Another case of don't do as I do. do as I say.
Subject: Harvard/CFR jew antagonizes the tribe
Noah Feldman is a law professor at Harvard University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has aired aspects of judaism in this item in the New York Times that have caused his fellow tribespeople to have hissy-fits.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/22/magazine/22yeshiva-t.html?ei=5070&en=7bcdd039990d1403&ex=1187496000&pagewanted=print
Orthodox Paradox By NOAH FELDMAN
A number of years ago, I went to my 10th high-school reunion, in the backyard of the one classmate whose parents had a pool. Lots of my classmates were there. Almost all were married, and many already had kids.
This was not as unusual as it might seem, since I went to a yeshiva day school, and nearly everyone remained Orthodox.
I brought my girlfriend.
At the end, we all crowded into a big group photo, shot by the school photographer, who had taken our pictures from first grade through graduation. When the alumni newsletter came around a few months later, I happened to notice the photo. I looked, then looked again.
My girlfriend and I were nowhere to be found.
I didn’t want to seem paranoid, especially in front of my girlfriend, to whom I was by that time engaged.
So I called my oldest school friend, who appeared in the photo, and asked for her explanation.
“You’re kidding, right?” she said.
My fiancée was Korean-American.
Her presence implied the prospect of something that from the standpoint of Orthodox Jewish law could not be recognized: marriage to someone who was not Jewish.
That hint was reason enough to keep us out.
Not long after, I bumped into the photographer, in synagogue, on Yom Kippur.
When I walked over to him, his pained expression told me what I already knew. “It wasn’t me,” he said.
I believed him.
Since then I have occasionally been in contact with the school’s alumni director, who has known me since I was a child. I say “in contact,” but that implies mutuality where none exists.
What I really mean is that in the nine years since the reunion I have sent him several updates about my life, for inclusion in the “Mazal Tov” section of the newsletter.
I sent him news of my marriage.
When our son was born, I asked him to report that happy event.
The most recent news was the birth of our daughter this winter.
Nothing doing. None of my reports made it into print.
It would be more dramatic if I had been excommunicated like Baruch Spinoza, in a ceremony complete with black candles and a ban on all social contact, a rite whose solemnity reflected the seriousness of its consequences.
But in the modern world, the formal communal ban is an anachronism.
Many of my closest relationships are still with people who remain in the Orthodox fold. As best I know, no one, not even the rabbis at my old school who disapprove of my most important life decisions, would go so far as to refuse to shake my hand.
What remains of the old technique of excommunication is simply nonrecognition in the school’s formal publications, where my classmates’ growing families and considerable accomplishments are joyfully celebrated.
The yeshiva where I studied considers itself modern Orthodox, not ultra-Orthodox. We followed a rigorous secular curriculum alongside traditional Talmud and Bible study. Our advanced Talmud and Hebrew classes were interspersed with advanced-placement courses in French literature and European political history, all skillfully coordinated to prime us for the Ivy League.
To try to be at once a Lithuanian yeshiva and a New England prep school: that was the unspoken motto of the Maimonides School of Brookline, Mass., where I studied for 12 years.
That aspiration is not without its difficulties.
My own personal lesson in nonrecognition is just one small symptom of the challenge of reconciling the vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity — of Slobodka and St. Paul’s.
In premodern Europe, where the state gave the Jewish community the power to enforce its own rules of membership through coercive force, excommunication literally divested its victim of his legal personality, of his rights and standing in the community.
The modern liberal state, though, neither polices nor delegates the power to police religious membership; that is now a social matter, not a legal one.
Today a religious community that seeks to preserve its traditional structure must maintain its boundaries using whatever independent means it can muster — right down to the selective editing of alumni newsletters.
Despite my intimate understanding of the mind-set that requires such careful attention to who is in and who is out, I am still somehow taken by surprise each time I am confronted with my old school’s inability to treat me like any other graduate.
I have 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.
As a result, I have not felt myself to have rejected my upbringing, even when some others imagine me to have done so by virtue of my marriage. Some part of me still expects — against the judgment of experience — that the individual human beings who make up the institution and community where I spent so many years of my life will put our longstanding friendships ahead of the imperative to define boundaries.
The school did educate me and influence me deeply. What I learned there informs every part of my inner life. In the sense of shared history and formation, I remain of the community even while no longer fully in the community.
If this is dissonance, it is at least dissonance that the modern Orthodox should be able to understand: the desire to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously and to defy contradiction with coexistence. After all, the school’s attempt to bring the ideals of Orthodox Judaism into dialogue with a certain slice of late-20th-century American life was in many ways fantastically rich and productive.
