Harvard Professor Noah Feldman’s lengthy whine in the July 22 New York Times Magazine about the failure of Boston’s modern Orthodox Maimonides School to acknowledge his marriage to a Korean-American fellow professor and the subsequent birth of two children in its alumni Mazel Tov bulletins triggered a panic attack in certain Orthodox quarters. It shouldn’t have — or at least not for the reasons it did.
Why did the Times choose to publish an essay about an event that took place nearly a decade ago, and which has no evident “news hook,” especially when both Feldman and the Times knew two weeks before publication that the essay’s opening vignette and emotional core had never occurred? The picture of Feldman and his then girlfriend had not been deliberately excised from a tenth high school reunion picture. They had simply been cut off, along with 16 others, by the photographer’s lack of a sufficiently wide-angle lens.
The answer, I suspect, is that the Times’ owners, with their Jewish last names, but whose religious affiliation tends towards the Episcopalian today, have been spooked by the growing ascendancy of Orthodoxy in Jewish communal life, just as their German Jewish forbears were spooked by the arrival in America of poor and often religious Jews from Eastern Europe.
In this reading, the Times’ publication of Feldman’s piece is a reflection of Orthodoxy’s surprising rebirth in America. (Monday’s Jerusalem Post noted that three-quarters of Jewish births in the UK are haredi, and pointed to similar trends around the world.)
FELDMAN ADOPTS the pose of one more sinned against than sinning. He informs us that he does not view himself as having “rejected my upbringing,” even if others imagine him to have done so by virtue of his intermarriage.
That pose, however, conceals a malevolent agenda: Feldman has decided to “out” Modern Orthodoxy and to undermine the claim with which he was raised that Orthodox Jews are “reasonable, mainstream people, not fanatics or cult members.” To that end, he slings whatever comes to hand, no matter how far removed from any coherent argument – everything from Jewish dietary laws, to sniggering about puritanical attitudes of even modern Orthodox educators towards premarital sex, to Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir.
(Along the way, Feldman claims falsely that Dr. Goldstein refused to treat Palestinian patients because he viewed them as descendants of the Biblical Amalekites – a claim the Times’ fact-checkers could have easily ascertained to be false. In any event, neither Amir nor Goldstein’s strain of national religious thought had anything to American Modern Orthodoxy.)
Feldman notes that when Joseph Lieberman ran for vice-president in 2000 he was not subjected to dark hints that his religion is in some basic sense “weird” like those that the Mormon Mitt Romney faces today. He does not want Americans to make the same mistake again. To that end, he points out that Orthodox Jewish men, like Mormons, also wear a unique undergarment, and claims (absurdly) that the leather straps on the phylacteries that Jewish men don every morning call to mind instruments of torture employed by the villains in The DaVinci Code.
It is the Orthodox “imperative to define boundaries,” such as that between Jew and non-Jew, that ultimately renders them not fully modern in Feldman’s view. Orthodox Jews not only insist on eating kosher food, he maintains, but view anyone who does not as somehow non-kosher. He cites rabbinic restrictions on the wine and bread of gentiles in this regard, without noting the irony (for him) that these restrictions were designed as a protection against intermarriage.
But the clearest evidence of Feldman’s animus for modern Orthodoxy is absent from his piece: his pro bono representation of the city of Tenafly , New Jersey in its efforts to prevent the construction of an eruv. Feldman knew full well that the absence of an eruv allowing the wheeling of baby carriages on Shabbat would effectively prevent modern Orthodox Jews, like his former classmates, from being able to move to the suburbs, and that the Tenafly litigation would serve as a precedent for many similar battles raging around the country.
In defending Tenafly’s opposition to an eruv, Feldman asserted that the local ordinance forbidding hanging anything on telephone polls was neutral on its face and therefore was worthy of enforcement. Surely someone as committed as Feldman to the strict enforcement of facially neutral statutes against hanging anything on utility polls should have had no trouble with the Jewish community using the means at its disposal to reinforce the far more significant halachic ban on intermarriage. (The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, incidentally, found that Tenafly had not enforced its ordinance neutrally, but had discriminated against Orthodox Jews.)
FELDMAN HAS performed one valuable service: His piece serves as a warning against the easy assumption that the best in secular learning can be readily reconciled with passionate Torah study. When equal emphasis is placed on the curriculum of the dominant secular society and Torah learning, the former will trump the latter. Maimonides has produced hundreds of Ivy League graduates, but few distinguished Torah scholars.
No doubt Feldman is being disingenuous when he complains that his alma mater and former classmates should be able to make peace with his intermarriage and his “desire to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously and to defy contradiction with coexistence.” But when secular knowledge and Torah learning are proclaimed to be fully compatible, even complementary visions of Truth, it is not surprising that some will treat them as a smorgasbord from which one can select the savory bits, as Feldman has done.
Tellingly (and wrongly), this “best and brightest” product of the combination of a New England prep school and a Lithuanian yeshiva characterizes modern Orthodoxy by Moses Mendelssohn’s dictum: “Be a Jew at home and a man abroad.” That is a recipe for a bifurcated life rather than one lived at all times and all places in the presence of G-d. Following that dictum, virtually all of Mendelssohn’s descendants and disciples had found their way to the baptismal fount within two generations.