Flap over scholar’s article misses point

Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman triggered a major debate with his article "Orthodox Paradox" in The New York Times Magazine. ()

Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman triggered a major debate with his article “Orthodox Paradox” in The New York Times Magazine. ()

NEW YORK (JTA) – Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman would have stood on much stronger intellectual ground had he simply sent the following notice to the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times, the usual address for high-powered wedding announcements:

Noah Feldman, a nice Jewish boy and graduate of several prestigious institutions, including the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., is married with children to a non-Jewish Korean-American woman. He is very happy, though a bit bewildered that officials at his old yeshiva day school appear to have excised the couple from a reunion photo and refuse to announce any of their family milestones in the school’s alumni newsletter.

Instead, writing in the July 22 edition of The New York Times Magazine, Feldman turned these anecdotes about his alma mater into a launching point for a much wider and longer rumination on Modern Orthodoxy’s perceived failure to live up to its noble goal of infusing religious devotion with a commitment to pursuing secular knowledge.

The article, titled “Orthodox Parodox,” has generated a firestorm in the Jewish blogosphere and media world. Not surprisingly, much of the noise has come from Orthodox critics crying foul, especially over Feldman’s seeming surprise at the notion that his teachers weren’t being so literal when they said it was OK to engage the outside world.

By turning the issue into an internal Orthodox debate, Feldman and his critics have obscured the larger point: The most important policy decisions regarding intermarriage – the ones having an impact on the vast majority of interfaith couples and their families – are taking place on the other side of the denominational divide, within the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements. And if reading about Feldman’s experience with his Orthodox school was enough to make you choke on your weekend morning coffee, then be sure to clear your throat before reading on.

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. Even the Reconstructionists, historically the trailblazers in forging a more open approach on such issues, have their own restrictions, including the suggestion that congregations that permit intermarriages in the sanctuary not allow the use of ceremonial objects such as the chupah or kiddush cup.

The issue in all these cases is not a fear of confronting modernity – shifting societal norms have been the driving force behind a host of changes adopted by these movements, from the ordination of gay and women rabbis to the approval of same-sex unions. And when theologically appropriate, Modern Orthodox rabbis have taken similar steps, such as lifting the barriers to women studying Talmud and other religious texts, and opening the door to increased cooperation with other denominations and religious groups.

In the end what all these groups face is not a paradox posed by the clash between tradition and change but a strategic dilemma over whether the community’s survival is best ensured by enforcing taboos or reaching out.

Someone as smart as Feldman should know the difference.

Ami Eden is the managing editor of JTA.

 

NEXT STORY