For those of us willing to accept a bit of both worlds, I would say, it almost worked.
Since the birth of modern Orthodox Judaism in 19th-century Germany, a central goal of the movement has been to normalize the observance of traditional Jewish law — to make it possible to follow all 613 biblical commandments assiduously while still participating in the reality of the modern world.
You must strive to be, as a poet of the time put it, “a Jew in the home and a man in the street.”
Even as we students of the Maimonides School spent half of every school day immersed in what was unabashedly a medieval curriculum, our aim was to seem to outsiders — and to ourselves — like reasonable, mainstream people, not fanatics or cult members.
This ambition is best exemplified today by Senator Joe Lieberman.
His run for the vice presidency in 2000 put the “modern” in modern Orthodox, demonstrating that an Orthodox Jewish candidate could be accepted by America at large as essentially a regular guy. (Some of this, of course, was simply the result of ignorance. As John Breaux, then a senator from Louisiana, so memorably put it with regard to Lieberman during the 2000 campaign, “I don’t think American voters care where a man goes to church on Sunday.”)
Whatever concerns Lieberman’s Jewish identity may have raised in the heartland seem to have been moderated, rather than stoked, by the fact that his chosen Jewish denomination was Orthodox — that he seemed to really and truly believe in something.
His Orthodoxy elicited none of the half-whispered attacks that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has already prompted in this electoral cycle, none of the dark hints that it was, in some basic sense, weird.
Lieberman’s overt normalcy really is remarkable. Though modern Orthodox Jews do not typically wear the long beards, side curls and black, nostalgic Old World garments favored by the ultra-Orthodox, the men do wear beneath their clothes a small fringed prayer shawl every bit as outré as the sacred undergarments worn by Mormons.
Morning prayers are accompanied by the daily donning of phylacteries, which, though painless, resemble in their leather-strappy way the cinched cilice worn by the initiates of Opus Dei and so lasciviously depicted in “The Da Vinci Code.” Food restrictions are tight: a committed modern Orthodox observer would not drink wine with non-Jews and would have trouble finding anything to eat in a nonkosher restaurant other than undressed cold greens (assuming, of course, that the salad was prepared with a kosher knife).
The dietary laws of kashrut are designed to differentiate and distance the observant person from the rest of the world.
When followed precisely, as I learned growing up, they accomplish exactly that. Every bite requires categorization into permitted and prohibited, milk or meat. To follow these laws, to analyze each ingredient in each food that comes into your purview, is to construct the world in terms of the rules borne by those who keep kosher.
The category of the unkosher comes unconsciously to apply not only to foods that fall outside the rules but also to the people who eat that food — which is to say, almost everyone in the world, whether Jewish or not.
You cannot easily break bread with them, but that is not all.
You cannot, in a deeper sense, participate with them in the common human activity of restoring the body through food. And yet the Maimonides School, by juxtaposing traditional and secular curricula, gave me a feeling of being connected to the broader world.
Line by line we burrowed into the old texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic. The poetry of the Prophets sang in our ears. After years of this, I found I could recite the better part of the Hebrew Bible from memory. Among other things, this meant that when I encountered the writings of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I felt immediate kinship.
They read those same exact texts again and again — often in Hebrew — searching for clues about their own errand into the American wilderness.
In our literature classes we would glimpse Homer’s wine-dark sea, then move to a different classroom and dive headlong into the sea of the Talmud. Here the pleasure of legal-intellectual argument had no stopping place, no end. A problem in Talmud study is never answered, it is only deepened. The Bible prohibits work on the Sabbath. But what is work?
The rabbis began with 39 categories, each of which called for its own classification into as many as 39 further subcategories. Then came the problem of intention: What state of mind is required for “work” to have occurred? You might perform an act of work absent-mindedly, having forgotten that it was the Sabbath, or ignorantly, not knowing that action constituted work. You might perform an action with the goal of achieving some permissible outcome — but that result might inevitably entail some prohibited work’s taking place. Learning this sort of reasoning as a child prepared me well, as it has countless others, for the ways of American law.
Beyond the complementarities of Jewish learning and secular knowledge, our remarkable teachers also offered access to a wider world. Even among the rabbis there was a smattering of Ph.D.’s and near-doctorates to give us a taste of a critical-academic approach to knowledge, not just a religious one. And the teachers of the secular subjects were fantastic.
One of the best taught me eighth-grade English when he was barely out of college himself, before he became a poet, a professor and an important queer theorist. Given Orthodoxy’s condemnation of homosexuality, he must have made it onto the faculty through the sheer cluelessness of the administration.
