Snub may have been the correct response

Dismissing Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman’s personal and pointed critique of Modern Orthodoxy in The New York Times Magazine of July 22 as merely “the Big Kvetch” would be a big mistake, as tempting as that might be.

His essay “Orthodox Paradox,” which surely provided fodder for numerous sermons on Shabbat, is a long and bitter complaint that despite his numerous and remarkable professional accomplishments, he has been snubbed by the Brookline, Mass. yeshiva high school he graduated from with honors in the 1980s.

Despite the fact that Feldman was valedictorian of his class at Harvard, a Rhodes scholar and a Truman scholar who completed his doctorate at Oxford in record time and went on to help craft the Iraqi constitution, he and his then-girlfriend were literally cropped out of a reunion picture of Maimonides School graduates published in the alumni newsletter some years ago. Also, none of the personal updates he has sent in since have been published.

Why? The girlfriend, now wife, is a Korean American and not Jewish.

Feldman, who aptly describes the yeshiva’s goals of “reconciling the vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity” as seeking to combine “Slobodka and St. Paul’s,” maintains that he has been rejected by his community even though he has “tried in my own imperfect way to live up to values that the school taught me, expressing my respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition while trying to reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere.”

Poor Noah, one may think on first read. How primitive and unfair for his former yeshiva to refuse to publicly acknowledge his successes.

But a closer look at Feldman’s essay reveals that he is the one being unfair in expecting to be lauded by a community whose values he has rejected and in crafting an intellectually dishonest case for himself.

Still, the implicit and more lasting question raised by the essay is how should the Jewish community in general, and the Orthodox community in particular, deal with Jews who have married out?

Sending a message to our children that we deeply value in-marriage for social, religious and communal reasons is all well and good. But what do we do after the fact, once they’ve chosen a non-Jewish partner and conversion is not a part of the conversation?

As for Feldman’s arguments, insisting that Maimonides himself, the 12-th century rabbinic scholar and philosopher, believed that knowing the world was the best way to know God, he ignores the fact that it was Maimonides who codified Jewish law, established the 13 principles of faith and insisted on adherence to halacha, or Jewish law.

Feldman then goes on at some length to cite Jewish law’s tensions over violating the Sabbath to save the life of a non-Jew. But he fails to mention that the dispute is talmudic, not practical. No Modern Orthodox doctor would hesitate to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath.

Perhaps most upsetting, and unjust, the only allegedly Modern Orthodox Jews Feldman describes in his essay besides Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I.-Conn.) are Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzchak Rabin; and Baruch Goldstein, the American-born physician who murdered 29 Arabs in Hebron in 1994. The two are cited as examples of men who took Jewish imperatives to their logical conclusion by committing murder.

“That’s like judging the peacock by its feces,” noted Rabbi Saul Berman, a scholar and former head of Edah, an organization that promoted Modern Orthodox values.

Indeed, no serious Modern Orthodox Jew is unaware of the tensions between upholding the Torah law and recognizing the values and benefits of Western democratic ideals. Rabbi Berman credits Feldman with pointing out the need to explore such tensions, which when unrecognized or out of balance can produce an Amir of Goldstein. “But it’s not fair to judge the system” by such aberrations, he maintains.

In the end, Feldman’s essay is less about Modern Orthodoxy than it is about his own psychic pain over being rejected. He wants it all: to be embraced if not applauded by the Jewish community whose values he has discarded by marrying out.

As Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, noted in a letter sent to the Times: “Fealty to Jewish tradition requires more than a ‘mind-set’ expressing ‘respect and love’ for its teachings; it presupposes certain fundamental normative behaviors. America is a country of choices, but choices have consequences and not every choice is equal. It is unrealistic for Mr. Feldman to expect to maintain good standing in a community whose core foundational behavioral — as well as value— system he has chosen to reject.”

Judaism is not alone in this attitude. Witness, for example, the Catholic Church’s discomfort with former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a divorced Catholic who favors abortion rights or any religious faith’s attitudes toward members who publicly violate its tenets.

“There is a difference between a personal and a communal response to intermarrieds,” noted one Jewish educator who knows Feldman from the Maimonides School. It’s one thing, he said, to have a personal relationship. “But for the school not to crow about a graduate who married out, how could he think otherwise?”

What Noah Feldman has done, consciously or not, is raise some important issues, less about his old yeshiva and Modern Orthodoxy per se than about dealing with Jews who do not see marrying out as leaving the fold.

Conversion is the most obvious and desired solution, but for those who eschew that option, we need to explore ways to encourage their positive exposure to Jewish life.

Feldman would argue that just because he intermarried does not mean he chose to separate himself from his heritage. But being Jewish means not only incorporating the values and traditions, but remaining part of a community.

For all of Feldman’s candor in the essay, he has nothing to say about where he fits into the community (if at all); whether he wanted his wife to convert; whether they are raising their children as Jews or not; or his feelings about all this. He owes us such information only if he wants our understanding and empathy, which clearly he does.

He does owe Modern Orthodoxy an apology for pinning it with his anger over rejection, knowing full well the rules of engagement. But we in turn owe him a sense of gratitude for a wake-up call, however unpleasant, about the need to struggle more deeply and honestly with the moral and religious tensions and contradictions in Modern Orthodoxy that can never be reconciled.

We also owe him a debt of gratitude for helping us learn how to deal more sensitively with those on the outside who may be calling out — in anger and loneliness — for a way back in.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week.

Those who intermarry should not be shunned