The Purist’s Dilemma: Spiritual Pollution in a Modern World

By Nomi Maya StolzenbergMay 17, 2015

The Purist’s Dilemma: Spiritual Pollution in a Modern World

Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen.


ACCORDING TO A FRONT PAGE story in The New York Times, growing numbers of “Haredim” (the preferred term for strictly observant Jews) are asking that female passengers on airplanes be moved so that Haredi men will not have to sit next to them. Not all Haredi Jews object to males being seated next to females on public transportation. Indeed, the demand is a novel one that many Orthodox Jews repudiate. But some segments of the Haredi community have adopted increasingly strict interpretations of Jewish law, making gender segregation in particular a “litmus test” of Orthodox faith.

Within every faith tradition, one sees the same split between a purist wing that insists on the strictest forms of observance and a more pragmatic wing that takes a more accommodating approach. Even among religious fundamentalists, one finds versions of this split. Perhaps the most prominent example is Jerry Falwell, who formed the Moral Majority by exhorting his fellow evangelical Christians to abandon their focus on inward spiritual purity and make common cause with Catholics instead.

This constant tug-of-war between purists and pragmatists produces a continual ratcheting up of the purists’ standards as they react to the pragmatists’ accommodations. Purists are increasingly gaining the upper hand, based partly on demographics (higher birth rates) and partly on the internal dynamics of reactionary movements (which in the classic fashion of backlash politics are fueled by gains on the other side).

Yet dynamics internal to modern liberalism itself are also part of the story. Many of the practices of so-called religious traditionalists are historical novelties. But so too is the growing belief that a liberal society has an obligation to accommodate such practices.

That belief has taken hold in a breathtakingly broad formulation of the principle of religious accommodation. According to the current view, recently embraced by the Supreme Court, people of religious faith have the right to make other people accommodate their practices unless the countervailing interests of the state are of the very highest magnitude (“compelling,” in the parlance of modern constitutional doctrine) and there is no “less restrictive” way of protecting those interests.

This doctrine has considerable intuitive appeal. Why shouldn’t society accommodate people with different religious practices if it is possible to do so without undermining any critically important interests? We accept that people with physical limitations have a right to reasonable accommodations that obligates others to make certain sacrifices: of money, convenience, and so forth. So why not apply the same principle to addressing the incompatibilities between religious practices and mainstream cultural norms?

The answer is, we do, and we should, apply this principle of accommodation when it comes to religious practices such as not shaving one’s beard, as the Supreme Court recently held in Holt v. Hobbs, a case involving a Muslim prisoner’s right to religious accommodation. Other religious practices, like wearing a yarmulke, the call of the muezzin, and conscientious objection to serving in the military also have received deserved protection.

But demands based on religious purity are different. While many religious practices and beliefs can and should be accommodated, those based on the demand that they be protected against spiritual pollution flowing from the sins and sensuality of others should not be.

Today, demands to accommodate the need for spiritual purity are on the rise, as illustrated by the airborne Haredim. This desire for religious purity is not isolated to just the new practices of gender segregation cultivated by extremist Muslims and Jews. It’s also behind the demands of conservative Christians who object to “facilitating sin.” This includes employers claiming the right not to facilitate their employees’ access to contraception and businesses claiming the right not to provide goods and services to gay weddings. In all of these cases, the underlying belief is that the pious will be contaminated by contact with the sinful actions and spiritual impurity of others (especially women and minorities).

What makes religious purity practices different from other religious practices is that they are driven by a deep-seated belief in — and fear of — spiritual pollution. Believers in this ideology develop a sort of allergic reaction to anything they think will contaminate them. More than that, contemporary liberalism has emboldened believers to translate their belief in the religious duty to avoid spiritual contamination into the assertion of a secular right not to be contaminated by other people’s spiritual impurity — a right they believe the state has a duty to protect.

Theologians have long recognized the demand for spiritual purity in an inherently impure world to be a logical contradiction. This recognition gave rise to what we might call the purist’s dilemma. Generations of thinkers in the Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim traditions (and no doubt in other religious traditions as well) squarely confronted the question of how, or whether it was even possible, to reconcile the demand for complete spiritual purity with living in the material world. Most concluded that it is not possible to reconcile the two, because (a) being in commercial and political relationships with others means being in a web of mutually facilitative relationships that make one partly responsible for the actions of others, and (b) at least some of those others with whom one is bound in a web of mutually facilitative material relationships are bound to be “sinners” (which is to say, people who do not share one’s religious standards).

Traditional theology reflects the recognition that there are only three ways to resolve the purist’s dilemma: the path of separation, the path of regulation, and the path of accommodation. Religious purists traditionally chose the path of radical separation and withdrawal from the realm of “worldly affairs.” This is the impetus that produced such religious separatist movements as the Anabaptists (of whom the Amish and the Mennonites are the most well-known exponents) and the various sects of Hasidic and Haredi Judaism, which, much like the Amish, espouse separation from the world. This separatist stance was also adopted by Protestant fundamentalists when the public humiliation of the Scopes trial of 1925 drove them to retreat from politics and cultivate inward spiritual purity instead. The Reverend Jerry Falwell had to coax fundamentalists out of this quietist stance to join the political mobilization of religious conservatives now known as the religious right.

Falwell’s rejection of the purist approach replayed ancient theological debates. While separatism offered a logical solution to the purist’s dilemma, most devout Christians and Jews viewed renouncing worldly affairs as an untenable approach. They reasoned that God could not have intended to hold human beings to standards beyond their capacity, and that therefore living in society with others — including sinners — must be divinely ordained.