Lord only knows what teachers like him, visitors from the real world, made of our quirky ways.
(In the book of poems about his teaching years, we students are decorously transformed into Italian-Americans.)In allowing us, intentionally or not, to see the world and the Torah as profoundly interconnected, the school was faithful to the doctrines of its eponym, the great medieval Jewish legalist and philosopher Moses Maimonides. Easily the most extraordinary figure in post-biblical Jewish history, Maimonides taught that accurate knowledge of the world — physical and metaphysical — was, alongside studying, obeying and understanding the commandments, the one route to the ultimate summum bonum of knowing God. A life lived by these precepts can be both noble and beautiful, and I believe the best and wisest of my classmates and teachers come very close indeed to achieving it.
The Dynamics of Prohibition
For many of us, the consilience of faith and modernity that sometimes appears within the reach of modern Orthodoxy is a tantalizing prospect. But it can be undermined by the fragile fault lines between the moral substructures of the two worldviews, which can widen into deep ruptures on important matters of life and love.
One time at Maimonides a local physician — a well-known figure in the community who later died tragically young — addressed a school assembly on the topic of the challenges that a modern Orthodox professional may face. The doctor addressed the Talmudic dictum that the saving of a life trumps the Sabbath. He explained that in its purest form, this principle applies only to the life of a Jew.
The rabbis of the Talmud, however, were unprepared to allow the life of a non-Jew to be extinguished because of the no-work commandment, and so they ruled that the Sabbath could be violated to save the life of a non-Jew out of concern for maintaining peaceful relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
Depending on how you look at it, this ruling is either an example of outrageously particularist religious thinking, because in principle it values Jewish life more than non-Jewish life, or an instance of laudable universalism, because in practice it treats all lives equally.
The physician quite reasonably opted for the latter explanation. And he added that he himself would never distinguish Jewish from non-Jewish patients: a human being was a human being.This appealing sentiment did not go unchallenged.
One of my teachers rose to suggest that the doctor’s attitude was putting him in danger of violating the Torah. The teacher reported that he had himself heard from his own rabbi, a leading modern-Orthodox Talmudist associated with Yeshiva University, that in violating the Sabbath to treat a non-Jew, intention was absolutely crucial. If you intended to save the patient’s life so as to facilitate good relations between Jews and non-Jews, your actions were permissible. But if, to the contrary, you intended to save the patient out of universal morality, then you were in fact guilty of violating the Sabbath, because the motive for acting was not the motive on the basis of which the rabbis allowed the Sabbath violation to occur.
Later, in class, the teacher apologized to us students for what he said to the doctor.
His comments, he said, were inappropriate — not because they were wrongheaded, but because non-Jews were present in the audience when he made them.
The double standard of Jews and non-Jews, in other words, was for him truly irreducible: it was not just about noting that only Jewish lives merited violation of the Sabbath, but also about keeping the secret of why non-Jewish lives might be saved.
To accept this version of the tradition would be to accept that the modern Orthodox project of engagement with the world could not proceed in good faith.Nothing in the subculture of modern Orthodoxy, however, brought out the tensions between tradition and modernity more vividly for a young man than the question of our relationship to sex.
Modernity, and maybe the state-mandated curriculum (I have never checked), called for a day of sex ed in seventh grade.
I have the feeling that the content of our sex-ed class was the same as those held in public schools in Massachusetts around the same time, with the notable exception that none of us would have occasion to deploy even the most minimal elements of the lesson plan in the foreseeable future.
After the scientific bits of the lesson were over, the rabbi who was head of the school came in to the classroom to follow up with some indication of the Jewish-law perspective on these questions. It amounted to a blanket prohibition on the activities to which we had just been introduced.
After marriage, some rather limited subset of them might become permissible — but only in the two weeks of the month that followed the two weeks of ritual abstinence occasioned by menstruation.
After that memorable disquisition, the question of relations between the sexes went essentially unmentioned again in our formal education. We were periodically admonished that boys and girls must not touch one another, even accidentally. Several of the most attractive girls were singled out for uncomfortable closed-door sessions in which they were instructed that their manner of dress, which already met the school’s standards for modesty, must be made more modest still so as not to distract the males around them.
Whatever their disjuncture with American culture of the 1980s, the erotics of prohibition were real to us. Once, I was called on the carpet after an anonymous informant told the administration that I had been seen holding a girl’s hand somewhere in Brookline one Sunday afternoon.
The rabbi insinuated that if the girl and I were holding hands today, premarital sex must surely be right around the corner.
