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NYT/Feldman: Orthodox Paradox

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Jul 22, 2007, 4:46:48 AM7/22/07
The New York Times
July 22, 2007

Orthodox Paradox


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 didnąt 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. łYouąre 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. łIt wasnąt me,˛ he said. I believed him.

Since then I have occasionally been in contact with the schooląs alumni
director, who has known me since I was a child. I say łin 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 łMazal 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 schooląs formal publications, where my classmatesą
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.
Pauląs. 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 schooląs 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
schooląs 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.

Fitting In

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, ła 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 łmodern˛ 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, łI donąt
think American voters care where a man goes to church on Sunday.˛) Whatever
concerns Liebermanąs 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 Romneyąs Mormonism has already prompted in this electoral
cycle, none of the dark hints that it was, in some basic sense, weird.

Liebermanąs 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 łThe 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 Homerąs 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 łwork˛ 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 workąs 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.ąs 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 Orthodoxyąs 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 doctorąs 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 patientąs 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 schooląs 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
girląs 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, łin 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 Feinsteinąs 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

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 ‹ łas though one had contracted the
sickness of love.˛ Feinsteinąs opinion directed my attention to a passage in
Maimonidesąs legal writings prohibiting various sorts of contact with women.
The most evocative bit runs as follows: łEven 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 donąts that is
Maimonidesąs 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
evangelicalsą 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
łscientific˛ doctrine in public schools. Yet I nonetheless feel some
sympathy for the evangelicalsą 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 łday.˛ 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. łThe truth
is,˛ he said, łdespite 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

Us and Them

In a few cases, modern Orthodoxyąs 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 Rabinąs 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 Goldsteinąs 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: Godąs 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 Sennacheribąs 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: łIn every
generation, they rise up against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed
be He, saves us from their hands.˛ The Jewsą 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, łClean 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. łBut 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 havenąt 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
didnąt 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. Couldnąt 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? Isnąt everyoneąs life a
mass of contradictions? My best friend just laughed.

Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at
Harvard University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign

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