But if living with sinners was divinely ordained, then the problem of how to avoid being polluted by them remained. Once the separatist route was ruled out, the only remaining possibilities were either to prohibit the commission of sin — thereby ensuring that non-sinners’ hands would be clean — or relax the standards that hold us morally responsible for the actions of those we have materially benefited. Most traditional societies did both, simultaneously regulating human behavior in order to minimize the commission of sin and accepting some commission of sin as inevitable. Recognizing that perfect law enforcement is impossible, the facilitation of other people’s sinful actions through ordinary political and commercial interactions was excused. Undergirding this theory was the doctrine that God in his infinite mercy accommodated to the imperfections of human beings by adjusting His law to account for their limitations.

This was the original version of religious accommodation: a theological doctrine that explained why the standards of religious law had to be relaxed to allow for some degree of spiritual impurity and moral imperfection, including the inevitable limitations of law enforcement. The doctrine of “divine accommodation,” as it was originally known, was used to justify remaining in society with sinners. Far from the modern understanding of religious accommodation, which sees it as a secular principle obliging the secular world to accommodate religion, the original understanding of accommodation was a religious principle that required the religious to accommodate the irreligious — just as God in His infinite mercy was believed to accommodate the imperfections of humanity.

But while the purist and accommodationist approaches pulled in opposite directions, both were born of the same basic recognition: that people engaging in economic relations with each other facilitate, and therefore share responsibility for, one another’s actions. The only way to avoid being contaminated by other people’s sin and spiritual corruption, on this shared understanding, is to totally withdraw from society — or give up the demand for perfect religious purity.

Ironically, the very people who see themselves as upholding traditional religious faith have forgotten this traditional religious wisdom. Not only are the practices they are seeking to protect modern inventions. They have also lost sight of the original understanding that the quest for spiritual purity can only be pursued by escaping from the bonds of society that force one to do business and share public accommodations with those whose practices and mores deviate from one’s own. The result is a spate of purist demands to be protected from spiritual pollution, combined with an uncompromising approach to religious accommodation that ignores the need for compromise on which the principle of accommodation is based.


Few people recognize the origins of accommodation within religious traditions. As the new purists have become more politically mobilized, the history of accommodation has receded from view. Self-described religious “traditionalists” and modern-day secularists forget the more pragmatic forms of religion that were historically dominant and that still lay claim to the largest share of the religiously affiliated today.

In both liberal secular and religious conservative quarters, unbending adherence to religious law is increasingly and unquestioningly equated with religion per se. One could see this tendency on vivid display in the oral arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, where Justice Scalia visibly struggled with the idea that the prisoner could “compromise” his religious standards by agreeing to keep his beard trimmed, and yet still be sincere in his claim that he has a religious obligation not to shave.

We need not and should not share Justice Scalia’s incomprehension. Far from being antithetical to true religious faith, compromise is the very stuff of traditional religion. But compromise, as it was traditionally conceived of, is a two-way street. The religious have to abandon their insistence on total purity and relax their moral standards in order to justify living in cooperative forms of relationships with others just as others are required to accommodate them. This is the original meaning of the principle of religious accommodation and the meaning we should continue to adhere to today.

Of course, people are free to believe whatever they like. And if some, like Justice Scalia and others driven by the fear of spiritual pollution, prefer the purist interpretation of their religious faith over the accommodationist interpretation, that is their right. But it is not their right to demand accommodation for this version of religion from others.

Whether communities have the right to completely withdraw from society is another matter. Wisconsin v. Yoder, a case that granted the Amish the right not to be contaminated by exposure to the outside world, appears to recognize such a right. But the Amish resisted integration into society by claiming the right to not send their children to school. They did not demand the right to be protected from spiritual impurity while participating in the impure world. Recent claims to protection from spiritual pollution are different. In essence, they amount to a kind of portable separatism, a license to separate from others that one can carry into society with others — the very people who are viewed as the source of spiritual pollution.

This is an untenable position. For every claimant who accepts an accommodation with the impure world, others will arise for whom the particular accommodation is unacceptable. For every Haredi man willing to be seated across the aisle from a woman, others will arise for whom being in the same row, or two rows or three rows apart, or in the same cabin as a woman is an abomination. For every employer willing to accept the contraceptive mandate accommodation currently provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, others will arise who object that this is too much of an accommodation on their part to what is, in their view, an inherently sinful system. This is precisely what is going on in cases like Little Sisters, Wheaton College, and Priests for Life, which are animated by the belief that just signing the piece of paper that certifies receipt of the exemption is a prohibited form of complicity with a sinful system. Even if a further accommodation could be devised that would satisfy these plaintiffs, others still more purist in their conception of separation from sin are sure to arise. There simply is no logical stopping point to the demand for spiritual purity.

That might satisfy Justice Scalia’s uncompromising vision of religion. But that is not the version of religion to which most religious believers subscribe. And it certainly should not be upheld as a model that claimants have to meet in order to demonstrate their religious sincerity. Practices of religious purity can only be accommodated when the costs imposed on others are not too great, a requirement that will rarely be satisfied when the claimant remains in political and commercial society with the very people he views as sinful. When religious accommodation subjects others to degrading demands (as when men refuse to sit next to women), it must be refused.


Nomi M. Stolzenberg is a USC Law faculty member.

LARB Contributor

Nomi M. Stolzenberg joined the USC Law faculty in 1988. Her research spans a range of interdisciplinary interests, including law and religion, cultural pluralism, law and liberalism, and law and literature. A strong proponent of multidisciplinary research and teaching, she helped establish the USC Center for Law, History and Culture, which involves scholars and students from throughout USC’s campus.


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