Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Orthodox Paradox? - Pretty Consistant If You Ask Me

Noah Feldman's recent article ("Orthodox Paradox" - NYTimes Sunday Magazine July 22) has reverberated loudly throughout the Jewish Internet. Most of the comment has come regarding Mr Feldman's former "modern Orthodox" high-school's ignoring him, every since he showed up at an alumni event with his Korean American finance. Indeed, that is the incident that sparked Mr. Feldman to write the piece in the first place.

Most comment has attacked Mr Feldman. After all, what did he expect an Orthodox institution to do in the face of his intermarriage? And indeed one has to wonder at Mr. Feldman's naivety. He believed that because the modern Orthodox are willing to assimilate modern knowledge they are wiling to embrace modern values. He still seems stunned that they are not. He still seems to see himself as one of them. And he writes as if he believes this experience is a one off abberation.

Not only is it entirely consistent with modern Orthodoxy, but it is consistent with Conservative Judaism's principles, and defacto with much of Reform Judaism. As Ami Eden writes for the JTA
Feldman’s treatment, in the end, was the product of an overzealous alumni department. In the Conservative movement, it’s called official policy: Conservative congregations are instructed to avoid any public recognition of an intermarriage or the birth of a baby to a non-Jewish mother.If you want to talk about paradoxes, check out the Reform movement, which permits rabbis to perform intermarriages but discourages the practice, and does not allow intermarried Jews to be ordained as rabbis.
But both Feldman and his critics miss the main points in my opinion. There are two.

First, no one doubts that intermarriage is more bad than good for the Jewish People, and that Jewish institutions can and should discourage it. The question is: what to do - after the fact - with Jews, who like Feldman, fall in love with non-Jews despite their positive feelings and wish to remain part of the Jewish community? Feldman's school chooses to pretend - quite literally in his case - that these Jews don't exist. This is nothing short of the old (and old-fashioned) Jewish custom of parents sitting shiva for children who converted. Of course, it is supremely hurtful to the now "dead to me" child - and counter productive to all involved. And it stems from a belief that being non-Jewish is as good as being dead.

This leads us to the second important point exposed by Feldman's article. Among most of the Orthodox (and many other Jews too one can assume) - non-Jews are lesser creatures than Jews, perhaps even no creatures at all. It is the ultimate self-righteous chauvinism. (Though most believers are smart enough to keep this belief to themselves, or at least among their fellow Jews.) The shocking part of Feldman's piece is not the story of his erasure from alumni publications, but a tale he recounts from his high-school days.

One time 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.

This appealing [sic] 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.
So, according to "modern" Orthodoxy if you have the objective of saving the life of the gentile to promote the general well-being of Jews, go "work" and save him. But if you just care and want to save his life out of human compassion, you're "violating the Torah," or "violating the Sabbath."

And this, neither Feldman, nor most of his critics, address as a problem !!

As long as certain Jews, and certain branches of Judaism, do not explicitly acknowledge:
  1. that Jews are not superior to other people;
  2. that the love we are commanded to exhibit to our "neighbours" applies to all human beings;
  3. that the Torah comes to increase justice and loving kindness in the world, and that all interpretations of her precepts must be taken through that lens.
people like Noam Feldman will be continued to be erased from the community.

And that will be the least of our problems.


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