My Talmud teacher — the one who took the physician to task — handed me four tightly packed columns of closely reasoned rabbinic Hebrew, a responsum by the pre-eminent Orthodox decisor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, “in the matter of a young man whose heart lures him to enter into bonds of affection with a young woman not for purposes of marriage.” Rabbi Feinstein’s legal judgment with respect to romantic love among persons too young to marry was definitive.
He prohibited it absolutely, in part on the ground that it would inevitably lead to nonprocreative seminal emissions, whether intentional or unintentional. What Feinstein lacked in romantic imagination was more than made up for by Moses Maimonides, who understood the soul pretty well. He once characterized the true love of God as all-consuming — “as though one had contracted the sickness of love.”
Feinstein’s opinion directed my attention to a passage in Maimonides’s legal writings prohibiting various sorts of contact with women. The most evocative bit runs as follows: “Even to smell the perfume upon her is prohibited.” I have never been able to escape the feeling that this is a covert love poem enmeshed in the 14-volume web of dos and don’ts that is Maimonides’s Code of Law. Perfume has not smelled the same to me since.
Difference and Reconciliation
I have spent much of my own professional life focusing on the predicament of faith communities that strive to be modern while simultaneously cleaving to tradition. Consider the situation of those Christian evangelicals who want to participate actively in mainstream politics yet are committed to a biblical literalism that leads them to oppose stem-cell research and advocate intelligent design in the classroom. To some secularists, the evangelicals’ predicament seems absurd and their political movement dangerously anti-intellectual. As it happens, I favor financing stem-cell research and oppose the teaching of intelligent design or creationism as a “scientific” doctrine in public schools. Yet I nonetheless feel some sympathy for the evangelicals’ sure-to-fail attempts to stand in the way of the progress of science, and not just because I respect their concern that we consider the ethical implications of our technological prowess.
Perhaps I feel sympathy because I can recall the agonies suffered by my head of school when he stopped by our biology class to discuss the problem of creation.
Following the best modern Orthodox doctrine, he pointed out that Genesis could be understood allegorically, and that the length of a day might be numbered in billions of years considering that the sun, by which our time is reckoned, was not created until the fourth such “day.” Not for him the embarrassing claim, heard sometimes among the ultra-Orthodox, that dinosaur fossils were embedded by God within the earth at the moment of creation in order to test our faith in biblical inerrancy.
Natural selection was for him a scientific fact to be respected like the laws of physics — guided by God but effectuated though the workings of the natural order. Yet even he could not leave the classroom without a final caveat. “The truth is,” he said, “despite what I have just told you, I still have a hard time believing that man could be descended from monkeys.”
This same grappling with tension — and the same failure to resolve it perfectly — can be found among the many Muslims who embrace both basic liberal democratic values and orthodox Islamic faith.
The literature of democratic Islam, like that of modern Orthodox Judaism, may be read as an embodiment of dialectical struggle, the unwillingness to ignore contemporary reality in constant interplay with the weight of tradition taken by them as authentic and divinely inspired. The imams I have met over the years seem, on the whole, no less sincere than the rabbis who taught me. Their commitment to their faith and to the legal tradition that comes with it seems just as heartfelt.
Liberal Muslims may even have their own Joe Lieberman in the Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress.
The themes of difference and reconciliation that have preoccupied so much of my own thinking are nowhere more stark than in trying to make sense of the problem of marriage — which is also, for me, the most personal aspect of coming to terms with modern Orthodoxy.
Although Jews of many denominations are uncomfortable with marriage between Jews and people of other religions, modern Orthodox condemnation is especially definitive.
The reason for the resistance to such marriages derives from Jewish law but also from the challenge of defining the borders of the modern Orthodox community in the liberal modern state. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism addresses the boundary problem with methods like exclusionary group living and deciding business disputes through privately constituted Jewish-law tribunals. For modern Orthodox Jews, who embrace citizenship and participate in the larger political community, the relationship to the liberal state is more ambivalent.
The solution adopted has been to insist on the coherence of the religious community as a social community, not a political community. It is defined not so much by what people believe or say they believe (it is much safer not to ask) as by what they do.
Marriage is the most obvious public practice about which information is readily available. When combined with the traditional Jewish concern for continuity and self-preservation — itself only intensified by the memory of the Holocaust — marriage becomes the sine qua non of social membership in the modern Orthodox community.
Marrying a Jewish but actively nonobservant spouse would in most cases make continued belonging difficult.
Gay Orthodox Jews find themselves marginalized not only because of their forbidden sexual orientation but also because within the tradition they cannot marry the partners whom they might otherwise choose. For those who choose to marry spouses of another faith, maintaining membership would become all but impossible.
