeply countercultural.
I am not the first to point out in these pages that Yale students valorize being busy. We impress each other in line in Blue State with how much we need the coffee, how late we were up reading or writing or interviewing or auditioning. These experiences are real — we are stressed, and we do work hard. But we also are part of a culture in which hard work is synonymous with virtue, in which running ourselves thin is the only way to express our commitments to the things we care about.
Yale participates in a broader American culture that views work as equivalent to deservingness. The idea of the Protestant work ethic, which teaches that hard work and thrift are the ways to success and salvation is alive in the United States; it is the genealogy of skepticism and hate toward parents who receive government support to raise their children, toward unemployed people who are given (meager) health insurance by the state, toward anyone who would not have food without the support of others. We are inculcated with the idea that work is what makes one deserving.
What would our lives look like if we could believe that we are worthy and valuable outside of the work we do and the time we spend doing it? How would we feel if we shifted our priorities away from busyness to our deepest commitments? Who would we be if we took more time to reflect on who we are?
This is a cultural shift that cannot be made only by individuals. It must take place on an institutional level. Yale’s current policies do not make provision for students who must miss class for religious observance; students are left to work out arrangements with individual professors, who are only sometimes understanding.
This puts students at a disadvantage in other areas: When one has already asked a professor for what is essentially a personal favor at the beginning of the semester, it can be harder to ask for extra assistance academically, help catching up in case of illness and the other needs that come up at the intersection of being a student and being a person.
Yale’s policy on dean’s excuses, which apply only to missed work, is also harmful to students who must make up work or retake exams due to religious holy days. The current rule is that if a student misses a final exam, they must make it up at the beginning of the next semester. From the spring to fall semesters, this is a number of months, a distance between learning material and being tested on it that inevitably puts the student at an academic disadvantage. While many professors kindly offer a sooner makeup opportunity, not all are sympathetic. In those cases, students have no recourse.
Yale talks a big game about caring about big questions and encouraging students to lead meaningful lives. But many students who invest in these questions, who engage in deep relationships with community and transcendence, are not supported. This is not accidental, but rather is also part of Yale’s Protestant heritage: When private, closely held faith is the paradigm for what religion is, observances that have impact in the public sphere are disruptive. To be the model of both pluralism and meaning-seeking that it claims to be, the University must establish better policies for accommodating students observing religious holidays.
Avigayil Halpern is a senior in Silliman College and a staff columnist-at-large. Contact her at email@example.com.