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Vaetchanan: Orthodoxy Vs. The World

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Undoubtedly, many have by now read Noah Feldman’s article in last weeks Sunday New York Times Magazine, “Orthodox Paradox.” Feldman, a Harvard law professor, movingly describes how his marrying out of the Jewish faith caused him to lose recognition in the Orthodox Jewish school which shaped his life.

He elaborates about the rifts and tensions that exist between faith and secular life. The essential theme of Feldman’s article is the great struggle and difficulty inherent in reconciling the “vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity — of Slobodka and St. Paul’s.”

I read Noah Feldman’s article with special interest. After all, my life work is dedicated to bridging the two worlds of the spiritual and the secular. Wherever I turn I try to find ways to demonstrate how Torah is a blueprint for life. When deciphered properly and personalized, it offers us a sophisticated and comprehensive guide in every aspect of our lives – private and public, at home, work and play, addressing our emotional and psychological needs.

I therefore was looking to Feldman’s article for some fresh insight, perhaps a new way to speak to people who are struggling with the conflicts of faith and modernity.

But alas, this article simply repeats and confirms the same old stereotypes that have captured the minds of the last few generations. Orthodoxy is simply unable to contain and respect modernity, so vividly expressed in the modern equivalent of “excommunication” of their own alumni, Noah Feldman, due to his “intermarriage” with a Korean American woman.

But even more intriguing to me were the responses to Feldman’s article, or rather the lack of response.

From condemnations to commendations, from rebuttal to compassion, different writers, pundits and bloggers have been weighing in each with their passionate opinion. Not surprising: Jews are known to be fierce “opinionaters” – a tradition that goes back to Talmudic, and even Biblical times, and surely earlier. Especially a hot button item like intermarriage, and Orthodox standards in a modern world, is sure to evoke strong responses from all corners of the Jewish community and outside of it.

Glaringly missing, however, from all the discussions is the search for a solution of the problem: Can we actually integrate Torah into our modern lives? Or will the two remain forever at odds with each other? And what about intermarriage: Why are 50% of Jewish people marrying out of their faith? How do we solve the problem at its root? Some (not I) even ask: Is it a problem, or simply a modern reality that we must learn to accept?

Everyone has a position, from one extreme to the next, but no one offers a solution.

Let’s begin with Feldman’s actual argument. Essentially, he contends that despite all the attempts of modern Orthodox Judaism to reconcile and negotiate the two worlds, there remains a fundamental dissonance and compartmentalization. No where is this more pronounced then when it comes to marriage – the defining factor in Jewish commitment, and for Feldman, his “most personal aspect of coming to terms with modern Orthodoxy.”

Feldman explains that the Orthodox must resist acceptance of intermarriage and ostracize those that transgress. The way he sees it, based on his “intimate understanding” gained in his yeshiva education, is because

“a religious community that seeks to preserve its traditional structure must maintain its boundaries.” “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… 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… For those who choose to marry spouses of another faith, maintaining membership would become all but impossible.”

Clearly, Modern Orthodoxy (in the version of the Maimonides School of Brookline, Mass.), despite its progressive attempt “to try to be at once a Lithuanian yeshiva and a New England prep school,” following a “rigorous secular curriculum alongside traditional Talmud and Bible study,” ultimately fails in reconciling these two disparate worlds.

Reactions to Feldman’s position vary.

On one hand Feldman’s article was, predictably, attacked by the religious Orthodox whom he takes on in his article. In their typical untrusting fashion, the religious critics, instead of addressing the issues at hand, dismiss his arguments as another attempt to break away from Torah tradition that has endured over the centuries. As is so often and so sad the case, many religious simply invalidate and ostracize an individual like Feldman, writing him off, without any interest in engaging him. And the more orthodox, the less tolerant.

Where will this approach lead? To completely and tragically cutting off the majority of the Jewish people… Is this what the Torah advocates? Is this consistent with the cardinal mitzvah love thy fellow as thyself? Can any one person be complete if other “limbs” of the collective organism are ailing?

On the other extreme, we have the defenders of Feldman, and some who go even farther than him with their critique of Orthodoxy as archaic, close-minded, unwilling to embrace the modern age of free inquiry. Intermarriage, in particular, is seen by them as a throwback to primitive beliefs of exclusivity and self-protection, unnecessary in an evolved world like ours. Essentially, this extreme renders tradition obsolete, a position that Feldman would reject.

Finally, we have – in between the extremes – the reconciliators, who advocate acceptance of those that may have intermarried or otherwise wandered outside of the “traditional” Jewish fold. Author Shmuley Boteach, for instance, argues that the conventional method of rejecting those that married out of the faith, has not worked. Treating them as traitors to the Jewish cause as a deterrent has not prevented intermarriage reaching 50% of the Jewish population.

But let’s take this argument to its logical conclusion. What will result from accepting these Jews? Millions of non-ostracized intermarried Jews, who may or may not embrace Judaism. Will this stem the tide of assimilation and intermarriage?

Besides, how does one make a strong statement about a religious standard – as in intermarriage – if we embrace everyone equally? How do we show love and acceptance without compromising the integrity of our standards?

I’m not suggesting alienating anyone; but simply that a “loving” solution alone is quite lame. And above all, it only addresses the symptoms, not the roots.

Without addressing the education or re-education of Jews, nothing will really stem the tide of assimilation.

So we seem to be stuck. Without finding the core issue, we have either Feldman experiencing alienation from his own roots, others advocating total acceptance of Feldman and his choices, or one step further – Rabbis condoning and even performing intermarriages.

We have either the ultra-orthodox intolerance, astringent and unable to deal with a Jew that makes choices outside of the system. Or the other extreme – those calling for abolishing these “ancient laws” based on “primitive” notions of discrimination and exclusivity.

In between, we have those searching for reconciliation, and desperately trying to find a middle ground. Some argue that we can’t accept intermarriage, but once someone does marry outside of his or her faith, we must embrace them, and even try to convert the gentile party to Judaism. Has anyone considered that to be a form of elitism and exclusivity? Why are you imposing your religion (Judaism) on a gentile spouse? Would you like if someone imposed their religion (say Christianity) on you? Isn’t it fair to allow the gentile spouse to make that decision for themselves?

Others attempt reconciliation through interfaith dialogues, workshops and therapy. Yet another form of attempted reconciliation is ignoring the whole thing.

Even worse is the fact that each “philosophy” doesn’t stand on its own feet; it is responding to the other arguments – in one vicious, unending cycle: The ultra-orthodox become more inflexible in response to liberal permissiveness. The anti-religious become more radical, and even fanatic, in reaction to religious fanaticism. And the centrist reconciliators, many thinking people, are repulsed by the religious extremism of the mindless Orthodox, who ostracize those they don’t agree with, lacking the knowledge of how to love without compromising Torah. They oppose the Orthodox ”blind” rejection of Jews that are “not in your club.” But in turn, they go to the other extreme, some more than others, and confuse the standards and blur the boundaries between.

What is most disturbing is the polarization and that no one seems to notice that we need another option.

What is one to do? What does the Torah advocate?

The answer lies in a fascinating approach that introduces the soul of Judaism. As long as Judaism remains a body of law, a system of do’s and dont’s, divorced of its inner spirit, we will never be able to integrate it into modern life.

To be continued… Part II – next week.

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