Us and Them
In a few cases, modern Orthodoxy’s line-drawing has been implicated in some truly horrifying events.
Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, was a modern Orthodox Jew who believed that Rabin’s peace efforts put him into the Talmudic category of one who may be freely executed because he is in the act of killing Jews.
In 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 worshipers in the mosque atop the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. An American-born physician, Goldstein attended a prominent modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Brooklyn. (In a classic modern Orthodox twist, the same distinguished school has also produced two Nobel Prize winners.)
Because of the proximity of Goldstein’s background and mine, the details of his reasoning have haunted me.
Goldstein committed his terrorist act on Purim, the holiday commemorating the victory of the Jews over Haman, traditionally said to be a descendant of the Amalekites.
The previous Sabbath, he sat in synagogue and heard the special additional Torah portion for the day, which includes the famous injunction in the Book of Deuteronomy to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites on their way out of Egypt and to erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens.
This commandment was followed by a further reading from the Book of Samuel. It details the first intentional and explicit genocide depicted in the Western canon: God’s directive to King Saul to kill every living Amalekite — man, woman and child, and even the sheep and cattle. Saul fell short.
He left the Amalekite king alive and spared the sheep.
As a punishment for the incompleteness of the slaughter, God took the kingdom from him and his heirs and gave it to David. I can remember this portion verbatim.
That Saturday, like Goldstein, I was in synagogue, too. Of course as a matter of Jewish law, the literal force of the biblical command of genocide does not apply today. The rabbis of the Talmud, in another of their universalizing legal rulings, held that because of the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s policy of population movement at the time of the First Temple, it was no longer possible to ascertain who was by descent an Amalekite.
But as a schoolboy I was taught that the story of Amalek was about not just historical occurrence but cyclical recurrence: “In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”
The Jews’ enemies today are the Amalekites of old.
The inquisitors, the Cossacks — Amalekites. Hitler was an Amalekite, too.
To Goldstein, the Palestinians were Amalekites.
Like a Puritan seeking the contemporary type of the biblical archetype, he applied Deuteronomy and Samuel to the world before him.
Commanded to settle the land, he settled it. Commanded to slaughter the Amalekites without mercy or compassion, he slew them. Goldstein could see difference as well as similarity.
According to one newspaper account, when he was serving in the Israeli military, he refused to treat non-Jewish patients. And his actions were not met by universal condemnation: his gravestone describes him as a saint and a martyr of the Jewish people, “Clean of hands and pure of heart.”It would be a mistake to blame messianic modern Orthodoxy for ultranationalist terror. But when the evil comes from within your own midst, the soul searching needs to be especially intense.
After the Hebron massacre, my own teacher, the late Israeli scholar and poet Ezra Fleischer — himself a paragon of modern Orthodox commitment — said that the innocent blood of the Palestinian worshipers dripped through the stones and formed tears in the eyes of the Patriarchs buried below.
Lives of Contradiction
Recently I saw my oldest school friend again, and recalling the tale of the reunion photograph, we shared a laugh over my continuing status as persona non grata. She remarked that she had never even considered sending in her news to our alumni newsletter. “But why not?” I asked.
Her answer was illuminating.
As someone who never took steps that would have led to her public exclusion, she felt that the school and the community of which it was a part always sought to claim her — a situation that had its own costs for her sense of autonomy.
For me, having exercised my choices differently, there is no such risk.
With no danger of feeling owned, I haven’t lost the wish to be treated like any other old member. From the standpoint of the religious community, of course, the preservation of collective mores requires sanctioning someone who chooses a different way of living.
But I still have my own inward sense of unalienated connection to my past.
In synagogue on Purim with my children reading the Book of Esther, the beloved ancient phrases give me a sense of joy that not even Baruch Goldstein can completely take away.It is more than a little strange, feeling fully engaged with a way of seeing the world but also, at the same time, feeling so far from it.
I was discussing it just the other day with my best friend — who, naturally, went to Maimonides, too. The topic was whether we would be the same people, in essence, had we remained completely within the bosom of modern Orthodoxy. He didn’t think so. Our life choices are constitutive of who we are, and so different life choices would have made us into different people — not unrecognizably different, but palpably, measurably so.
I accepted his point as true — but for some reason I resisted the conclusion. Couldn’t the contradictory world from which we sprang be just as rich and productive as the contradictory life we actually live? Would it really, truly, have made all that much difference? Isn’t everyone’s life a mass of contradictions?
My best friend just laughed.